Drew Lock Has the Talent and Support to Live Up to Sky-High ExpectationsMay 8, 2020
For only the second time in 40 years, the Denver Broncos have missed the playoffs in four consecutive seasons.
The expectation is for that to change in 2020, mainly because it looks as though Denver finally has a potential franchise quarterback in place.
With 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock under center, the Broncos won four of their last five games in 2019—with the only loss understandably coming on the road against the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
In that span, Lock completed more than 64 percent of his passes and threw seven touchdown passes to three interceptions. He finished the year riding a streak of 79 consecutive throws without a pick, and he was sacked just once per start on average.
He did that despite the fact that the Broncos traded veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders before Lock took over as the starter, forcing him to rely heavily on unaccomplished targets DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick and Noah Fant.
This offseason, it was obvious Denver general manager John Elway was out to upgrade Lock's supporting cast.
Elway used his first two draft picks on wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler and then spent a third-rounder on pro-ready center Lloyd Cushenberry III.
As a polished product of the SEC with superb route-running skills, Jeudy has the making of an elite NFL pass-catcher, while Hamler looks primed to contribute right away in the slot. Those two should benefit from the fact incumbent No. 1 receiver Courtland Sutton already looks like a star, while Fant—who was a first-round pick last year—became one of the most productive tight ends in the league during the second half of his rookie season.
And those moves came after Elway essentially traded in interior offensive lineman Connor McGovern for the more accomplished Graham Glasgow and signed two-time Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon III to work with standout Phillip Lindsay and 2018 third-round back Royce Freeman (who shined a bit in the passing game while working with Lock late last year).
Add it all up, and it's now hard to find a weak spot on offense for a team that will get 2018 top-five selection Bradley Chubb back from a knee injury and otherwise spruced up the defense by adding veterans A.J. Bouye and Jurrell Casey.
At quarterback, they let Joe Flacco go and didn't replace him with a realistic potential threat to Lock's job.
This is all about No. 3.
"The moves say that they saw something positive in the way I played those last games, potentially being a guy who can stay here a long time and help the Broncos win as many games as possible," Lock said in a conference call with the media this week, per Denver7's Troy Renck. "It means a lot to me. It puts a little extra confidence on my back. At the same time, those expectations do rise when you have so many weapons around you."
Lock suggested that pressure is a good thing, and it's easy to buy that considering how he continued to improve and perform despite constant scheme changes and a lack of relative talent at Missouri. He has ideal size, strength and intelligence, along with a booming arm that can make every throw.
And said cannon should be on display a lot more in 2020, because fresh support for Lock spans beyond the field. Elway also hired veteran coordinator Pat Shurmur to run the offense alongside quarterbacks coach Mike Shula—moves certainly made with Lock's progress in mind.
Shurmur has had a lot of success grooming and coaching quarterbacks over the years, and he won't likely shy away from letting Lock loose. He's likely excited to get his hands on a guy who was widely projected as a potential top-10 pick during last year's predraft process before slipping into Round 2.
"There's definitely more possibilities for us to press the ball downfield, which I definitely think plays into my strengths and the receivers we have on this team," Lock said of the new offense, per Renck. "We have guys who can fly down the field. It gives me the option of changing a curl route to a go route if we get man (coverage). I think we will press the ball downfield more than we did last year."
We're yet to get an in-depth look at Lock unrestrained. He completed 10 of 13 passes in the fourth quarter of one-score games, but he averaged just 4.4 yards per attempt on those throws. He also completed just six of his 23 throws that traveled 15-plus yards.
Among 36 quarterbacks who attempted at least 10 third-down passes during Lock's five-week stretch as a starter last season, only two had higher completion percentages, and only three had better passer ratings than the 23-year-old. But 22 had stronger yards-per-attempt averages.
Sometimes, that was on offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. Other times, Lock seemed gun-shy. As he becomes more comfortable in a more aggressive offense, that should change.
Lock passed for more than 12,000 yards in 50 games in college, throwing 99 touchdown passes to 39 interceptions, only eight of which came in a phenomenal senior season in which he completed 62.9 percent of his passes.
That completion percentage rose significantly throughout his career years with the Tigers, and then again in his debut season with the Broncos.
The progress is hard to deny. His grades from Pro Football Focus shot up in all four of his seasons at Missouri, and he is under the impression that—even with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing him and his teammates to learn and jell from afar—he's again evolving significantly this offseason.
"I think this being my second year is benefiting me in a lot of ways I didn't necessarily expect, as far as learning a new offense," Lock said Tuesday, according to Aric DiLalla of the team's official website. "There's similar carryover from the last one to where you can pocket that. You don't necessarily have to study that as much because you've kind of already got that mindset down and know what they're talking about as far as older stuff. But even the newer stuff I'm getting taught, it's easier for me to learn because I've found the way that fits me best, as far as learning a new offense goes. Picking this one up has happened a little [faster]—I'd say, 10 times as quick as I did the first time."
At that rate, both Lock and the Broncos should earn a lot of respect in 2020.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter. Or don't. It's entirely your choice.