After a somewhat promising short stint as the Broncos starter as a rookie, there were decently high expectations for Drew Lock entering Year 2 in Denver. But he never took a step forward in 2020 and at times was one of the most ineffective starters in the league.
Somehow, after an offseason filled with rumors about the Broncos being interested in a litany of quarterbacks from Deshaun Watson to Aaron Rodgers and just about every top prospect in the draft, the only competition Lock has for the starting job is Teddy Bridgewater. Now, new GM George Paton was with Bridgewater in Minnesota, but the outlook for Lock could've easily been much more bleak had Denver prioritized upgrading the quarterback spot with a monster trade or in the first round of the draft. Maybe there's more belief in Lock than most of us think?
He will find himself in an old-school quarterback battle this summer, but, as the incumbent starter, let's explore everything about Lock's environment in Denver and what he needs to do to take the next step as a quarterback.
How Lock has improved since he was a prospect
These positive developments in a quarterback's game are noteworthy because they indicate the distinct possibility of future growth.
Lock is a cannon-armed pocket passer capable of making the jaw-dropping throws down or across the field who plays the game with "shooter's amnesia." If he makes a bad decision or throws a pick, it doesn't impact his aggressiveness on the next play or series. He can effortlessly throw from a variety of arm angles, and the arrow is pointing up in terms of his pocket patience and presence, although hiccups in those areas are still present. He won't run away from many NFL linebackers but can pick up yards with his feet when needed, and his accuracy downfield is more impressive than his touch on short passes. Sounds a lot like Stafford.
And, given his age and newness to the NFL, Lock was featured in this exact same series a year ago. Here's what I wrote about how he improved from his days at Missouri during his rookie season in 2019.
In his five starts in 2019, Lock finished with thein my season-long evaluation of all the plays of first- and second-year quarterbacks (out of 17 who played). He had an "A-" and a "B-" along with three outings in the "C" range in his five. While Lock was solid, the size of the sample must be considered with his third-place finish.
But as alluded to above, Lock did not progress in Year 2 in Denver. And I was wrong about how he'd play. In last year's piece on Lock I wrote "altogether, mainly due to his arm strength, quick release, scrambling ability, and the group of playmakers he has in Denver, I'm expecting a sizable leap for Lock in his second season with the Broncos."
Certainly, Lock was mostly antsy in the pocket and inaccurate to all levels of the field -- and did spend time sidelined with a shoulder injury that occurred in Week 2. In that same game, after missing the season opener with a shoulder injury of his own, star No. 1 wideout Courtland Sutton was lost for the year with a knee injury. That was devastating for Lock. Would've been for any young quarterback.
Trapasso joined Will Brinson on the Pick Six Podcast to talk about what Lock and other young QBs must do to take the next step; give it a listen below and be sure to follow on your favorite podcast platform.
Jerry Jeudy didn't make as lightning-quick of a transition to the NFL as everyone expected, although he was held back by Lock's inconsistencies, and the rookie was the de facto top target by the midway point of Week 2. Sutton's return is seismic for this offense. Remember, in 2019, Sutton registered a hefty 2.48 yards per route run figure, the 12th-highest in football with Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, and five games with Lock.
Noah Fant has proven to be more athletic hype than productive substance, but he did catch 62 passes -- which led the team -- in 2020 at just 10.9 yards per snag with three scores.
K.J. Hamler wasn't fully healthy and played 48.4% of the snaps. On those plays, he reeled in 30 passes at under 13 yards per reception. In Year 3, the criminally underrated Tim Patrick asserted himself as a downfield weapon with six scores on 51 catches at nearly 15 yards per grab.
It's still a young group with dynamic promise, and Sutton's reinsertion into the lineup allows everyone else to fall into more appropriate roles than what they had to assume in 2020.
Up front, the Broncos line has gelled nicely. Garett Bolles' out-of-nowhere monster season in 2020 is encouraging for the future and Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow are rock solid at the two guard spots. Uncertain is the best way to describe the center position, and third-round pick Quinn Meinerz will compete with last year's third-rounder Lloyd Cushenberry who was a matador in 2020. Bobby Massie was signed to tighten the right tackle position.
This is not an elite blocking unit. However, it's one behind which a young, athletic quarterback can make a stride.
Still the same offensive coordinator for Lock, West Coast advocate, Pat Shurmur. Under Shurmur, Lock finished with the fourth-highest Intended air yard average, per Next Gen Stats. That's his game. That's when he should be best, because of his arm and natural aggressive style as a passer.
Improving his weaknesses
Play vs. pressure. Lock was abysmal when he wasn't well protected in Year 2. He was on-target on 47.7% of his throws under pressure. The league average was 63.3%. That's an enormous disparity. Name a statistic, Lock was well below average while under pressure last season.
And he was only pressured on 33.1% of his drop backs, which isn't a ridiculously high rate. It was the 19th-highest among qualifying passers last season. Many of his under-pressure decisions were hurried, and Lock simply was too careless with the football in those scenarios. Such a green receiver group didn't necessarily help Lock to see open targets either -- 19.6% of his throws were made to pass catchers who had less than one yard of separation. That was the eighth-highest rate in the league.
Lock was blitzed on 30% of his drop backs in 2020, and his stats there? You guessed it, below average across the board. If teams know pressuring Lock is the key to not just slowing down the Broncos offense but making it screech to a halt, Lock won't be the starter in Denver for much longer.
Strengthening his strengths
When the Broncos' improved front created a squeaky clean pocket for Lock, he performed well. And therein lies the glimmer of hope for Lock entering Year 3. Because, as pointed out in previous installments of his quarterback evaluation series, play from a clean pocket is more stable season after season than under-pressure play.
He was only a few percentage points below league average in adjusted completion percentage in those situations, his average depth of target was significantly higher than average (9.1 vs. 7.7), and his 7.9 yards per attempt was also higher than the league average of 7.7.
If the Broncos blocking unit continues its upward trend, Lock will get even more clean-pocket opportunities in 2021, and he'll have Sutton out wide to help bolster the efficiency of the passing offense. Lock has to make the most of when he isn't under pressure to buoy his overall game if there is only a minimal step made under pressure.
I also want Lock to continue to push the ball vertically down the field. He's never been a pinpoint accurate passer in the quick game, therefore hitting the long balls with decent frequency will be integral in Denver's passing offense being dangerous. The speed in the pass-catching group is certainly there.
I've stated it a few times and I'll do it one more time to finish this article -- it's conceivable Sutton's presence could make Lock look like a totally different quarterback in 2021 than what we've previously seen from him. He's a big, deceptively quick rebounder who also thrives after the catch. In 2019, Sutton quietly averaged 5.0 yards after the catch per grab, which was the same figure as Stefon Diggs and Michael Gallup.
Sutton is the type who can bail out a quarterback in pressure situations and win against the opposition's No. 1 cornerbacks.
I am absolutely concerned about just how brutal Lock was under pressure. I don't know if he's salvageable in that regard, and Sutton can only aid him so much.
But the clean-pocket play from Lock's Sutton-less 2020 allows me to have some ground to stand on for a prediction that we will see a distinct step forward from Lock this season from what was the cellar of starting quarterbacks a season ago. He'll sniff the top 20 in some quarterback rankings at the end of the year.