It was December 29, 2019. The Broncos were out of the playoff hunt, but led the Raiders by a touchdown coming out of halftime in their season finale. Drew Lock sensed an opportunity to spoil Oakland’s last chance at the playoffs and wrap himself in the euphoric gauze of a 4-1 finish as the team’s starting quarterback.
The PA system at Mile High Stadium started playing Young Jeezy’s “Put On.” The rookie could not contain himself and began enthusiastically mouthing the words.
“Send them player haters runnin’ straight back to the dealership / Me I’m in my spaceship, that’s right I work for NASA”
THIS IS INCREDIBLE pic.twitter.com/fCDLcQvTah— Gump Cathcart (@bubbagumpino) December 30, 2019
Lock, who it should be noted was word-perfect in his delivery, bopped his head with all the awkward bravado of a teenager rapping in the back of his mom’s minivan and a decent amount of earnest charm, too. No one else visible in the video on the Broncos sideline paid him any mind. They were 30 minutes of game clock away from the offseason; many of them were probably already planning their golf vacations.
The video made the rounds online and was, essentially, the last we saw of the 2019 Broncos. But life imitates art, and as a number of promising young players came to Denver during the offseason, the Lock-Broncos discourse blossomed into the football prognostication version of rapping Jeezy from the sideline. Could Lock really could send the Broncos to the moon?
“It feels like we bounced off the bottom and we’re heading up,” general manager John Elway said at his season-ending press conference last year.
“I think he’s going to be a very special quarterback in this league,” left tackle Garett Bolles said last week.
“I think he deserves the hype,” guard Dalton Risner said earlier this month.
In June, ESPN reporters redrafted four players for each team, selecting from the entire NFL. Lock went no. 15 to, coincidentally or not, the Broncos. Out of the entire NFL. Denver has been a trendy pick to earn a wild-card spot in 2020 and a topic of intrigue this offseason. The sportsbook director at William Hill told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Broncos over seven and a half wins in 2020 has been a popular bet.
The hype is coming from within, too. Elway infused the Denver offense with young talent by taking wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler with the team’s first two picks in the draft and center Lloyd Cushenberry III in the third round. In free agency, Elway signed running back Melvin Gordon to complement Phillip Lindsay; on defense, he replaced pass rusher Derek Wolfe and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. with Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye. Particularly on the offensive side, these are the kinds of moves made when a team believes it has a quarterback to build around and is ready to compete, even in an AFC West that features defending Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
“The bottom line is,” Elway said in July, “we have to win.”
For that to happen, the Broncos have to be correct in their assessment that they’re entering a competitive window, which relies on Lock becoming closer to a franchise-caliber quarterback in his second season. Elway’s recent track record on quarterbacks would make that event an outlier since Elway hasn’t landed a quarterback pick or transaction since he signed Peyton Manning in 2012. Manning left in 2015, and Elway has tried to replace him with Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Case Keenum, and Joe Flacco, cementing his status as president of the “Do I Like Him or Is He Just Tall” school of quarterback acquisition, but not accomplishing much else.
The Broncos’ 4-1 finish last season after Lock took over for Flacco was certainly encouraging, but it comes with caveats beyond the small sample size. Three of those wins came against the 25th-ranked Raiders pass defense, the 29th-ranked Texans pass defense, and the 32nd-ranked Lions pass defense. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos had a positive total DVOA in just two of those final five games. Their overall record in those contests may have as much to do with kicker Brandon McManus hitting a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter against the Raiders and 52- and 53-yard field goals in another close game against the Chargers in Week 13, the week Lock took over.
A late-season winning streak may not be especially meaningful or repeatable, but there’s reason for optimism. After five years of draft classes that yielded no stars and only a few decent starters, Denver’s first- and second-year players—including Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, and Phillip Lindsay from 2018, and Noah Fant, Risner, and Lock from 2019—started to look like a solid young core, especially on offense. The Broncos were 14th in Football Outsiders’ snap-weighted age in 2017 on that side of the ball, then dropped to 18th in 2018 and then 30th last season.
A younger roster has allowed the offense to modernize: Many of Lock’s predecessors had a commitment to the pocket unrivaled since the invention of cargo shorts, but Lock can actually move around. After Lock’s productive four-year college career at Missouri, Pro Football Focus rated him as the second-best quarterback prospect in his class when moved outside the pocket (behind only 2019 top pick Kyler Murray) and charted him with a 73.6 percent adjusted completion rate on those throws. When he became the Broncos starter, Lock’s mobility allowed the offense to take better advantage of motion and made the offensive line sturdier.
Lock averaged 2.6 seconds in the pocket to Flacco’s 2.4 before throwing or feeling pressure and the offensive line gave up one sack per game with Lock after giving up three per game without him.
“There are times—and this is part of his nature—I call them the 60-yard checkdowns, where [Lock] can break out of the pocket and keep his eyes downfield,” said new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “He does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield, which I think is part of being youthful. It’s him trying to continue to make plays. Sometimes your biggest plays come on scrambles because it’s not always perfect.”
There’s also the factor of Lock’s confidence; he believes he’s ready to command an offense and a team.
“I’m not the rookie anymore yelling at a third-, fourth-year guy,” Lock said. “It’s ‘That’s Drew yelling at us. That’s Drew getting on us.’ It’s a whole different mentality behind having a second-year quarterback rather than a rookie quarterback. I honestly really feel that coming into this second year.”
If Denver is correct that Lock can help the Broncos compete in the AFC West, it’s easy to see how a mobile, fearless passer and fast, athletic playmakers could draw comparisons to the Chiefs. According to Pro Football Focus, 53.3 percent of Lock’s yards came after the catch last season, the seventh-highest rate in the league, which is an encouraging Chiefsian tendency that was not present in Denver before Lock took over.
The Catch-22 of building a roster similar to the Chiefs is … still having to compete with the Chiefs. Denver could be proved right about the strength of its roster and its success would still be an open question; given the competition within the division, this Maserati might be driving down a dead-end street. Extrapolate Lock’s five-game performance out over 16 games, and you get 3,264 yards, 22.4 touchdowns, and 9.6 interceptions, paired with a very good defense and a solid running game. It’s hard to say what that buys in the AFC West, especially with games against another tough division in the NFC South also on the schedule.
There’s no great solution to sharing a division with a potential dynasty led by a 24-year-old quarterback. Asked recently about Mahomes buying a minority share of the Kansas City Royals, Elway quipped that he hoped that job would take up a lot of Mahomes’s time, and it was about as reasonable a hope as finding some way to defend Mahomes, who recently signed a 10-year contract extension.
There has been some hype-hedging in Denver. In the same breath Elway used to say the Broncos must find a way to win, he also lamented the loss of preseason games and cautioned that the young offense might suffer for the loss of practice time this offseason.
“It’s going to be a slow build. The expectations of Drew, he did play well for five games, but that was only five games last year,” Elway said.
Patience is essential, not just to develop a young roster, but to compete with a powerhouse division rival. It seems unlikely this season will end with Lock and Elway spelling out QBWINZ in Super Bowl confetti and the hype, as it often does, may have come early. The Broncos may not be a spaceship, but things are looking up.