Is Drew Lock Ready to Answer John Elway's QB Question?

The Broncos' Hall of Fame leader has repeatedly missed in his attempts to find a franchise QB, but with his 'rock star glow,' Denver's second-year signal-caller could break the mold.
photo of Kalyn KahlerKalyn KahlerContributor ISeptember 3, 2020

"Howdy," Von Miller says as he grabs the phone from the public relations employee. The Broncos have just finished practice, and he can hardly wait for the reporter to finish the question before he eagerly jumps in and talks for two minutes uninterrupted. He's ready to sell the world on his quarterback, who he calls Big Money Lock.

"This guy is a fucking rock star," Miller says. "When he was at practice, he would roll out and he would throw the ball and I'm like, 'Bro, when he finally gets it...' He has this star-quarterback glow around him, on top of this rock-star, Post Malone musician-like glow about him."

If there was an official Drew Lock fan club, Miller would be president, with general manager John Elway as the secretary. Lock calls Miller his biggest fan. The linebacker is in his 10th season, all with the Broncos, and when Lock got his chance as a rookie late last season, he became the 10th starting quarterback Miller had played with in his career. The sample size was small—Lock played only five games last season, going 4-1 while completing 64.1 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and three interceptionsbut Miller has seen enough.

"When I was around Post [Malone], he was so humble, he was so cool," Miller says. "We were sitting backstage, and he had a [Leighton] Vander Esch jersey on, and he was barefoot, drinking beer. And I was like, 'Bro, this is Post Malone, and he was just chilling with us being humble.' And when I met Drew Lock, I was like, 'Bro, he has the same vibe.'"

After Lock won his first start last season against the Chargers in Week 13, Miller signed and dated a fresh $100 bill and scrawled "Big Money Lock" on the right side, just over the U.S. Department of the Treasury seal. Lock slid the bill into the nameplate at his locker. It's still there.

Miller has endorsed previous Broncos quarterbacks, like 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian, whom he compared to Peyton Manning, but this is different. Well, at least he's pretty sure it will be this time.

"He is definitely the franchise QB," Miller says. "If I am not right on this one, then I don't know. I just don't know what franchise quarterbacks look like."

You'd think it would be easy for a Hall of Fame quarterback to identify greatness at the position. But with each signal-caller Elway has selected in Denver, it's hard to escape the reality that excellence at playing the position doesn't necessarily translate to finding it in others.

The Broncos' rotation of quarterbacks following the Manning era has yielded little more than dashed expectations. In 2016, first-round pick Paxton Lynch was labeled "The Successor" on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Within weeks, he and Mark Sanchez, were both beaten out by Siemian, a seventh-rounder out of Northwestern. Sanchez is now retired, and Lynch is competing for the No. 3 job in Pittsburgh. Elway's non-draft QB transactions since Manning have also come up empty—Case Keenum in 2018, and Joe Flacco in 2019.

Evaluators around the league have picked up on a certain pattern in Elway's quarterbackstall, big-armed, athletic typesthe kind of quarterback he was when he led the Broncos to two Super Bowl titles. The kind of quarterback that Lock resembles.

"I think [Elway] sees a style of player that reminds him of himself," a source close to the team says. "A guy that is a gunslinger, a guy that is not going to be afraid of the moment, a guy that is going to be able to win the respect of his teammates because of what a competitor he is."

Elway admits it's true, he does gravitate toward players who remind him of the way he played, and Lock does fit that mold. "You are going to have your own viewpoint of what you like in QBs, and a lot of that is going to be what you did well at yourself," he says. "So you are going to have a higher opinion on somebody that has more your style as a player. That's what you like to see in the other players, and you are going to migrate to those players."

Some wonder whether Elway's experience playing the position at the highest level is the reason for his inability to find someone who can handle the job now that he runs the front office. Is it more difficult to evaluate a player who struggles with something that always came so easily to him?

The Broncos have had more than a half-dozen quarterbacks start for the team since John Elway took over the front office in 2012, and only two won more games than they lost.
The Broncos have had more than a half-dozen quarterbacks start for the team since John Elway took over the front office in 2012, and only two won more games than they lost.Jack Dempsey/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson were great playersdifferent sportbut they weren’t the best coaches,” an AFC executive says. "So sometimes when you are really good at something, it is hard to find you again. Not to say Elway isn't good at his job, but maybe he is looking for the perfect quarterback and he's looking for himself, and it hasn't manifested itself yet." 

NFL Network analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner says when he analyzes quarterbacks for his current job, he can't help but view the player through the lens of his own playing career and what he would do in each situation.

"If you are John Elway, you know what you did, you know what Peyton Manning did, and those guys are two of the rarest players we have ever seen in this game," Warner says. "You are trying to make assessments based on the elite. You're going, 'OK, there are very few guys out there that are going to be like these guys,' even though your standards are always going to be that high."

The Broncos cycled through six different quarterbacks post-Manning and pre-Lock and went 23-36 with that group. Only Siemian finished with more wins than losses.

Elway is not blind to the one aspect of the evaluation process that has eluded him—assessing a player's intangibles, the mental aspect, the it factor. "I don't think you ever know how they are going to handle the pressure," Elway says. "You can look on tape and you can look at athletic ability and you can watch how they drop and how they throw and how disciplined they are with their feet. You can see all the physical attributes that a quarterback has, but you just never know how they are going to handle a jump to this level."

Sources familiar with Osweiler, Lynch and Lock, though, see enough of a difference in Lock to give hope that Elway may finally have found his guy. A former Raiders scout says Lock's personality and intangibles are certainly a step up from Osweiler, who he and his team referred to as "the frat guy" because they thought he was too polished, someone whose confidence far outran his talent.

Elway didn't draft Lock in the first round because he felt comfortable with Flacco, and because if he's learned one thing in his search, it's "not to reach for a quarterback," he says. "Unless you really feel good about a quarterback, even though you need one, it is very difficult to reach for one, because a lot of times then that doesn't work out."

That scout didn't think Denver would draft a quarterback at all in 2019.

"They were 0-2 at the time, and so I thought maybe they would be gun-shy taking a QB [high]," the scout says. "After a while, you get tired of swinging and catching hell for it. You start thinking, 'Do I even know what I'm talking about?'"

Elway says he has "high hopes" for Lock and feels good about where he is now. But even if Lock proves to be more Lynch than Manning, Elway won't be shaken. "No, no," he says. "If anything, all I learned is how do we get them in the best situation for young QBs to be successful? Because if you win, then things are going to be good. When you lose is when the world caves in. If we can get good people around him and play good defense, then he has a better chance to be successful."

The first night of the 2019 NFL draft in Nashville, Tennessee, should have been a Drew Lock party. His parents had rented out a bar on Broadway in town for their friends and family to celebrate. Most mock drafts had him slotted as a top-10 pick, which was not an unreasonable assumption after he set the SEC record for single-season passing touchdowns with 44 in 2017 (Joe Burrow broke it last season) and finished his Missouri career with 12,193 passing yards, good for second in the SEC record books (three spots above Peyton Manning).

But Lock never showed up to the bar.

Self-conscious and uncertain about his future, he didn't want to be around people. He didn't even want to attend the actual draft in the first place, preferring to stay at home in Lee's Summit, Missouri. So after he escaped the green room, he went back to his hotel room with his best friend, Jack Lowary, who was his backup at Missouri. They ordered chicken wings and watched Incredibles 2.

Elway liked Lock. That much was certain. Lock's quarterback coach at Missouri, Austyn Carta-Samuels, says Denver came out to more Missouri practices his senior year than any other team. Lock's build, his throwing style, his athleticism, his confidenceit all added up to a quarterback in Elway's mold.

Elway went to watch Lock play Arkansas in person late in his senior season, and while there, he was seated next to a sports-information student intern in the top row of the press box. He sought information on Lock from anyone and everyone, even this sophomore from St. Louis whose main job was to run the Tigers' Instagram account. Throughout the game, he asked her question after question about Lock's personality and what it was like working with him in media appearances.

With the Broncos on the clock at No. 10, however, they traded down 10 spots, where they would eventually draft tight end Noah Fant. Lock was the only quarterback left in the green room at the end of the first night.

Though Drew Lock threw for more yards than Peyton Manning in the SEC by the end of his college career at Missouri, questions about his ability to adjust to the NFL led him to drop into the second round of the 2019 draft.
Though Drew Lock threw for more yards than Peyton Manning in the SEC by the end of his college career at Missouri, questions about his ability to adjust to the NFL led him to drop into the second round of the 2019 draft.L.G. Patterson/Associated Press/Associated Press

"It was like the wedding that never happened," says Lowary.

Many teams viewed Lock as a project because of the big jump from the college spread offense, where he had to read only half the field, to the much more complicated pro-style offense with layered route combinations, where he'd be challenged to read the full field. The former Raiders scout remembers talking to a Missouri receiver who played with Lock and described a route as a "shitty post." What's a shitty post? the scout asked. The receiver explained it's the route a backside receiver runs when the quarterback isn't throwing the ball to the backside because he's only reading one side of the field. So the receiver on the backside of the play runs at ¾ speed just to hold the safety, knowing the ball is never coming to him.

Some teams had questions about Lock's leadership and whether he could be assertive when the situation called. Missouri teammate Emanuel Hall (now a receiver with the Washington Football Team) remembers getting asked those questions over and over in the draft process about his quarterback.

Lock is a low-key kind of leader. Though his drive to win has not been lost on his teammates, neither has his understated manner dissuaded them. He gets along with everybody and makes his teammates feel relaxed.

"On the field and in the locker room, he was the best I have been around in unifying different groups of people," former Missouri offensive line coach Brad Davis says. "It didn't matter if it was a guy from the country, the suburbs or city, he was laughing and right in the middle of it."

Adds Lowary: "You couldn't pigeonhole him. Everybody gravitated toward him because he could relate to everyone in a college locker room."

The AFC executive had Lock as his top quarterback in the 2019 class, even above No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray (for height reasons), says he was impressed that Lock was one of only a few white players on his AAU basketball team because it showed he could fit in with people of all backgrounds.

On the morning of the second round, Lock got a text from Drew Brees, a second-round pick in 2001 (the two share the same agent). It read: Everything happens for a reason. Don't let an outcome that wasn't the right outcome in your eyes be the thing that gets you down.

That night, Elway traded up to draft Lock with the 42nd pick, just after he picked guard Dalton Risner.

"We drafted [Lock], we drafted Noah Fant, and I am looking at the draft, like, 'OK, dang, we got everybody that we needed!'" Miller says.

Lock arrived in Denver with some tricky dynamics to navigate: An older quarterback in Joe Flacco, whom Denver traded for after he lost his job in Baltimore to then-rookie phenom Lamar Jackson, a brand-new coaching staff, a general manager who is a Hall of Famer at his same position, the legacy of Peyton Manning, and the recent history of Denver quarterback misses.

The transition didn't go well.

"He was struggling just calling the plays," head coach Vic Fangio says. "Running the huddle, learning the offense, learning his reads, he was struggling."

Lock wanted to come in as a rookie and prove himself right away. When things didn't come easily from the beginning of camp, he got nervous.

"The frustration was from not even knowing what to even expect," Lock says during a Zoom interview after a recent training camp practice, his pads and jersey still on. "If I had an idea of what I was getting myself into, then I would be able to calm down the ups and downs, but I really didn't."

One source close to the team says Lock's first preseason game "felt like a shitshow." Denver coaches knew if they had to play a game with Lock under center in the first chunk of the season, it was not going to go well. He needed more time.

In college, all Lock had to do was clap, say a two-word play call and look to the sideline for a familiar signal. "[Now it's] a 12-15, sometimes 18-word-long play, you hear in a headset and you have to bring it into the huddle, and the crowd and everything mixed into it was definitely overwhelming for me at first, because I had never done it," he says.

The uncertainty was new for the highly competitive and naturally confident (he met his girlfriend by shooting his shot over Instagram DMs) 23-year-old. Then things got worse.

Von Miller gave Lock a $100 bill after he led the Broncos to a win over the Chargers in his first start at quarterback, a gift Lock memorialized by placing it above his locker.
Von Miller gave Lock a $100 bill after he led the Broncos to a win over the Chargers in his first start at quarterback, a gift Lock memorialized by placing it above his locker.Photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos

In his third preseason game against the 49ers, Lock escaped the pocket, took a sack and jammed his right hand hard into the ground as he landed. He was done for the night, and the Broncos eventually placed him on injured reserve with a sprained thumb, a serious injury for a quarterback.

"It was a very stuck feeling at first," Lock says. "I was scared. You work your whole life to play at this level, and I got to my [third] game and I am done. I tore the crap out of my hand, and I am not going to get to play, and Lord knows what happens next. If I was a first-rounder, you feel a little safer. Second-rounder, as the rounds go on, you get a little uneasy about not being able to play, being hurt, not being able to prove yourself."

The injury left him in a "weird spot" mentally for a few weeks. It wasn't long before he started having some tough conversations with Carta-Samuels, who has a master's degree in educational leadership and a B.A. in psychology and serves as Lock's spiritual confidant. The two talked about turning the injury into a positive, about taking advantage of the fact that he was free of the pressure of having to be ready to play at any moment.

"In hindsight, I know honestly, he really felt relieved," Carta-Samuels says. "He didn't know that at the time, but it allowed him to slow down that process of learning everything."

Lock focused on absorbing the sound of offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello reading off the play calls each week, something he had started recording during OTAs and training camp.

"He would stay up late and be listening in his headphones to plays he recorded, acting like he was in the huddle, drawing up dry-erase stuff in the mirror of the hotel bathroom," says Risner, who roomed with Lock when both were rookies last camp.

During practice, Lock would stand next to Scangarello and quarterbacks coach T.C. McCartney so he could hear the play call. Then he'd walk off by himself like he was walking into a huddle, repeat the play call and move through the footwork. Lock and practice squad quarterback Brett Rypien met every morning to go over the script and work through questions with each other, and then they'd work in the team's virtual reality room together. Then he'd meet with McCartney to review the calls again, before meeting with Scangarello to review the calls for a third time.

About a month into his rehab, Lock says he started throwing a Nerf football to equipment staff and talking through the plays to them.

"I realized there were no excuses at this point," he says. "It was the point of no return, where you gotta see what you are made of when your back is against the wall."

A few weeks later, Lock still wasn't fully cleared, but he had a breakthrough while throwing in a 7-on-7 situation. He called Carta-Samuels and breathlessly told him the news.

"I'll never forget that phone call," Carta-Samuels says. "He was like, 'Dude, shit is clicking. Stuff is working. I am getting looks from the defensive players on this team right now that are like, where the hell did that come from?'"

In his 33 seasons of NFL coaching experience, Fangio has never been one to praise players or offer much in the way of hyperbole, but Lock's progress in those 10 weeks is an exception.

"He probably made more improvement being hurt than I've ever seen anybody make before," he says.

The defense picked up on it right away.

"When he came back [to practice], it was like he was in year three already," says Miller, who also admits he is such a fan that he didn't notice just how much Lock was struggling in the preseason. "He had made a jump. He was cool and collected."

Most Broncos players were expecting to see Lock take over as quarterback at some point last season, so Fangio's announcement that Lock would start against the Chargers came as no surprise.

Denver had the third-youngest roster in the league last season. Because of that youth, Fant says they responded instantly to Lock, a quarterback of the same generation. An offense that had been averaging only 15.9 points per game and converting 27.7 percent of its third-down attempts averaged 21.4 points and converted 41.0 percent of its third downs in Lock's five starts.

After winning his first start and sliding that $100 bill under his nameplate, Lock engineered a dominating win on the road over a playoff-bound Texans team the following week that grabbed the attention of his teammates not for the result so much as the process.

On the first play of an eight-play touchdown drive, Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus bull-rushed left tackle Garrett Bolles into Lock and threw his arm at Lock's helmet as the quarterback released the ball. Mercilus' swinging arm whacked Lock's nose inside his facemask while defensive tackle D.J. Reader pushed Risner back into Lock. The pass sailed incomplete. No matter. Lock sniffed up the blood dripping from his nose while he took the Broncos down the field for a touchdown that pushed them up 31-3.

"A lot of people can play QB when it's 7-on-7 and you're not getting hit, but when you are getting hit, can you do those same things?" says a source close to the team. "Until you see that, you really don't know. You didn't see him play in those kinds of pockets in college." 

In the season finale, a one-point win over the Raiders, Lock went viral after the broadcast caught him rapping to Jeezy's "Put On" while he sat on the bench in the third quarter. The quarterback was oblivious to the cameras or anyone around him—either that, or he just didn't give a crap.

Watching from his home in the Bay Area, Carta-Samuels saw more than a silly sideline moment.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, he's there. He's where he needs to be,'" Carta-Samuels says. "That is Drew in his most authentic form." 

When the country shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Lock moved back to his parents' basement in suburban Kansas City to hunker down somewhere where he didn't have to cook his own meals. The Locks' formal dining room transformed into a quiet study room for Drew, his girlfriend, Natalie, his sister, Claire, and her boyfriend, Zach, who also went home for the shutdown.

Laura and Andy brought up an old kitchen table and chairs from the basement and bought Drew a whiteboard to use for drawing up plays. Phones were strictly forbidden at the "study table," where each kid had their own silent work to do. Natalie prepared for her LSAT, Claire and Zach worked on stats and biology coursework for their undergraduate degrees, and Drew spent his time digging into new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's offense. 

Lock spent much of the summer at his parents' home, where he studied the Broncos' playbook while his siblings studied for school.
Lock spent much of the summer at his parents' home, where he studied the Broncos' playbook while his siblings studied for school.Photo courtesy of Laura Lock

Andy read play calls out loud to Drew, who then called them out himself and diagrammed them on the whiteboard. Drew explained each play out loud, what he was thinking and how he would attack it. Even though Andy played offensive line for Missouri, he was lost with the complexity of an NFL offense.

"I enjoyed the hell out of it," Andy says. "My goodness, that is some detailed stuff."

Lock hadn't been home for this long, uninterrupted, since he was in high school. His parents were thrilled to have him back, even though it took a pandemic that hurt their restaurant business to get him there, and even if it meant cleaning up after him when he left out the milk, or his shoes, or neglected to change the toilet paper roll.

"As detailed and into everything as he is in his professional life and athletic life, he is not that way around the house," Andy says.

"He is just the worst, bless his heart," Laura says.

When he wasn't studying with dad or beating his family members on the indoor mini-golf course that his mom set up to keep them all from going stir-crazy, Lock browsed Zillow for a house in the Denver area. He rented an apartment his rookie season, and though he still has a lot to prove to be considered a franchise quarterback, he intends to be in Denver for a long time. Buying a house felt like speaking that into existence.

After a few months of searching, he closed on an open-concept layout with a view of the mountains and a big backyard, perfect for grilling out. He splurged on a massive TV.

In time, Lock will feel at home at his new place in Denver just as much he does in his parents' basement, which should come as welcome news to the general manager who hopes he's finally found the right guy. Now all that's left to do is splurge on some wins.


Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and weird quarantine thoughts: @KalynKahler. 


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