John Elway doesn’t have a strong track record when it comes to quarterback evaluation. That’s a bit ironic considering Elway is a Hall of Famer and one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
In the time since he was hired as a Broncos executive in 2011, the team picked Paxton Lynch (first round), Brock Osweiler (second round), Zac Dysert (seventh round), Trevor Siemian (seventh round), and Chad Kelly (seventh round).
That’s a lot of whiffs. Lynch started just four games in Denver and was released before his third season with the team. Osweiler had two stints with the Broncos and retired earlier this year. He’ll likely be best remembered for making over $40 million for 30 starts in the NFL, thanks to a free agency gaffe made by the Texans.
That’s why Drew Lock getting drafted by Elway felt more like an indictment than an endorsement. If that guy — the one who decided Lynch was worth a first-round pick — thinks Lock is a solid prospect, that’s probably not a good thing.
But holy shit, Elway may have actually found himself a quarterback.
Lock sat on injured reserve for the first 12 weeks of the season after suffering a thumb injury in August. In that time, the Broncos slogged their way to a 3-8 record. Joe Flacco complained about the painfully conservative Denver offense before he was sent to injured reserve for a neck injury. He was replaced in the lineup by Brandon Allen, who posted a 68.3 passer rating in three starts.
During the time Flacco and Allen were under center, the Broncos’ offense looked the opposite of what it did in Week 14. A week after a so-so performance in his debut, Lock was nothing short of spectacular against the Texans.
He completed over 80 percent of his passes in a 38-24 road win and finished with 309 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. It was arguably the best statistical performance by a Broncos quarterback in over a decade — no small feat when you consider that includes four seasons with Peyton Manning at the helm.
Drew Lock posted a 98.7 QBR today— Ryan Koenigsberg (@RyanKoenigsberg) December 9, 2019
That’s the highest QBR by any quarterback not named Lamar Jackson this season.
It’s also the highest QBR by any Broncos quarterback since 2007.
By halftime, Lock already had 235 passing yards. His 157.8 passer rating is the best any Broncos quarterback has posted in a first half since Elway was still on the field.
It’s also safe to say that his teammates have bought in:
Von Miller on Drew Lock: “He’s a fucking rock star.”— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) December 8, 2019
But before we anoint Lock the new king of the Rocky Mountains, let’s take a deep breath. The Texans are near the bottom of the NFL in pass defense. Lock also passed for just 134 yards in a Week 13 win over the Chargers, although he did manage two first-quarter touchdowns to give the Broncos an early lead.
So how real was Lock’s most recent performance? Let’s break it down:
Lock trusts his arm and isn’t afraid to take shots
In four years at Missouri, Lock started 46 of a possible 50 games. He threw for over 12,000 yards and 99 touchdowns. As far as draft prospects go, that’s about as experienced as it gets.
So it’s not that surprising that Lock looks comfortable in his first snaps as a professional. He has a huge arm and he’s not scared to let it rip.
That was evident on his first touchdown of the game against the Texans. Lock drove the Broncos into the red zone with big chunk plays that went for 48 and 29 yards. Set up at the 14-yard line and facing a third-and-12, Denver lined up in shotgun with five wide receivers and let the 23-year-old quarterback go to work.
When tight end Noah Fant broke a post route down the middle of the field, Lock fired a laser right over the helmet of Texans defensive back Jahleel Addae. It hit Fant between the numbers before the Houston safeties had time to get anywhere close to impacting the play.
Even more impressive was a 37-yard reception down the left sideline for Tim Patrick on the first play of the second quarter.
The Texans employed a Cover 1 defense that put second-year safety Justin Reid in the middle of the field with man coverage underneath. That meant a deep pass to Patrick had to go over the head of a cornerback but arrive before Reid had time to break it up.
Lock managed to do exactly that, despite leaning backward to avoid an oncoming pass rusher. The ball traveled nearly 50 yards in the air and couldn’t have been placed in a better spot.
Look at that beauty.
There is a catch, though. While that throw showed Lock’s tremendous arm talent, it was one of many throws he made without having his feet completely underneath him. That’s a great skill to have — especially with a blitz coming fast — but it’s a dangerous one to rely on too often.
Lock’s still a work in progress
Pressure in his face wasn’t the only thing that caused Lock to throw off his back foot. He also did it on many plays when it wasn’t necessary at all and he had plenty of room to step into his throw.
Take this 11-yard gain late in the second quarter, for example. The play worked out fine because receiver Courtland Sutton was wide open, but there’s no reason for Lock to be falling off to the side as he delivered the ball.
Lock has more than enough arm strength to throw the ball across the field, despite being off platform. That kind of sloppy footwork is still a bad habit that can lead to inaccuracy, though. Fortunately for the Broncos, they’re three weeks away from beginning the 2020 offseason, and it’s a problem that should be fixable with time and coaching.
More time in the NFL should also help Lock avoid zeroing in on a receiver with his eyes. His third-quarter interception was against another single deep safety coverage for Houston. With Lock staring down Sutton from the beginning of the play, safety Tashaun Gipson took off toward the right sideline long before the ball even came out of the quarterback’s hand.
Lock never looked anywhere else and led Gipson straight to the easy pick.
There’s also the real possibility that Lock’s gutsiness will lead to more interceptions down the road, especially as teams get more film on him. He trusts himself to thread the needle, but sometimes that leads to dangerous throws in traffic. His first pass of the game turned into a 48-yard gain for Fant and looked great on the live broadcast.
A look at the player tracking via Next Gen Stats gives you a better idea of how easily the play could’ve gone awry.
Either Lock didn’t see Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph dropping off the deep route, or he was confident he could put the ball on Fant’s inside shoulder away from Joseph. Whatever it was, it worked out well because Lock drilled the pass in a place where only Fant could get it.
But again, Lock’s footwork, his vision down the field, and his tendency to put the ball in jeopardy could all be issues that disappear with added experience and coaching.
Lock’s having fun in his new role as an NFL starter.
“I’d like to think my confidence is contagious. I never want it to come off as arrogance, I want it to come off as fire,” Lock told reporters, via NFL.com. “I’m having fun with the game that we’ve all dreamed about playing since we were little kids. Now that we’re here, why do we not need to have the most fun that we can with the game that we love?”
He even has a signature, Buzz Lightyear-themed celebration already.
Lock’s enthusiasm for the game and his moxie right out of the gates has endeared him to his teammates and Broncos fans. Yes, there are kinks to work out. But for the first time in a really long time, Denver has legitimate reason to be hopeful about a young quarterback.