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3 things to watch for in Drew Lock’s first start

Can the rookie solve the biggest hole in the Denver Broncos’ roster?

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NFL: Denver Broncos-Training Camp
Can the rookie Lock down the Broncos’ quarterback spot?
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Barring something unexpected, it looks like the Broncos are gearing up to turn the keys to the offense over to their 2019 second round pick this weekend. To get a better idea of what to expect, I looked back over Drew Lock’s three preseason games to see what I could glean from his reps against live fire. More and more, I found myself wondering a few things:

1. How does Rich Scangarello build a gameplan around him?

It’s common knowledge that NFL teams run stripped down versions of their systems during the preseason. All you have to do is watch how often Dalton Risner’s used on pulls and lead blocks to recognize that fact. For that reason it’s good to maintain a healthy dose of perspective as we look over different play calls.

After watching Brandon Allen’s three games and Lock’s preseason plays in their entirety, I think there is reason to believe the offense will look pretty similar. The Broncos’ new quarterback offers many of the same strengths their old one did: he’s mobile enough that defenses will have to respect him, and he’s capable of throwing after resetting his feet.

The throw above is probably the best completion he had in the Hall of Fame game. There’s already evidence that the Broncos’ offense is moving towards these kind of plays after Joe Flacco’s inability to accurately place the ball on the move took them off the table.

Dating back to the first preseason game, Scangarello used motion and empty shotgun sets to give his quarterbacks easy completions. This may seem counter intuitive with questionable tackle play on both sides of the offensive line, but by spreading out the field with five receivers at the line of scrimmage, defenses are limited in how well they can disguise.

So long as the quarterback moves through his progressions quickly, completions are there. This is one area where Lock could be a potentially offer the offense a noticeable upgrade over his predecessors.

It seems telling that Lock’s first pass attempt came out of empty.

Now, I’m well aware that Lock missed the throw above. What’s more important is how the Broncos motioned to empty on his first pass attempt. It seems to hint at a way Scangarello will call plays that lean into areas where Lock is comfortable. Remember that at Missouri Lock was in the gun, while playing under center has been one of the bigger adjustments he’s had to make in the NFL.

For that reason, it should come as no surprise that most of his best plays from the preseason came out of the shotgun.

Drew Lock was money on this 3rd and 11 throw.

If you’re looking for one play to support your belief in Drew Lock, you can’t do better than this 3rd and 11 completion to Troy Fumagalli. Seattle brings a rush off the blindside, and even with heat bearing down, the rookie stands tall in the pocket and delivers the ball with anticipation to give his receiver the best possible chance to make a play.

2. How do his mechanics and decision-making look?

Coming out of college, Drew Lock was a prospect with a very good or even great arm who seemingly brought no character questions. Even still, there is no doubt about the biggest reason he fell all the way to the 42nd pick of the 2019 draft. I said this back in March:

2019 NFL Draft Film Breakdown: Drew Lock, Franchise Quarterback? - Mile High Report

The first time I watched Lock’s 2018 season, I saw a guy with a very natural arm and the kind of “wow” plays that can win games. However, between those confident throws were the kind of maddening inconsistencies that can’t continue if he’s planning to succeed at the next level. Far too often he has made throws off his back foot or launched balls into traffic. I suspect he’d be an MVP candidate in a 7 on 7 league, but there’s a pass rush in the NFL.

Lost amid the gnashing of teeth over Vic Fangio’s decision to sit him the last month or so is the fact that Lock came into the NFL as a raw project who’d need time to refine his mechanics and improve on his quick game if he was to have any chance to succeed. The fact that he got hurt and missed throwing to his receivers for two months set him even further behind, so it’s an open question how these things will look once he’s facing a pass rush.

To succeed where Flacco and Allen failed, Lock will need to consistently deliver the ball to receivers who aren’t wide open.

One of the biggest revelations when I finally got a chance to look at Lock’s All-22 film from the preseason is how his targets looked against coverage. In many cases, it made the quarterback look better as I got a feel for why he checked down when he did.

That simply isn’t the case on his safety in Seattle. The quarterback is locked onto his primary receiver, but doesn’t let the ball rip. My best guess: he isn’t used to the kind of spacing that makes a receiver “open” at the NFL level. Unfortunately by doing this Lock leaves himself in a lurch as the Seahawks pressure gets to him.

Lock is lucky this wasn’t intercepted.

Lock also will need to improve at scanning the field and looking off defenders. On 1st and 10, the Broncos run trips to the right and Lock almost delivers six points to the other team because he doesn’t account for the coverage.

The hope has to be that the Virtual Reality Lock used while he was injured will help him acclimate to the NFL speed. It’s awesome the current coaching staff welcomed the technology. The hope has to be that it helps make a difference for Lock’s ability to recognize coverages and get the ball to his receivers better than Joe Flacco or Brandon Allen did. Both had problems moving through their progressions, which was a big reason the Broncos’ offense ground to a halt in the losses to Kansas City and Buffalo.

3. How does Lock’s arm change the offense?

It may take some time to really discern if Lock’s ability to drive the ball will make a difference for the offense. In a pie in the sky scenario, he brings the mobility and ability to throw on the move Allen did while being able to deliver the ball to play-makers with the same kind of velocity Joe Flacco could.

If Lock can do both these things while also learning to diagnose the entirety of the field, Scangarello’s offense could surprise a few teams. The trio of Noah Fant, Courtland Sutton, and Tim Patrick all bring the kind of athleticism to stress opposing defenses vertically. They just need someone to give them chances. If Lock can do that, it’ll only help the ground game. Next thing you know, Denver’s putting up points.

Lock finds fellow rookie Austin Fort for a big gain when Seattle didn’t respect the tight end’s speed. Just imagine what Noah Fant could do with this kind of space.

Your Broncos Links

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Looking on the bright side, this loss helps us get a better draft pick. All of us in Broncos Country want so bad for this team to be legitimate, but they aren’t. As we get closer to the end of the season, it becomes easier and easier for me to see the upside of losing games. Hopefully at 3-8, the team is significantly bad enough that we can be okay with starting a rookie QB in order to get him trained up.

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Innate confidence and supreme arm talent can only carry Lock so far, though. The peak of his skill set may be incredible, and even seems reasonably attainable, but he needs to shore up the basics of playing quarterback. More specifically, Lock needs to be more reliable in the quick game. If Lock can not be a consistent thrower within 10 yards, it will be difficult for him to ever provide a high enough floor to warrant betting on his ceiling.

The 2010s: NFL all-decade team – The Athletic

Miller was first on five ballots, but Nguyen left him off entirely, going with Jones first and Khalil Mack second. He preferred their strength against the run and thought that was one area where Miller was notably weaker. Miller leads the league in sacks during the 2010s. “Miller is much more than an edge rusher,” countered Jones, a former Broncos beat reporter. “If we had done three linebacker spots, I would have easily put him as my No. 1 WLB. He is very underrated as a run defender, and he is surprisingly effective in coverage as well, something many of his edge peers struggle with.”

The 2010s: NFL scheme trends over the last decade – The Athletic

NFL defenses have to started to play more quarters coverage, which was the college response to spread before the Tite front. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio does a great job of disguising his quarters coverage with cover 3 buzz that can cause a lot of uncertainty for quarterbacks. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh changed his philosophy from exclusively running Carroll’s single high system to mixing it up with quarters similarly to what Fangio does. With how well the Broncos and 49ers’ defenses are playing, this could be a trend that a bunch of teams adopt in the near future. Cover 4 and cover 3 buzz aren’t new or innovative but the way that Fangio and Saleh tinkered with them has made them tough for offenses to deal with.

The 2010s: The best and worst NFL first-round draft picks of the decade – The Athletic

Denver Broncos Best first-round pick: Von Miller (2011, No. 2 overall) With 12 of the first 16 players drafted in the 2011 class making a Pro Bowl, it was a talent-rich group at the top, making it imperative that the Broncos didn’t miss with the No. 2 overall pick. And it is fair to say they didn’t. Miller has been one of the most productive pass rushers of the decade with double-digit sacks in seven of his first eight NFL seasons. Over the last 16 seasons, only two defensive players have been named Super Bowl MVP and Miller is one of them, recording 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in Super Bowl 50.

Worst first-round pick: Paxton Lynch (2016, No. 26 overall) In his four seasons in Denver, Peyton Manning helped guide the Broncos to two Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl 50 in February 2016 and riding off into the sunset. Just over two months later, John Elway saw the chance to draft a franchise quarterback for the Broncos, trading up in the first round to land Lynch. However, the Memphis product wasn’t ready for what was required to be an NFL quarterback and played in only five games in two seasons in Denver before he was released. If not Lynch, Denver has several other worthy candidates with OT Garrett Bolles (2017, No. 20 overall) and EDGE Shane Ray (2015, No. 23 overall).

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