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Breaking down the Broncos’ quarterback room

Can Drew Lock fend off Teddy Bridgewater? Is a trade forthcoming?

After working through every position group on the Broncos, I’m convinced that the prevalent narrative about the roster holds true. Barring another season of catastrophic health luck, there’s talent to compete with every team in the NFL if the quarterback situation doesn’t hold them back.

Which begs the question: why did George Paton build a Super Bowl contender that could so easily be undone by the most important position in sports?

It’s impossible to have this discussion about QB without addressing some uncomfortable truths. No position influences a team’s win and loss record more than a quarterback, and they’re also the most visible member of a football team at any given time. Because of this, there’s a near religious devotion to quarterbacks among most fanbases and Broncos’ Country is no different.

My goal is not to incite an angry mob or sell you snake oil. It’s to provide a clear breakdown of how we got here and where things could go as we enter the 2021 season. This offseason has been the strangest since I started writing about the Broncos because of the looming possibility that another move could be made, however unlikely anyone believes it is.

How did we get here

When George Paton took over as the Broncos’ general manager, it seemed to be a poor omen for the 2020 starter Drew Lock. With Elway receiving a “promotion,” Lock’s biggest supporter was stepping into an elevated role and reportedly giving full control of the roster to his replacement. Elway spending more time at the golf course meant the Broncos would put more effort into shoring up a QB room that ranked among the worst in football.

If that seems harsh, it isn’t meant to. It’s merely a statement of fact. During Lock’s second season in the NFL, he finished:

In addition to the numbers 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 also missed significant time to injury in each of his first two seasons in the NFL.

From his introductory press conference through the post-draft presser, George Paton made it clear the Broncos would chase a franchise quarterback:

“The quarterback is the most important position in sports. If you don’t have stability at quarterback, you’re going to have a hard time sustaining winning. So, very important, but I don’t think the focus should be taken off the defense just because you want a franchise quarterback. I think we all want the franchise quarterback, and that’s the number one goal is trying to draft and develop or acquire any way you can. When I was in Minnesota, I think we went to the playoffs with six different quarterbacks if I’m not mistaken. That’s not ideal, but you can still win if you don’t have the franchise guy. You can still win, but obviously we’re looking.”

Shortly after Paton’s first press conference, Broncos’ Country began to swim through conflicting reports about the new general manager’s pursuit of a franchise quarterback. Throughout the process there seemed to be a notable gap between local and national reports, but I did my best to keep track of it all.

The day before the first round of the NFL Draft, the Broncos agreed to a trade with the Carolina Panthers to acquire Teddy Bridgewater for a sixth round pick. As part of the deal, the Panthers would pay $7 million of his salary while the Broncos would be on the hook for $3 million. He counts for $4,415,500 against the Broncos’ 2021 cap.

The Bridgewater deal led to rampant speculation in Broncos’ Country that Denver may be out on rookie quarterbacks. Multiple sources in the week leading up to the draft told me the Broncos were interested in Trey Lance, who went to the San Francisco 49ers with the third overall pick they acquired in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. With the first pick of Paton’s career as a general manager, he chose cornerback Patrick Surtain II. Both Fields and Jones remained on the board.

By this time, most fans (myself included) were rationalizing that it made sense to slide on a rookie passer if Paton had a forthcoming trade with the Green Bay Packers for disgruntled NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. So far, that deal has not materialized.

When asked about the Broncos’ quarterback room at his post-draft press conference, Paton did not rule out a future acquisition, but expressed confidence in Lock and Bridgewater:

“I’m happy with the room right now. We are going to look at every position. Are there many quarterbacks just hanging out? Not many, if any. We are good to go. We’re happy to open the season with the guys we have now, but we are open to improving everywhere.”

Is Drew Lock vs. Teddy Bridgewater a legitimate competition?

There seems to be creeping doubt in Broncos’ Country, but during OTAs Vic Fangio was asked if Drew Lock was the incumbent. He said the snaps will be split right down the middle until someone runs away with the job.

“That will be day by day. It’s totally 50-50. Maybe I’ll flip a coin to see who takes the absolute first snap of the offseason and training camp. By the end of day, meaning by the end of training camp—before those guys make the decision for us with their play—it’s going to be a 50-50 proposition. Some days, some guy might get more [snaps] than the other. Then it will even out the next day or a few days later. It’s not going to be 50-50 every day, but over the course of this offseason and training camp it will be.”

Expect the ongoing QB competition to be the main focus of every story coming out of Broncos camp until there’s a clear starter.

Who will win the job?

There’s no way around the fact that last year’s Broncos offense was abysmal. Only New York and Washington were worse by DVOA, which accounts for opponents. They also lost Courtland Sutton after 31 snaps, rotated through four right tackles, and started a rookie center. I’m long past pointing fingers for such a tire fire, as no one is blameless.

Barring a massive jump from what Lock showed during the 2020 season, it’s hard to imagine a staff coaching for their jobs willingly roll with him. Outside of Lock’s arm strength, there is little on last year’s tape to suggest he’s a better player than Bridgewater.

Beyond the statistics above is Lock’s film, where he displayed marginal decision-making, anticipation, footwork, and poise. He struggled making the right call pre-snap and too often became lost when defenses changed the look post-snap. He’s always been a see-it-throw-it passer which, combined with his scattershot ball placement, routinely hurt his receivers’ ability to generate yards after the catch.

Over the course of the season, Pat Shurmur stripped out parts of his offense in an attempt to cater to his quarterback. After Lock’s meltdown in Las Vegas when he threw four picks to the Raiders in a 37-12 drubbing, the Broncos’ offensive coordinator all but completely removed empty personnel. Tight ends began to run more sit routes and there was a clear effort to deemphasize horizontal leading routes because Lock failed to take advantage of them.

In order to provide Lock a life raft, Shurmur dialed up play action. During the seven games before the Broncos’ win over the Miami Dolphins, Lock used play action on 19.3% of his attempts, and the number rose to almost 28.6% in the five games after Shurmur’s play change. It was a savvy, albeit overdue decision. When I spoke with Pro Football Focus’ Seth Galina on Cover 2 Broncos, he shared with me that Lock was one of the ten best quarterbacks in football on play action.

To Lock’s credit, he made the most of the help and the Broncos became a more efficient offense over the back half of the 2020 season. His hope as the incumbent in the current quarterback competition is his rapport with Courtland Sutton and familiarity with this current iteration of the Shurmur offense.

Is it enough?

From a historical data standpoint, Drew Lock looks like a lost cause. In January, Mile High Report’s Joe Mahoney was gracious enough to share the data he found looking at the 57 quarterbacks who have made at least 48 regular season starts at QB this century. I was hoping to get an idea as to what we could reasonably expect from Drew Lock over his next 16 starts. It didn’t sound good:

The average QB improved 3.3% in passer rating, 2.7% in completion percentage and saw their TD:INT ratio fall 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.

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 does illustrate 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, however, so the question remains:

Who is the best quarterback on the 2021 roster chasing a Lombardi?

All signs suggest Lock needs to make a substantial jump to pass Teddy Bridgewater, who finished as the 18th ranked quarterback by Football Outsiders’ DYAR stat that measures a player’s value above replacement level at the position.

Any sign pointing to that hope is based around the idea Covid-19’s influence on OTAs and the preseason was more disruptive to Drew Lock than players like Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, and Teddy Bridgewater.

A heat battle between Lock and Bridgewater.
https://rbsdm.com/stats/heat_maps/ — Data: Collected by Ethan Douglas (program originally created by Sarah Mallepalle), sourced from NGS — Code heavily borrowed from: Thomas Mock — Website: Ben Baldwin

New Faces

Teddy Bridgewater

George Paton was the assistant general manager with the Minnesota Vikings when Rick Spielman traded away a second and fourth pick to move back into the first round to draft Teddy Bridgewater in 2014. Paton watched a 22-year-old rookie out of Louisville develop into a Pro Bowler who led the Vikings to become a 11-5 wildcard team before a devastating knee injury almost cost him his leg.

His surgeon Dan Cooper described what it looked like to ESPN’s Ian O’Connor:

“It’s mangled,” Cooper said. “You make the skin incision, and there’s nothing there. It’s almost like a war wound. Everything is blown.”

While Teddy Bridgewater has been in the NFL for seven years, recovering from his leg injury cost him the better part of 2016 and 2017. He threw two passes over the remainder of his career in Minnesota, both coming in a mop-up win over the Bengals late in Pat Shurmur’s run with the Vikings.

Following the 2017 season, Bridgewater signed a one-year, incentive-heavy contract with the New York Jets that only guaranteed a $500,000 signing bonus. He played so well in the preseason that they dealt him and a 2019 sixth-round draft pick to the New Orleans Saints for a 2019 third-round pick.

As you’d expect, Bridgewater didn’t see a lot of action during his first year backing up Drew Brees in the Big Easy. He made one start in the Saints’ season finale when Sean Payton was resting starters, completing 14 of 22 passes for 118 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. The year was enough for the Miami Dolphins to offer him a contract four days before they signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to a two-year contract worth $11 million in free agency.

Rather than start in South Beach, Bridgewater returned to the Saints on a one-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $7.25 million and quickly found his way into the starting lineup when a week two thumb injury to Brees opened the door. After an ho-hum showing in relief against the Seahawks, Bridgewater completed 69.7% of his passes for 1,205 yards, nine touchdowns, and just two interceptions across his five starts. He ranked 9th in Estimated Points Added among all Quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks.

Life-changing money came in 2020 when the Carolina Panthers signed Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million contract. After cutting Cam Newton, they were in need of a new quarterback to escape the race for Trevor Lawrence. Matt Rhule chose a steady hand to help Joe Brady install his first NFL offense.

The two proved to be tank-proof, but the Panthers finished 4-11 in Bridgwater’s 15 starts. When the opportunity arose, Rhule bet on Brady’s ability to save Sam Darnold’s NFL career and the Panthers ate a $17,062,500 in dead cap charge to trade away their former starter.

If Drew Lock’s game is built around his arm strength and propensity to roll right out of structure, Bridgewater’s revolves around distributing on time. He’s a facilitator, a point guard type who at his best gives playmakers the ball with room to operate. It’s something that could unlock Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler in a way Lock never could a season ago.

The veteran is a noticeable upgrade on plays that rely on pre/post-snap looks. His experience with various NFL offenses will help him quickly find his footing in Shurmur’s West Coast system. This should help the coordinator open up his playbook and elevate the Broncos’ dropback passing game, something that should improve every other part of the offense.

Another aspect of Bridgewater’s game that ought not be overlooked is his ability to reset his feet after escaping the pocket. Whenever possible, he works to reconnect his lower and upper body, which creates consistent mechanics and more reliable ball placement than we’ve seen from Lock to date.

Bridgewater doesn’t come without his knocks, of course. His propensity to take the sure thing underneath makes sense, after all Football Outsiders’ Derrik Klassen called him arguably the best shallow thrower in the league now that Philip Rivers is retired. It can work to his detriment, however, when he passes up big plays. This affinity for easy completions isn’t due to an inability to make downfield throws so much as a “death by a thousand papercuts” approach, something Drew Brees made a living off of over the last couple years of his Hall of Fame career.

The other weakness in Bridgewater’s game that could hurt him in the competition with Lock is his arm strength, which is closer to adequate than good. Now, there’s a stark difference between arm strength and what I consider arm talent. Strength being the ability to put mustard on the ball to fit a window between two closing defenders in tight coverage, while talent is the ability to throw from a variety of arm angles accurately.

Could a trade for Aaron Rodgers still happen?

Yes, it could.

Earlier this month, ESPN’s Adam Schefter shared with Pro Football Focus’ Cris Collinsworth that he received a text from a source who said Rodgers is “dug in.” It remains to be seen what that means.

From the Packers’ perspective, they have no reason to trade Rodgers unless there’s no road ahead. Due to the cap ramifications, trading him before June 1st was never a realistic option and now they’re left in a situation where the vast majority of potential suitors would need to adjust their payroll to accommodate Rodgers. It’s widely accepted that any trade for the 37-year-old would lead to a new contract that makes him one of, if not the highest paid quarterback in football. This will hurt a return in a trade.

With the impasse set to linger into training camp, it looks like it will come down to who blinks first. If Rodgers is adamant that he won’t return until changes are made within the Packers’ management, he could sit out the preseason. While a holdout would lead Green Bay to fining him $50,000 per day, those fines can be forgiven after they’re handed out. There’s also a chance that fines are not even a concern for Rodgers if it gets him what he wants.

The pressure is on the front office and coaching staff if Rodgers elects to skip camp, as it will lead to a long shadow over the beginning of the Jordan Love era. Every mistake the first year starter makes will lead to questions about the man he was drafted to replace. It’s a situation that looks untenable from here.

Who will make the final roster?

Unless George Paton makes a late trade, I expect all three of the Broncos’ current quarterbacks to wear orange and blue this year. Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater will compete to be the starting quarterback while Brett Rypien serves as the emergency reserve.

What makes the situation unlike anything I’ve ever covered is how the timeline remains fluid. If Rodgers becomes available for a trade, the Broncos may acquire him at any point before the trade deadline in November. Ultimately, Paton may decide the upside is worth the wait.

Believe it or not, this Broncos roster is chasing a Superbowl.

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