Week 15 NFL Recap: The Denver Broncos must solve their Drew Lock problem

The first step to solving the Drew Lock problem is for the Denver Broncos to admit that they have a Drew Lock problem. Lock has had a few semi-encouraging games since returning from the quarantine catastrophe that forced practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton to cosplay as a quarterback, including a four-touchdown performance in a Week 14 victory over the Carolina Panthers. So Broncos team president John Elway might be tempted to think that the 2019 second-round pick has turned the corner in his development.

Saturday’s miserable 132-yard effort resulted in a 48-19 loss to the Buffalo Bills, however. It revealed that Lock may never become the franchise quarterback the Broncos have needed since the day Peyton Manning got old. NFL Recap has crunched some numbers, and the verdict is clear: the Broncos must come up with a quality Plan B at quarterback or risk ending up with a Mitch Trubisky or Blake Bortles situation on their hands.

Drew Lock by the numbers

Drew Lock’s 20-of-32, 132-yard, one-touchdown performance in Week 15 was far worse than the stat line suggests. You probably saw highlights of Jerry Hughes’ shake ‘n’ bake touchdown return after a Tre’Davious White strip sack. Lock threw at least two sideline out-routes that could have become pick-sixes if Bills defenders held onto the football. He threw for just 99 yards at halftime and for just three yards in the third quarter as the Bills pulled away. 

Saturday’s awful game came on the heels of a four-touchdown performance against the Panthers two weeks ago. Four-touchdown performances are sometimes a sign that a young quarterback is drastically improving. They are also sometimes a sign that he faced a weak defense, threw a few easy goal-line touchdowns, and got lucky when a cornerback slipped covering a deep route, which is what happened for Lock against the Panthers.

Trevor Siemian had two four-touchdown performances in his two seasons as the Broncos’ starter. Trubisky had a six-touchdown game (full of wide-open receivers and screen-and-run plays) in 2018. A splashy touchdown total can fool fans and an organization into thinking that a young quarterback is something that he is not.

Lock and his unimpressive stats

Here are a few statistics from the Sports Info Solutions database that provide a deeper picture of Denver Broncos QB Drew Lock in 2020. Week 15’s data has not been tabulated yet, which means most of these stats have probably gotten just a little worse:

• On passes of 10-plus air yards (downfield passes, in other words), Lock’s completion percentage of 38.5% is the lowest of any quarterback with more than 50 attempts of that kind. His efficiency rating on downfield passes (52.0) is the lowest of any regular starter. When throwing 10-plus yards downfield, Lock is in the company of the likes of Jake Luton, Dwayne Haskins, Brandon Allen, and Ben DiNucci.

• Lock’s completion rate on first downs is 57.7%, the worst among NFL starters. His efficiency rating on first downs is 83.8, seventh-lowest in the league. Below Lock are Cam Newton, Joe Burrow, Carson Wentz, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold, and Andy Dalton: a mix of guys in the process of losing their starting jobs, an injured rookie, a journeyman backup, and a fading superstar who at least provides some rushing value.

• Lock’s efficiency rating on third/fourth down and 10-plus yards is 49.5. Only Kyler Murray is worse among QBs with 25-plus attempts, and Murray provides much more rushing value in those situations (and is also much better than Lock in most other categories).

Bringing it all together

Get the picture? Lock is bad on first downs, bad on third downs, and bad throwing medium-to-deep. Statistically, he keeps showing up on lists among the guys who are on the verge of replacement.

That’s not normal for a second-year quarterback who is supposed to be improving. And while it’s tempting to offer the injuries that have interrupted his career over the last two seasons as an excuse for Lock’s slow-to-nonexistent progress, multiple injuries over two seasons are really just another cause for concern.

What the Denver Broncos should do about Drew Lock

Lock is not a lost cause. But arguments about his potential are starting to boil down to, “well, Josh Allen looked like a joke for two years but then became awesome, so maybe Luck will, too!” Allen always had more pure talent than Lock, and the reason we’re so fascinated by Allen is that so few quarterbacks make such a sudden leap forward in their third seasons. That sort of they laughed at Galileo the way they laugh at me, and he turned out to be a genius argument is a great way to fool yourself into thinking you turned your microwave into a spaceship but a terrible way to run a football team.

Related | QB Power Rankings 2020 Week 15: Hurts makes immediate impact, Ryan freefalls

So here are the Denver Broncos’ options moving forward.

Draft a quarterback in the first round

Lock was only a second-round pick. The organization does not have a major commitment to him. A finish in the 5-11 range could place the Broncos in a position to select someone like BYU quarterback Zach Wilson in what’s becoming a deep 2021 NFL Draft class.

Such a move would effectively end Lock’s career as a starter in Denver, but it might be worth the risk at this point. After all, the Arizona Cardinals aren’t exactly lamenting their decision to replace Josh Rosen with Murray right now.

Draft a second-tier quarterback prospect

The Denver Broncos could go the Carson Wentz-Jalen Hurts route by grabbing someone like Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder in the middle rounds. Ridder could start his career as a Wildcat wrinkle, then take on an increased role if Lock doesn’t develop.

Frankly, this does not sound like a very “John Elway” sort of strategy. Wildcat wrinkles don’t sound like head coach Vic Fangio’s style. (Fangio’s job is probably safe in a season that will likely be blamed on injuries and the unique challenges teams have faced.)

But it’s easy to see the Broncos getting back some guys on both sides of the ball (edge rusher Von Miller, wide receiver Courtland Sutton), seeing further development from rookie receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler next season, and winning a bunch of games with a dual-threat option quarterback taking at least some of the snaps.

Here comes the veteran!

The shrewd move here would be for the Denver Broncos to see if someone like Jacoby Brissett, Sam Darnold, or Gardner Minshew shakes loose: a young veteran with upside who could either push or supplant Lock. Unfortunately, the Elway-style move would be to overspend to lure Wentz, Matthew Stafford, or some other tall toolsy guy who might become available to Denver. Such a veteran would come with high expectations and a high investment but probably a low upside. 

One problem with every Denver Broncos quarterback scenario is that we’ve seen every Broncos quarterback scenario before in the last five years: replacing thirsty try-hard Siemian with Paxton Lynch, replacing over-his-head Lynch with pesky veteran Case Keenum, grabbing over-the-hill Joe Flacco to not really mentor Lock, whatever the hell the rationale was for bringing back Brock Osweiler was, noodling with third-tier prospects with famous uncles (Chad Kelly, Brett Rypien), etc. That may be why the Broncos decide to …

Do Nothing

With Sutton, Miller, and others returning, the Broncos could decide that their 2021 roster will be stacked and that they will be fine if Lock just develops into a steady game manager. 

That’s what the Bears thought with Trubisky. That’s what the Jaguars thought with Blake Bortles a few years ago. Heck, that’s what the Broncos lulled themselves into thinking with Siemian, Keenum, and the rest.

As of right now, that looks like the wrong move. The Broncos need to be honest about their Lock problem. Then they must get serious about solving it.

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