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Who should be the Broncos’ QB1?

Breaking down the remaining quarterback options for the 2021 Denver Broncos.

Vic Fangio is in no hurry to declare a favorite for the Broncos’ starting quarterback. After OTAs on Monday he said it’s too soon to judge before 11 on 11s start. The news occurred amidst the swirl of reports about Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson skipping their team’s OTAs. There’s been rampant speculation both wish to be traded and reports linking both to the Broncos, which means Drew Lock vs. Teddy Bridgewater could turn into Aaron Rodgers and Lock or even Deshaun Watson and Bridgewater.

You get the idea. We have no idea right now.

The uncertainty has led to quite possibly the weirdest offseason I’ve ever kept up with the Broncos. An endless QB search that may have already reached a conclusion.

The longer it’s dragged on, the more thought I’ve given to how each of the four remaining options could impact the Broncos in 2021 and beyond, so I thought it time to write about it. What follows are who I see as the remaining viable candidates for QB1 as well as reasons to root for and against each candidate.

Drew Lock

Reasons for optimism

First and foremost, the 42nd pick of the 2019 NFL Draft combines very good arm talent with natural arm strength that leaves every route in the playbook on the table. Lock is comfortable throwing off platform, which offers promise that he can be a dangerous passer both in and out of structure. These things are basically requirements to succeed in today’s NFL.

When evaluating quarterback play, it’s often difficult to separate reasons from excuses. Such is the case with Drew Lock’s 2020. Even he admitted it wasn’t good enough, but there’s a laundry list of problems beyond he himself that impacted his play:

  1. New offensive coordinator with a scheme Lock was not drafted for.
  2. The way Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the offseason meant no OTAs, a limited training camp, and no preseason. While it’s true this impacted teams around the league, none had anywhere near the number of first and second year players in key roles as the Broncos did. The way 1 and 2 built upon each other is notable, as well.
  3. Four right tackles and a rookie center who struggled for the vast majority of the season.
  4. Courtland Sutton played all of 31 snaps.

While the right tackle situation remains a rather large question, the Broncos retained Pat Shurmur for 2021 and OTAs are underway as I write this. Vic Fangio also sounded extremely optimistic about Sutton’s return to form.

His rehab has been fantastic thus far. He’s had a great attitude. I’ll be surprised if he’s not ready to go sooner than what the timetable might be. He’s had a great offseason and he’s had a great effect in the training room with the other guys that are rehabbing. He’s been infectious in that way. Courtland is a stud, and it won’t be long before he’s out there.

Sutton’s importance to Lock is an underrated part of the equation, similar to how Calvin Johnson helped Matthew Stafford or Randy Moss helped Daunte Culpepper. If he can return to his Pro Bowl form, it would give Lock a go-to weapon who can make iffy decisions look brilliant because he’s so dominant at the catch point: even when Sutton’s covered, he may come down with the ball.

Reasons for pessimism

During Lock’s second season in the NFL, he finished:

In addition to the abysmal production above, only 65.4% of his career attempts have been deemed “on target” by SIS charting. His on target percentage actually declined in 2020 even as the Broncos’ offense utilized horizontal leading throws at a bottom 10 rate. Lock has also missed significant time to injury in each of his first two seasons in the NFL.

Beyond the statistical production, Lock displayed marginal decision making, anticipation, footwork, and poise. He was woefully inconsistent from game to game and struggled when teams changed up looks post-snap or forced him to read the defense on the fly. His issues with footwork and decision making hurt his ball placement and he too often led his receivers into harms’ way. Simply put: he flunked the eye test.

Back in January, Mile High Report’s Joe Mahoney and I looked at every single quarterback to start 16 games since 2000. We did this to try and figure out if a leap from Lock in year three was likely. Past history paints a grim picture, which means the Broncos are really banking on Lock being a historical outlier.

What it’d cost to acquire him

Nothing, he’s on the roster.

Denver Broncos v Carolina Panthers
Can Lock make a historical leap in year 3?
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Teddy Bridgewater

Reasons for optimism

On paper, the Broncos look just about set across the starting lineup if the quarterback can simply play within himself. If Von Miller and the rest of the defense can come back healthy after an injury plagued 2020, an competent passing game could be all it takes to push for a playoff berth.

Enter Teddy Bridgewater.

The 32nd pick combines all of the requisite athletic gifts with very good short to intermediate accuracy. Sports Info Solutions considered 78% of Bridgewater’s passes catchable in 2020, a top ten mark among all QBs with 200 or more attempts. He was on target 73.6% of the time, only four quarterbacks among that same group were better.

If you stop and consider the context around Bridgewater’s seasons as a starting passer, it becomes easier to accept his traditional passing stats. He completed 64.4% of his passes as a rookie and finished with a positive TD:Int ratio. The 2015 Minnesota Vikings’ offense ran through Adrian Peterson, a Hall of Fame caliber back who was miscast in the kind of shotgun heavy offense Bridgewater’s been best in. Last season’s Panthers would have fought the Jacksonville Jaguars for Trevor Lawrence without Bridgewater under center.

Bridgewater’s ability to both deliver a catchable pass could be incredibly valuable to the Broncos’ promising young receiving corps. If Sutton can round back into his Pro Bowl form while Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler make a leap in year two, the Broncos’ pass catchers could rival or even surpass what Bridgewater played with during his stint in New Orleans: across five starts 2019 he completed 69.7% of his passes for 1,205 yards, nine touchdowns, and just two interceptions. He ranked 9th in EPA among all QBs with at least 100 dropbacks.

Reasons for pessimism

Of the four quarterback options in front of George Paton, Bridgewater takes the most off the table as a deep passer. His arm is good and I suspect Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick could help him surprise a few people downfield, but it simply isn’t a natural strength of his.

Outside of New Orleans, Bridgewater’s traditional numbers have never looked more than ordinary: He’s completed 66.3% of his passes for 9,883 yards, 43 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions. It isn’t as if the advanced stats reveal some sort of secret superstar, either: He’s never finished better than 18th in DYAR or QBR. As for Bridgewater’s run with the Saints? In 2019 he ranked 22nd in QBR, behind Jacoby Brissett, Daniel Jones, and Jameis Winston.

I always considered Bridgewater a bit of a “safe” choice at QB, but he actually threw more Adjusted Interceptions than Drew Lock did in 2020, finishing tied for 5th across the NFL. In addition, the 28-year old has only played a full NFL schedule once and missed the better part of two years to a devastating leg injury.

What it’d cost to acquire him

Nothing, he’s on the roster after the Broncos gave up a 6th round pick to acquire him.

Carolina Panthers v Green Bay Packers
Could Bridgewater solve the Broncos’ QB carousel?
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers

Reasons for optimism

The man was the MVP of the NFL last year, I’ll wax poetic about why he could be very good in Denver another time. Do yourself a favor and check out his 49ers’ game. Or the Colts’ game. Or both Bears’ games. You get the idea.

Reasons for pessimism

Before 2020, Rodgers hadn’t finished among the top five quarterbacks in football by DYAR since 2014. Twice he finished below league average over that span. Acquiring him via trade means he’d leave the Matt LaFleur offense for Pat Shurmur’s. While the Broncos’ offensive coordinator is perfectly capable of shifting his system to closer align with what Rodgers is comfortable with, I doubt the Hall of Famer would take over the offense like Peyton Manning did.

Age-related decline is a rather gargantuan risk as Rodgers will turn 38 in December. Tom Brady makes it easy to overlook, but he’s an outlier. According to Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, the Packers were reluctant to renegotiate Rodgers’ contract to essentially “lock” him in as the starter through 2023. They weren’t willing to do anything other than restructure Rodgers’ contract so that it’d guarantee him 2021.

A simple athletic decline isn’t the only risk Father time poses, either. Rodgers suffered a Grade II MCL sprain in 2018 and fractured a clavicle in 2017. His playing style leads to some contact here and there, which makes the reported concussion he suffered in December of 2018 noteworthy. We watched Peyton Manning’s body break down near the end of his run in orange and blue, there’s a very real possibility it’d happen to Rodgers.

If Rodgers seeks new guarantees after a trade, that’d mean locking up a significant part of a limited salary cap to a quarterback who may quickly fall off from what we saw in 2020. This isn’t to say all the things above will necessarily happen, but they are risks that have to be considered.

What it’d cost to acquire him

Assuming the Green Bay Packers decide to part ways, it’s hard to say. The 37-year old was the MVP a season ago. He has a notable injury history as well as a cap number that could impact a potential market. When reports first emerged about Rodgers’ interest in a trade there were three teams that seemed to appeal to him: the San Francisco 49ers, the Las Vegas Raiders, and the Broncos.

Earlier in May, Yahoo’s Charles Robinson spoke with five NFL executives about Aaron Rodgers trade value. One heard the Packers wouldn’t consider anything less than three first round picks. All six believed an eventual trade looked more like two first round picks and change. One area that may impact a potential deal and the eventual deal is Rodgers’ contractual demands. Rodgers does not have a No-Trade clause in his contract.

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Rams v Green Bay Packers
Rodgers completed 70.7% of his passes for 4,299 yards, 48 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in 2020. He rushed for an additional 149 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Deshaun Watson

22 women represented by Tony Buzbee have accused Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct, two of them have made claims of sexual assault. It’s impossible to keep a clear conscious writing about Watson without recognizing how serious these allegations are. It also feels wrong to make any sort of claim about Watson’s presumed innocence or guilt.

Watson’s disposition will not occur before Super Bowl LVI. Watson has not been placed on paid leave by the NFL. As commissioner, Rodger Goodell has the ability to do this pending a resolution to the lawsuits against Watson. The language of the Paid Leave section of the Personal Conduct Policy:

“A player may be placed on paid administrative leave pursuant to the Commissioner Exempt List under either of the following circumstances: First, when a player is formally charged with: (1) a felony offense; or (2) a crime of violence, meaning

“A player may be placed on paid administrative leave pursuant to the Commissioner Exempt List under either of the following circumstances: First, when a player is formally charged with: (1) a felony offense; or (2) a crime of violence, meaningthat he is accused of having used physical force or a weapon to injure or threaten a person or animal, of having engaged in a sexual assault by force or against a person who was incapable of giving consent, or having engaged in other conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety or well-being of another person. The formal charges may be in the form of an indictment by a grand jury, the filing of charges by a prosecutor, or an arraignment in a criminal court.

“Second, when an investigation leads the Commissioner to believe that a player may have violated this Policy by committing any of the conduct identified above, he may act where the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so. This decision will not reflect a finding of guilt or innocence and will not be guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal trial.

“Third, in cases in which a violation relating to a crime of violence is alleged but further investigation is required, the Commissioner may place a player on the Commissioner Exempt List on a limited and temporary basis to permit the league to conduct a preliminary investigation. Based on the results of this investigation, the player may be returned to duty, be placed on the Commissioner Exempt List for a longer period or be subject to discipline.”

Since Watson has not been placed on leave by the NFL at this moment, it does appear as if he’ll be able to play during the 2021 season. The following thoughts are based on the optimistic vs. pessimistic outlook of what he’d provide as a player.

Reasons for optimism

Considering the Texans’ top to bottom dysfunction around him, Watson’s 2020 is one of the best I’ve ever watched. He’s a very good athlete who wins from the pocket. He combines elite arm talent with very good arm strength and wins off platform with ease. He throws a very catchable ball. Watson was the fifth ranked quarterback by DYAR and DVOA in 2020. Since he came into the NFL in 2017 never finished below 14th in DYAR and QBR, and never below 11th in DVOA.

Just 25, modern NFL history suggests Watson hasn’t played his best football yet. Assuming his ability to play going forward, the Broncos would have an elite QB who is 423 days older than Drew Lock and only 26 days older than Courtland Sutton. Acquiring him could make the Broncos a contender for the short and long term.

Reasons for pessimism

Since 2014 Watson’s cracked his right clavicle, fractured a finger, sprained his left LCL, and torn both ACLs. Due to a chest injury during the 2018 season, Watson took a bus instead of an airplane to a game against the Jaguars to avoid dealing with air pressure. He’s only missed one game since his rookie season, but Watson’s tendency to extend plays can lead to extra hits.

What it’d cost to acquire him

The Broncos current ownership situation does make a potential Watson trade murky. I don’t know if George Paton could trade for Watson if he wanted to without some sort of legal resolution to the 22 lawsuits, but thanks to Aaron Wilson, we do know the Broncos remained interested in March. To date Watson has not attended the Houston Texans’ OTAs and still wants to be traded.

It’s worth noting that Watson does have a No-Trade clause in his contract. In March there were reports Watson had a list of teams he would consider a trade to. Last we knew, the Broncos were on it.

The lawsuits and whether the NFL will allow him to play without a legal resolution makes it hard to predict what any team would be willing to part with to acquire Watson. It looked like Watson would be dealt for three first round picks, multiple second round picks, and core players before the allegations began. I doubt any team would be willing to part with that king’s ransom right now.

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts
Watson completed 70.2% of his passes for 4,823 yards, 33 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in 2020. He rushed for 444 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

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