Denver Broncos, John Elway shouldn’t bail on QB Drew Lock in 2021

Drew Lock has appeared in only 16 NFL games so far, which means it's too soon for John Elway and the Denver Broncos to give up on the young quarterback.

By Matt Fitzgerald
Dec 19, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) warms up before game against the Buffalo Bills at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Broncos general manager John Elway was a Hall of Fame quarterback for the franchise, but in his career as an executive, he’s struggled to find a long-term signal-caller in the post-Peyton Manning era. Drew Lock is showing signs he could be the solution, yet he needs a little more time to prove it.

Elway really should give that benefit of the doubt to the 24-year-old, who’ll enter his third NFL season in 2021. For all the options that haven’t worked out since Manning, Lock easily shows the most promise.

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Denver Broncos GM John Elway comments on offense and Drew Lock

John Elway, Denver Broncos still have hope for Drew Lock
Sep 14, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos general manager John Elway before the game against the Tennessee Titans at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

All this ties into the latest news coming out of Denver, wherein Elway made remarks about Lock’s struggles in 2020 after a promising rookie debut that saw him post a 4-1 record as a starter.

“I think that Drew’s had an up-and-down year, but we still like what we see in him and still think that he’s got a chance to be a very good quarterback in this league,” Elway said, per the team’s official website.

Lock has been riding a roller coaster for sure. After throwing for 280 yards and four touchdowns in a Week 14 victory over Carolina, Lock crashed back to Earth this past weekend, managing only 132 yards passing in a 48-19 loss to Buffalo.

He’s appeared in only 16 games to date in his NFL career, or the equivalent of a full season, logging a 59.7% completion rate, 21 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 79.8 passer rating. Not great, right? All that said, it’d be a mistake for Elway to either swing an expensive trade to move up and acquire a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft, or to overpay for an expensive veteran with the potential-laden Lock still on his first pro contract.

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Drew Lock beset by circumstances amid sophomore slump

Denver Broncos QB Drew Lock in midst of sophomore slump
Nov 8, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) leaves the field after the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Elway even admitted in the aforementioned official team website report that the supporting cast around Lock has had something to do with his troubles:

“Obviously, the inconsistency, that comes with being young, especially if you’re young and you’ve got young guys around you … like we do. It seems like when they all don’t play well, they do it together.”

DenverBroncos.com

The following stat from Pro Football Reference may be cause for serious alarm — until you look at the Nos. 3 and 4 players on the list, Tom Brady and Baker Mayfield, and consider they’re all but certain to be playoff-bound:

Denver is counting on the likes of rookie receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler to be the biggest playmakers on offense, along with second-year tight end Noah Fant. That’s a lot to put on such inexperienced players, particularly when Hamler missed the start of the season due to injury and Fant has been banged up throughout the 2020 campaign.

With very little offseason time in terms of OTAs, training camp and lack of a preseason, the Broncos needed to get up to speed quickly on a new West Coast system install under new play-caller Pat Shurmur. Obviously, things haven’t worked out — and that’s not even to mention the fact that typical No. 1 receiver Courtland Sutton appeared in just one game before tearing his ACL. Oh, and Lock injured his right rotator cuff and missed multiple starts because of it.

Yeesh. So to recap: Sutton was Denver’s go-to target coming off a 1,112-yard season, and he was gone. Lock went down after a brutal hit against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ formidable front seven. All of this while learning a new offense on the fly.

Not exactly an ideal situation. Plus, Shurmur was just fired from his second NFL head coaching job with the New York Giants after seeing his offense fail there, just as it did in Cleveland. Look at Shurmur’s coaching record. Where has his offense been a raging success?

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Denver Broncos, John Elway need to be patient with Drew Lock for 2021

Drew Lock: Denver Broncos QB of the future?
Dec 6, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) throws a pass during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the thing: Shurmur poses a dilemma. His offense is antiquated by many accounts. He’ll occasionally dial up a few tactically savvy plays, but he’s wildly conservative and fails to manufacture explosive plays with any kind of consistency.

A West Coast offense isn’t really Lock’s strong suit. He’s a gunslinger with a rocket arm who can launch the ball deep down the field. Given the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, the less complicated verbiage and overall minutia Lock would’ve had to execute in Shurmur’s system, the better off he’d have been.

One more extenuating factor that needs to be discussed, though: the Broncos offensive line ranks 29th in adjusted line yards by Football Outsiders. That’s really bad. Despite having Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay in the backfield, Denver is stuffed on rush attempts at a higher rate (21.8%) than any team in the NFL.

So, let’s not blame Shurmur entirely. There’s a legitimate case to be made for continuity. That can help a young quarterback immensely, and given the old-school nature of Broncos coach Vic Fangio, to the Denver fans who don’t like Shurmur: he’s probably going to be back in 2021.

But that might not be so bad. Anything Elway and Co. can do to bolster the offensive line is a big step forward on its own. That’ll free up room for Gordon and Lindsay in the running game. Sutton will return to lead the receiving corps. Fangio is always going to make the defense respectable when it isn’t decimated by injuries.

All this adds up to a rather promising outlook for Lock, who despite all the chaos and the blowout loss to the Bills, is trending in the right direction of late:

Everything discussed here bolsters the notion that he could thrive in Shurmur’s system with a proper offseason to digest the playbook, and ample time to build chemistry with newcomers Jeudy and Hamler.

Hope may feel many yards away in the Mile High City, but despair not, Broncos faithful. If the organization doesn’t quit on Lock, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he can be the breakout star many hoped he’d be this year.