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The case for and against Drew Lock as the Broncos starting QB in 2021

Joe Rowles argues for, Joe Mahoney argues against

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Denver Broncos v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

This will be a debate framed with data and film review. As such, let’s start with the data. Joe Mahoney compiled this from stathead.com. The data looks at the 57 quarterbacks who have made at least 48 regular season starts at QB this century and breaks them down by blocks of 16 starts. It then analyzes how much change they made in three key stats from their first 16 starts to their second 16 starts and then from their second 16 to their third 16. The three stats of highest interest are passer rating (PR), completion percentage and TD:INT ratio. Data was also collected on sacks taken for those who want to compare the offensive lines behind which these QBs played. Note that Patrick Mahomes is not in this set of 57 because he has not made 48 regular season starts yet. He would break this chart though. He has 46 regular season starts right now. Josh Allen is also not on this chart, he only has 43 regular season starts.

So below is a chart showing the change in passer rating for all 57. Note that there are not names shown on this - by design - we just want you to see the general trends. All of the data can be found in the spreadsheet linked below.

Mahomes had a PR of 111.8 in his first 16, 106.6 in his second 16 and 107.4 in his last 14. There are some QB this century who have started well in their first 16, only to fade terribly in their second 16 - Chad Pennington and Ben Roethlisberger are examples of this. While there are others who were terrible in their first 16 and then improved dramatically in their second 16 - Kyle Orton, Kirk Cousins, David Carr, Carson Wentz, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jared Goff are all examples of this. Of course there are many more examples of guys who basically started in the middle and gradually improved in their second and then in their third block of 16 starts.

Reference: spreadsheet link

If you run the averages among these 57 QBs, the average QB improves 3.3% in passer rating, 2.7% in completion percentage and actually gets worse by 7.7% in TD:INT ratio. These are relative percentage changes, not absolute. In other words, Drew Lock, who had a passer rating of 79.8 in his first 16 starts, would expect to improve that to a passer rating of 82.4 which is a 3.3% improvement. His completion percentage would improve to 61.3% and his TD:INT ratio would decline to 1.2 from 1.3.

If Lock starts 16 games next season for us and puts up those numbers, he will still be one of the worst starting QBs in the league. So Lock needs to improve more than the average in order to become an average NFL QB in this second block of 16 starts. Lock has started 18 games for Denver at QB at this point in his career.

Block Comp % Passer Rating TD/INT
first 16 starts 59.2 81.4 1.55
second 16 starts 61.0 85.0 1.78
third 16 starts 61.5 86.4 1.84

Also keep in mind that there are fifty other QBs who made 16 starts this century, but either haven’t made it to 48 starts yet, or never will.

The average NFL QB had a passer rating of 93.6, completed 65.2% of his passes and had a 2.2 TD:INT ratio in 2020. Honestly if Lock makes that kind of jump, the jump to average, in his third year in the league and in his second block of 16 starts, we’ll all be ecstatic. So now on to the debate. The CON side will lead off.

Why Drew Lock should not be the starting QB for the Broncos in 2021 - Joe Mahoney

For the first time in franchise history the Denver Broncos had the worst QB play in the league in 2020.

In fact, the closest that the Broncos have gotten to average QB play since the 2014 season was in 2016 when we finished the season as the 21st ranked team in passer rating. Over the past six seasons that Broncos have an average rank of 27.5 in passer rating.

Drew Lock did not finish the season as the worst starting QB in the league, but he was close to it. The play of Jeff Driskell and Brett Rypien actually dragged the Broncos into last as a team, but the Eagles were close (72.5 for Denver, 72.9 for Philly)

Without an unprecedented jump in QB performance from Drew Lock, we won’t get to average (16th rank) in passer rating in 2021. Joe Rowles is going to tell you about the guys who made jumps that would get us to average in 2021 and how Josh Allen made a huge jump from his second block to his third block, but I don’t care. I want to the Broncos to be relevant again in 2021 and they will not be with Drew Lock as the starting QB. Honestly, starting Drew Lock in 2021 is playing for 2022.

But he can improve, you say? Sure, it just won’t be enough, and even if he does, he is not going to make a jump like Josh Allen did. That’s a fantasy. The only players to make that kind of a quantum leap in their 3rd block of 16 starts are Josh Allen and Drew Brees. Josh Allen went from a PR of 70.8 in his first 16 to a PR of 99.4 in his second 16. For Brees that was 75.6 in his second block to 102.5 in his third block of 16. Those 40% improvements in PR at the NFL level happen about once every 20 years. FWIW Josh Allen has a PR of 104.3 in the first 11 games of his third block of 16 starts. If he maintains that into next season, he will be 4th among the then 59 QBs, behind Mahomes (107.4), Rivers (105.5) and Watson (104.6), for PR in the 3rd block of 16 starts in their career.

Even if Lock does improve his decision making, which he appeared to be doing in the last few games this season, he still is the worst QB in the league at getting the ball where he wants the ball. His on-target percentage (percentage of his throws that went to the spot where they should have gone) was the worst among starting QBs in 2020.

Only two QBs finished below 70%, Lock and Dwayne Haskins. For QBs with “arm talent”, accuracy is tied to footwork. Lock needs to correct his footwork or his accuracy is always going to be sporadic. While footwork can be corrected at the NFL, it is rare. Donovan McNabb was able to correct his footwork. Tim Tebow and a host of other QBs never were.

The case for Drew Lock - Joe Rowles

During the pre-draft process in 2019, Lock was considered the second or third QB in most circles because of his arm talent. This remains a strength of his and opens up route combinations some teams can only dream of. On top of the physical ability to make the throws, Lock is the kind of passer who routinely hunts for big plays. Look no further than Pro Football Focus, who credit Lock with the seventh-highest rate of big time throws in the league in 2020. It’s also a big reason he’s so often compared to Josh Allen and Jay Cutler.

I want to say that I do ardently believe Josh Allen is a misleading comparison for Drew Lock because he’s such an outlier in terms of development across his time in the NFL. Fortunately, he isn’t the only quarterback who was atypical in their jump from the first 16 starts to the second. While it’s true that the average quarterback in our sample only improved 3.3% in passer rating, and 2.7% in completion percentage while seeing their TD:INT ratio fall 7.7% there are notable exceptions. In fact, there are 16 quarterbacks in our sample who saw their passer rating increase by 15% or more from their first full season at the helm through their second:

  • Andrew Luck
  • Blake Bortles
  • Byron Leftwich
  • Carson Wentz
  • David Carr
  • David Garrard
  • Derek Carr
  • Jared Goff
  • Josh Freeman
  • Kirk Cousins
  • Kyle Orton
  • Mark Sanchez
  • Matt Hasselbeck
  • Matt Schaub
  • Matthew Stafford
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick

If Lock can make a similar jump, his second 16 passer rating will reach 91.77. While passer rating itself is not a perfect stat, it is illustrative of growth across other areas. 12 of the 16 quarterbacks above also saw their TD:INT ratio improve by 50% or more: Luck, Bortles, Leftwich, Wentz, Garrard, Freeman, Cousins, Orton, Sanchez, Schaub, and Fitzpatrick. In addition, Marcus Mariota did not see his passer rating jump by 15% even though his TD:INT ratio did improve by 50%. If Lock sees his own TD:INT ratio follow a similar jump, he’d be looking at 1.969. Both numbers are still below the 2020 league average, but far more palatable.

Of course, any argument that Lock will dramatically improve over the average quarterbacks above in his second set of 16 starts begins and ends with the progress he showed over the back end of the season. During the early part of 2020, Lock displayed issues with his eye manipulation, ball placement, footwork, and general accuracy. He also had notable issues with pre and post-snap reads, which led to throws that put his receivers into harms way as well as baffling misses. Tim Jenkins pointed out in his recent breakdown of Lock where there are encouraging signs of growth in these areas over the back end of his season. So it isn’t a question if Lock is showing signs of growth so much as “is he growing enough to remain the starting quarterback?”

We won’t know the true answer to that question unless he remains the starter and plays 14 more games in 2021. However, thanks to Lock’s five starts and a rookie, it is worth noting that Lock has already begun his second 16 starts. In his week 16 and 17 games against the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders, Lock completed 55.68% of his passes. Even if you go so far as to give him back the five misses that were a result of Jerry Jeudy drops, he’d be at 61.3%. He threw two touchdowns and two interceptions, and his passer rating was 75.1. These numbers do not point to the kind of statistical growth Lock will need to achieve to become more than a bottom tier passer in the NFL.

All of this leads me back to something both obvious and impossible to account for: The 2020 season is going to go down as the strangest in NFL history. Thanks to Covid-19, no team in the NFL had a normal offseason. There weren’t OTAs or a real preseason, and there was less practice time throughout as teams had to balance the health and safety of their players with a need to prepare for the upcoming opponent. I can’t ignore that these issues did not stop Justin Herbert from breaking numerous rookie passing marks, or Kyle Murray from pushing for a playoff bet.

However, the Broncos offense was easily the youngest in the NFL, their 5,556 snaps by first or second year players were almost 900 more than any other team in the NFL. On top of that, they lost Courtland Sutton and his absence can’t be overstated. Not only was he the Broncos’ best receiver, but his skillset perfectly complimented the strengths of Lock’s game. Without him, Lock wasn’t able to fully maximize his arm talent and rely as heavily on the kind of 50-50 balls Sutton routinely made into 75-25 type of situations in 2019. Football isn’t a game played in isolation, and losing Sutton on top of limited practice led to a waterfall effect on every member of the offense. As such, there is some reason to believe all the hurdles Covid-19 created became larger obstacles for Pat Shurmur, Drew Lock, and the Denver offense.

NFL teams rarely operate on that level of faith, however. As a second round pick, Lock will enter 2021 with a very low cap number. He’s cheap enough to become a valuable QB1 for the next two years or a bargain QB2, which makes it necessary to explore alternatives to properly understand the arguments for and against him.

The veteran free agent options:

Some of these are going to be really expensive relative to Drew Lock, who will have a cap number of $1.9 million for 2021. That is significantly less than the highest paid backup got in 2020. There were ten NFL QBs who made 30 million or more in 2020. Bringing in an established elite veteran would likely cost at least 30 million dollars, but there are only two “elite” veterans out there - Philip Rivers and Dak Prescott. FWIW both QBs were above average, but not elite in 2020. Then there are some other options as far as veteran free agents that would be cheaper, but who are highest risk in terms of improvement in QB play over what I think Lock will do in 2021. This includes the likes of Cam Newton, Jacoby Brissett, Mitch Trubisky, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston. All of those guys would be much cheaper than Rivers or Prescott, but they are much less “safe” and many of them were only marginally better than Lock in 2020 if they played at all.

The difference between Rivers and Prescott is that Rivers is a short-term option while Prescott could be a long-term solution. This makes the long term commitment as well as Prescott’s injury history factors to consider.

The veteran trade options:

Along with the guys in the paragraph above there are a number of veterans than could potentially become available in a trade since their teams appear to be moving on from them. This includes Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford, Sam Darnold, Gardner Minshew and a few others. Both Wentz and Stafford would be expensive and would cost the Broncos draft capital (most likely) and at least 20 million a year (and that’s with the Eagles or the Lions eating some of their contracts like the Broncos did with Joe Flacco in 2019). Darnold and Minshew would both still be on their rookie contracts so they would be only a little more expensive in terms of salary than Lock.

The issue is that none of these options is “safe”. Wentz and Darnold were two of the starting QBs who actually played worse than Lock in 2020. There is no guarantee that either bounces back to “average” in 2021 or beyond when given a chance to start again. Stafford and Minshew would both be significant upgrades over Lock if they performed in 2021 as they did in 2020, but Stafford has a cap number of 33 million for the Lions next season and 19 of that would be dead money if he doesn’t play for them in 2020 (he would give them 20 million in cap savings if he is traded after June 1 and that dead money hit goes down to 13 million for 2021 for them with a trade after June 1).

Like Lock, each carries injury concerns. Stafford’s early career is littered with shoulder injuries and he missed almost half of the 2019 season because of an injury to his back. Minshew suffered multiple injuries to his throwing hand and did not immediately disclose them to the Jaguars’ coaching staff. Wentz has missed significant time dating back to his career at North Dakota State. Darnold got knocked out of two games this past season because of an AC joint injury and has never played a full 16 game schedule.

The rookie options:

This is the scariest option since two (probably) or three (possibly) QBs may be off the board at 9 when the Broncos pick. It would be a shock if the Jacksonville Jaguars do not select Trevor Lawrence first overall. Right now Justin Fields appears to lead the field for QB2 in the 2021 class. Barring a trade up, it appears he will not be available.

Right now the third best QB option is arguably Zach Wilson. Zach Wilson could be the next Justin Herbert or Patrick Mahomes, but he could also be the next Mitch Trubisky or Blake Bortles or Josh Rosen. So let’s focus on the positive and assume he could jump into the starting role in game 1 and play significantly better than Drew Lock in 2021 (assuming Lock only makes the average improvement relative to the 57 other QBs). Some highly drafted rookies excel in their rookie season while others fail terribly. Herbert is fresh in our minds, but he was exceptional as a rookie.

There have been 22 QBs drafted in the top 10 over the past 10 drafts. Only Herbert, Mayfield, Marcus Mariota and Robert Griffin had PRs over 90 as rookies. Mahomes only started one game. Technically Jake Locker did too, but he didn’t start a single game and only threw 66 passes as a rookie. So the Broncos would have to be lucky to draft a QB who could come in and play league average, but remember, Lock was significantly below league average last season. Average QB in Denver, is something we haven’t really seen since 2014.

Keep in mind that neither of us have studied Wilson just yet, though there are plenty of reasons to like him. From afar, he looks like a “one-year-wonder.” Before 2020, he was not considered a first round quarterback in most circles. While he started 28 games at QB for the BYU Cougars, he really didn’t turn into a great QB until this past season when he threw 33 TD passes and only 3 INTs while rushing for another 10 TDs. He also completed 73.5 percent of his passes. Both of those stats are crazy good, but there’s a catch, he played fairly weak competition at BYU. He did not play a single game against a team that finished the season ranked in the top 25. This same argument was leveled against Wentz (who played at the FCS level) and he turned into (at least until 2020) a good/great NFL QB. Mitch Trubisky is another QB that only had one good season at the college level although with Trubisky it was his only year as a starter. Wilson was the starter for the Cougars in 2018, 2019 and 2020, but injuries kept him from playing a full seasons in 2018 and 2019. His history of shoulder injuries could scare plenty of NFL franchises that are in need of a QB.

The other likely alternative is Trey Lance, who is straight out of the Carson Wentz mold. Of course that is because they both played at North Dakota State and are both bigger QBs with cannon arms. Lance does not have the same level of playing experience that Wentz had, as he is even more of a one-year-wonder than Wilson (Lance only has one full year as the starter for NDSU). Lance combines the small-school ding that followed Wentz with the one-year ding that followed Trubisky. I still could see a team, like the Broncos, falling in love with his talent and taking him in the top 10. Lances stats against FCS competition are crazy good (28 passing TDs, 0 INTs, 14 Rushing TDs last season).

You have to be leery of college QBs who didn’t play very much in college. Since the 2006 NFL draft seven quarterbacks have been taken in the first round with fewer than 20 college starts: Mitchell Trubisky (13), Cam Newton (14), Dwayne Haskins (14), Mark Sanchez (16), Kyler Murray (17) and Ryan Tannehill (19).

The summation of the arguments against Lock in 2021:

  1. Lock will most likely not improve enough to get the Broncos into the playoffs in 2021. Yes, we want a playoff appearance in 2021. As Bronco fans, we should accept nothing less.
  2. The odds of Lock ever becoming an elite QB are extremely poor given his finish near the bottom of the league among starters in 2020. It’s time to move on and get someone who might become elite or was once elite and could be again.
  3. While Lock has shown improvement in his eye-manipulation of defenders, his footwork, his post-snap reads, his accuracy and his decision-making, he still is not at the same level that Justin Herbert was coming out of college. He also might not even be at the same level as Zach Wilson or Trey Lance.
  4. There are relatively low-cost options (Minshew and maybe Trubisky), who would be instant upgrades over Lock.
  5. Drafting a QB at 9 gives the Broncos a chance to find the our own Justin Herbert (who was taken with the 6th overall pick), Patrick Mahomes (who was taken with the 10th overall pick - after the Chiefs traded up to get him) or Dak Prescott (who was taken 135th overall).
  6. Sticking with Lock means we are becoming the Raiders. Derek Carr was taken in the 2nd round (36th overall) like Lock and he has progressed to become a decent starter gradually improving every year to the point where he was arguably elite in 2020. However, he has led the Faiders to a winning record exactly once in his seven years as a starter. I fear that this will be the Broncos if we continue with Lock as our starting QB. Lock will become good enough to get us close to the playoffs each year.
  7. The Broncos had one of the most injury ravaged rosters in the NFL in 2020 and did not fall to the top of the 2021 draft. There is little reason to believe they will have a better chance in 2022 as they’re probably going to be healthier this upcoming season. Locking in now could prevent them from chasing a rookie passer for the foreseeable future.

The summation of the arguments for Lock in 2021:

  1. Lock showed signs of improvement over the course of his first 16 starts. Perhaps a normal offseason could lead him to an atypical leap in his progress.
  2. Covid-19 dramatically impacted Lock and the young offense, which led to issues that players like Justin Herbert did not experience.
  3. Courtland Sutton played a total of 31 snaps in 2020, which left Lock and the offense scrambling to adjust to life without their one proven Pro Bowl receiver. This forced rookies into larger roles than they were ready to thrive in.
  4. Lock’s contract over the next two seasons creates an enviable cap situation and allows the Broncos to add to and maintain the rest of the roster. The Broncos currently have an aging defense that will need to be rebuilt sooner rather than later.
  5. Replacing Lock won’t be cheap. It will cost draft capital or cap space to improve on him.

Poll

If it were up to you, what would you do with the Broncos QB situation?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Stick with status quo - Lock and Rypien are both cheap and Lock will improve.
    (424 votes)
  • 19%
    Bring in veteran "reclamation project" to compete with Lock (e.g. Jacoby Brissett)
    (238 votes)
  • 8%
    Trade for a veteran QB
    (106 votes)
  • 3%
    Sign high-priced veteran QB (Prescott or Rivers)
    (45 votes)
  • 10%
    trade up to get Fields in the draft
    (131 votes)
  • 20%
    draft Either Lance or Wilson if either is there at 9
    (261 votes)
  • 3%
    something else - mention in comments
    (40 votes)
1245 votes total Vote Now