The Denver Broncos are likely to have third-year quarterback Drew Lock in the mix to be the starter in 2021. Yes, there is a chance they can trade the Houston Texans for superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson, but the reality is that will be a tough feat to pull off.
It’s more likely that Lock remains on the roster as a starting option for the team. The Broncos should go out and get a veteran to compete with him, but someone like Andy Dalton or Nick Foles or Gardner Minshew isn’t much competition – especially if Lock takes the third-year leap that some believe he will.
More importantly, Lock needs to show he can take those strides himself. After being given the reins to the offense in 2020, Lock failed to impress overall. He was regularly one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league, but – just like in 2019 – Lock did improve as the season went on.
How can Lock perform better? He needs some help in order to do that, and the good news is that he does have that help on this team. I’ve identified three people who can help Lock take that next step – not like Josh Allen did (because that was at MVP levels) – but enough for him to win the starting job and perhaps even earn it for 2022 and beyond.
Who are the three people who can help Lock play better? Let’s take a look.
Courtland Sutton | Wide Receiver
Losing Courtland Sutton last year was a gut punch for Lock and the Broncos passing game. He played 31 snaps before going down with a season-ending ACL injury. Sutton said he began jogging in January for the first time since having surgery on his left knee, and his goal is to be ready for the 2021 season opener.
Sutton will help Lock because he’s what scouts call a “bad ball” receiver. That means if a pass is not right on the money, it’s not a problem for Sutton to go and get it. Passes can be too high, too low, just in general off the mark and the big-bodied wide receiver has little trouble securing the rock. This is a great skill set to have when working with a quarterback like Lock.
In 2020, Lock was 32nd in on-target percentage according to Pro Football Focus. Many of those incompletions or interceptions might turn into receptions – and perhaps even big plays – with Sutton out there.
Not only will Sutton help Lock individually, but he can help him collectively by making the wide receiver room better and more competitive. Having Sutton on the field producing at a high level will push Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler to be better. Those two had ups and downs as rookies in 2020, and Sutton makes for a great mentor to both. If Sutton is out there, Jeudy and Hamler will perform better and that helps Lock in a big way.
Pat Shurmur | Offensive Coordinator
The person with arguably the most influence over Lock is Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. The system that Shurmur wants to run is not a great fit for Lock. He would fit better in a system like the one he was drafted in (Gary Kubiak / Mike Shanahan offense) ran by former OC Rich Scangarello. If Lock is going to play better in 2021, it will largely come down to how Shurmur adapts his offense to what the young quarterback does best.
At the end of the year, Shurmur did finally find a way to use Lock the right way. In fact, I thought Shurmur implementing play-action passing, bootlegs and (gasp) screen passes was a case of too little too late. By the time Lock started playing better, the team might have already been considering a move for the future – with both the quarterback and the OC. Time is of the essence in the NFL, and coaches don’t have time to waste.
Shurmur needs to continue to be creative if he wants to make Lock successful and keep his job. If that means he doesn’t run his system true to form, so be it. If Lock plays better, not only will he keep his spot as the starter, but Shurmur is more likely to keep his job as coordinator.
In fact, if Lock does take a big leap in year three then there’s a chance that Shurmur’s name is brought up in conversations for teams who need a new head coach. If Shurmur wants to be a head coach again, he will do whatever it takes to make Lock look better in 2021.
Drew Lock | Quarterback
Quite frankly, Lock can help himself the most in 2021. Others can help and be big influences on his production but at the end of the day it comes down to Lock taking the initiative to be better. He can’t simply do what he did last year and expect things to work out for the better because Sutton is back or Shurmur understands how to craft a better offense for him.
He needs to make better and quicker decisions as a passer. According to Pro Football Focus, Lock rated as the 35th best quarterback in the league – where there are only 32 franchises. Lock tends to limit where he reads the field and took his first read 76 percent of the time in 2020, well above the league average of 68 percent.
That means Lock is not going through progressions but rather just going for an underneath route (83 percent of the time). This helps defenses play up against the Broncos, as they know the tendencies of Lock which came through in analytics but most importantly on film.
Lock obviously needs to turn the ball over less this season. The Broncos can live with the growing pains of Lock but it can’t come at a cost of possession of the ball. Too often last year Lock would not understand coverages and recklessly throw the ball into the teeth of the defense. His on-target percentage was the worst in the league, and this led to errant throws – which led to tipped passes – which led to more interceptions. When he wasn’t throwing the ball to the other team, Lock was careless with the ball as a runner and fumbled too often.
He has the tools to be a top-16 quarterback in this league. That’s the way I’ve felt since he came out of college. I don’t think Lock will ever be a top-five or top-10 quarterback, but you can win a lot of games if he just improves in a dramatic way.
He doesn’t need to be perfect, but Lock needs to be a heckuva lot better if he wants to keep his job as the starting quarterback for the Broncos. Having help from Sutton, Shurmur and mainly himself will greatly contribute to that effort.
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