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2020 NFL Preview: If Drew Lock is legit, the Broncos are going to take a huge leap

Frank Schwab
·11-min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on August 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

The NFL offseason can be funny. Without taking a snap, Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock has gone from a promising rookie season to a rising star.

There’s plenty of time to create hype where it shouldn’t exist. Dan Orlovsky, a former quarterback and sharp analyst, declared he has a “QB man crush” on Lock. ESPN redrafted all the players in the NFL, and Lock somehow was taken 15th overall, ahead of Kyler Murray among others. That’s ... something.

Maybe Lock will be better than Murray but there’s no tangible evidence to make that case. Lock made NFL.com’s list of dark-horse MVP candidates and Fox Sports radio host Colin Cowherd claimed Lock is the “pop guy” in the NFL this season, whatever that means.

The reality is that Lock played five games and was just OK. He was good enough that the Broncos did the right thing committing to him for 2020 and building up the offense around him. Hype is what happens when we overrate the wildly flawed idea that quarterbacks own their own record. Lock didn’t go 4-1. The Broncos went 4-1 when Lock was quarterback. There’s a big difference.

There should be good feelings about the Broncos, which is why they appear as high as they do in my rankings. They looked good in December and we’d be having a much different conversation about the Broncos if a trio of heartbreaking losses last season went the other way. Lock is part of the equation. He’s not suddenly the 15th most valuable player in football.

It won’t take long for the Broncos to figure out what they have in Lock. They committed fully to giving him the best supporting cast possible. They took receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler with their top two draft picks. They added guard Graham Glasgow and running back Melvin Gordon III in free agency. They already had a good offensive foundation with receiver Courtland Sutton, tight end Noah Fant, running back Phillip Lindsay and an improved line. They hired Pat Shurmur to run the offense, and while he has failed as a head coach he has a strong history as a coordinator. If Lock fails, it won’t be because he didn’t have enough help.

The excitement over Lock in Denver is understandable. Since Peyton Manning retired, Broncos general manager John Elway has aimlessly tried to replace him. If he hit on Lock in the second round of last year’s draft, that changes the entire trajectory of the franchise. We don’t yet know if he hit on Lock yet though, no matter how his reputation has grown over a long offseason.

This could be a huge season for the Broncos. Vic Fangio is a great defensive coach and that side of the ball is talented. If Shurmur can turn Case Keenum into a borderline MVP candidate with the Minnesota Vikings, he can do a lot with the offensive talent in Denver. This is a team that can rise, and quickly.

And if that happens, just imagine the hype for Lock next offseason.

Drew Lock impressed many during his five starts at the end of last season. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)
Drew Lock impressed many during his five starts at the end of last season. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)

The NFL is a highly competitive league and it’s not always easy to upgrade the supporting cast around a young quarterback. Resources are limited. That’s why Broncos GM John Elway deserves credit. He was fortunate Jerry Jeudy was available to Denver in the first round of the draft. Jeudy could be the best receiver in this deep class. Second-round pick K.J. Hamler is a home-run hitter from the slot. Signing guard Graham Glasgow from the Detroit Lions will help the line. Running back Melvin Gordon III was a luxury signing on a two-year deal when a big market never opened up for him. The Broncos lost cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and that’s a tough blow, but Elway made some bargain trades to get cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive end Jurrell Casey. Retaining safety Justin Simmons on the franchise tag was important too even if the the two sides couldn’t reach a long-term deal; he’s one of the NFL’s best safeties. There’s little question that the Broncos are better than they were a year ago.

GRADE: A-

How good was Drew Lock? That’s complicated. He played a soft schedule down the stretch but generally looked good for a rookie. His base stats — 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns, three interceptions, 89.7 passer rating — were solid. The advanced stats aren’t as kind. Of the 38 quarterbacks who had at least 172 dropbacks (which is how many Lock had), Lock’s Pro Football Focus passing grade ranked 33rd. The only quarterbacks Lock graded better than were Case Keenum, David Blough, Mason Rudolph, Kyle Allen and Devlin Hodges. That’s a rough list to be on. Lock’s grade on throws 10 or more yards downfield was last in the NFL, according to PFF. Lock benefitted from 53.3 percent of his yards coming after the catch. That was the seventh highest mark in the NFL, according to PFF. It’s good that Lock was efficient on short throws and quarterbacks contribute to yards after catch by being accurate. Lock wasn’t bothered playing on the road and built a good base to improve upon. We just don’t know yet how good he is.

Von Miller is probably the best defender in the league to have not won Defensive Player of the Year honors. He’s a likely Hall of Famer. It’s, however, hard to ignore his statistical dip last year. He had eight sacks, the first time in a healthy season he failed to reach double digits. His 20 QB hits were also a career low in a full season. The good news is the stats were a bit unlucky, having ranked third in the NFL in Pro Football Focus’ pass rush productivity metric. Miller is 31 and you never know when the decline will happen. Miller still looks like an elite player and due for some positive regression. A return to form in his second year in Vic Fangio’s scheme along with Bradley Chubb’s return to health after a torn ACL could make a huge difference to the Broncos defense.

The over/under win total for the Broncos at BetMGM is 7.5 and I’m comfortably on the over there. The Broncos could be a playoff team. There is risk that Drew Lock is a bust, but a quality surrounding cast around him probably keeps his floor reasonably high. I like the +165 odds (bet $100 to win $165) on the Broncos to make the playoffs and as crazy as it sounds, +900 to win the AFC West is enticing too. Hey, the Super Bowl hangover hits everyone.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Courtland Sutton was an impressive rookie in 2018 and took a step forward last year, so it’s reasonable for some to project linear improvement. Maybe that’s a mistake, given that the Broncos have an uncertain quarterback and other emerging skill talent to deal with [rookie wideout Jerry Jeudy, second-year tight end Noah Fant].

“It’s not that Sutton can’t return value on his current WR17 tag in Yahoo, it’s just that the tier he’s part of is populated with so much talent. Given the lack of a secure quarterback, and the presence of other mouths to feed, Sutton feels an eyelash overpriced as we get ready for the teeth of draft season.”

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today]

Exercising the fifth-year contract option for a first-round pick is fairly standard. Yet, Broncos GM John Elway has done it for only two of his six eligible first-round picks. The latest to have the option declined is left tackle Garett Bolles. Imagine if Elway had instead drafted Ryan Ramczyk, who has developed into one of the NFL’s best tackles for the New Orleans Saints. Bolles has had way too many holding penalties (32 penalties in 48 games according to NFLpenalties.com, including 20 holding calls), hasn’t yet looked like a viable left tackle and will find himself in a training camp competition with Elijah Wilkinson, who was undrafted the same year Bolles was a first-round pick. If Bolles can play reasonably well in what is now a contract year (or if Wilkinson emerges), the Broncos offensive line could be a strength.

Did anyone have a set of three more crushing losses than Denver in 2019?

The Broncos had a 92.4 percent chance to beat the Bears late in Week 2, 94.2 percent at one point in Week 4 to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars and 95.8 percent to beat the Minnesota Vikings in Week 11 according to ESPN’s win probabilities. They lost all three games. The Bears and Jaguars games ended after controversial roughing-the-passer penalties set up last-second field goals. The Broncos blew a 20-0 lead against the Vikings and time ran out after three incompletions from the Minnesota 4-yard line. Now let’s change history and say the Broncos finish all three games in which they were at least 92 percent to win. That’s a 10-6 season. Think there would be more hype about the Broncos now? That’s not even counting a 15-13 loss at the Indianapolis Colts in which Adam Vinatieri hit a 51-yard field goal with 22 seconds left. The NFL is incredibly competitive and each losing team has a sob story about games that got away. But the Broncos can honestly say they were 7-9 with some horrendous luck.

You have to make a big leap of logic to assume Drew Lock can be as good as the optimistic hype that built over the offseason. But what if Lock lives up to it? Let’s keep it realistic and say Lock is one of the 15 best quarterbacks in the NFL this season. Given everything around him on offense and a defense that should be better than it was last season as it gets used to Vic Fangio’s scheme, the Broncos could be the surprise team of the NFL. They weren’t as far off last season as you might remember and their roster should be a lot better this season.

If Drew Lock is bad — and that is a possibility — then the Broncos are back on the hamster wheel at quarterback. I was surprised they didn’t make a stronger push for a better veteran backup. The Broncos’ floor isn’t that low, considering they went 7-9 with some terribly unlucky losses and 11 starts between Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen at quarterback. Lock would have to be really bad and/or everything else would have to fall apart for Denver to lose double-digit games. That’s part of the problem: If Lock needs to be replaced before 2021, it’s not likely the Broncos will be bad enough to have a top pick to draft a great quarterback prospect.

When I did my power rankings after the draft, I had the Broncos 10th. When researching teams after that, I realized I was buying the buzz too much. Then everyone fell in love with Drew Lock after that for some reason. You don’t need great quarterback play to win in the NFL. It helps, but it’s not necessary if you have a good enough roster around the quarterback. And the Broncos have done quite well the past few drafts to accumulate talent. I don’t think you need to love Lock to predict a really good season for Denver. He’ll be good enough. And the Broncos will be a surprise to many.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31.
Washington Football Team
30.
Cincinnati Bengals
29.
Carolina Panthers
28.
New York Giants
27.
Detroit Lions
26.
New York Jets
25.
Atlanta Falcons
24.
Miami Dolphins
23.
Las Vegas Raiders
22.
Los Angeles Chargers
21.
Houston Texans
20.
Arizona Cardinals
19.
Minnesota Vikings
18.
Chicago Bears
17.
Los Angeles Rams
16.
Cleveland Browns
15.
Pittsburgh Steelers
14.
Denver Broncos
13.
Indianapolis Colts
12.
Philadelphia Eagles
11.
Seattle Seahawks
10.
Green Bay Packers
9.
New England Patriots
8.
Tennessee Titans
7.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6.
Dallas Cowboys
5.
Buffalo Bills
4.
San Francisco 49ers
3.
New Orleans Saints
2.
Kansas City Chiefs
1.
Baltimore Ravens