The Denver Broncos are slowly returning to grace. Their hopes have been bolstered by key offseason acquisitions via free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft but still fall on the shoulders of a developing second-year quarterback.
Drew Lock has a very small sample size to look at. In the five games Lock played, he went 4-1 (with the only loss coming against the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in a snowstorm during Week 15). Lock, after riding the bench behind an aging Joe Flacco and middling journeyman Brandon Allen, threw for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns and three inceptions. He completed 64.1% of his passes and showed flashes of his gunslinger mentality and ability to evade pressure successfully by trusting his arm strength.
The Broncos’ brass has surrounded Lock with talent on the offense while also filling holes on the defense. Graham Glasgow provides an upgrade at guard and Lloyd Cushenberry III fell down the draft board and into Denver’s lap at No. 83. Both Glasgow and Cushenberry play center, but now Glasgow can move elsewhere while Cushenberry uses his quick hands and versatility to create lanes for Lock and the Broncos’ running backs.
The defense returns Justin Simmons, who was given a franchise tag after coming off a season where he was the best-graded safety, and adds cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive lineman Jurrell Casey among others. Denver is loaded, which is why it also has playoff expectations for the upcoming season.
The Broncos were at the top of the league the last time they were in the playoffs, but following a win in Super Bowl 50 in 2015, they have yet to make it past the regular season. Two coaching changes and a few quarterbacks later, Denver now has all of the pieces to not only return a winning season—last accomplished in 2016 (9-7)—but return to the playoffs.
Expectations are inherently dangerous in this league; rookies and other green players might not be able to handle the full NFL workload and injuries can derail any momentum. Baring these factors, the Broncos can at least return to the playoffs. They should return to the playoffs.
Lock’s flashes were more than promising and his efforts led Denver to go all-in on the second-year product while cutting Joe Flacco. While Lock’s performance is based on just five games, he outplayed Flacco and proved why investing in the right young passer can reinvigorate an offense.
Lock finished 2019 with an 89.7 quarterback rating—compared to Flacco’s 85.1—and was able to escape pressure better than Flacco despite being young and unpolished. Both Lock and Flacco were pressured 36% of the time, but Flacco was sacked 9% of the time compared to Lock’s 3.1%, tied for the lowest in the league with the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees. Lock did this with an offensive line ranked in the bottom 10.
Denver brought in reinforcements along the offensive front and a slew of new targets—including No. 15 overall selection Jerry Jeudy and No. 46 overall selection K.J. Hamler—to go along with incumbent wide receiver Courtland Sutton. The offense will still have top production from Phillip Lindsay to go along with (a maybe overpriced) Melvin Gordon and Royce Freeman in the backfield; Lindsay is coming off back-to-back 1,000-plus yard seasons and plays a key role in opening up the offense for Lock, but newly appointed offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur wants to focus on Lock’s plus-arm strength and attack the field.
“I know the importance of running the football and how that affects not only your offense but your full team,” Shurmur said during his introductory press conference in February. “Then I worked recently with Andy Reid and really that’s where I got my start and my appreciation for the importance of throwing the ball and how you score points and doing it in a way that’s efficient and explosive.
“We’re just going to do what’s best for our offense and hopefully we’ll put together and offense that can help us win games.”
The Broncos certainly didn’t forget about the defense either and solidifying both sides of the ball now puts extra pressure on Lock to perform. General manager John Elway has provided Lock nearly every opportunity to grow in Denver’s system.
While the quarterback-savior storyline may not always have a happy ending, Lock can be just that for a team looking to stay afloat in their division and the league as a whole. The expectation to reach the playoffs will also fall on second-year play-caller Vic Fangio, but can Lock execute to the high degree we saw in 2019? There’s no reason not to think so. He has the arsenal, and the arm, to meet the lofty expectations placed on a playoff-less team.
- May 16, 2022
- May 16, 2022