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In Defense of Drew Lock

Drew Lock was poised for a breakout until COVID and injuries derailed 2020. @StompBearPig thinks Lock is a post-hype sleeper in 2021.

Before last season started, I was working on an article explaining why Denver Broncos’ second-year starting quarterback, Drew Lock, would be a top-10 fantasy QB in 2020. You see, I thought myself a wunderkind, a QB “guru” of sorts, in the likes of the Late Round QB himself, J.J. Zachariason, or a Mark Schofield. I thought I had built a reputation picking out second-year QB breakouts; I wrote about Patrick Mahomes being a top-five fantasy QB before his MVP season, Lamar Jackson the season after. Then 2020 Drew Lock happened.

The thing I forgot was that fantasy football is hard to predict. I have a saying that fantasy football is “25% skill and 75% luck.” After all, many fantasy football analytics guys will tell you, the closest correlation we have from college numbers to NFL success is only correlate 30-35%. I allowed my hubris to take over, thinking I can beat the “system.” I had wings made up of my Mahomes and Lamar predictions, and, like Icarus, I flew too close to the proverbial QB “sun.””

However, I am not taking this loss lying down. I will die on this hill. Drew Lock can be a top-10 fantasy QB. Below, I explain what went wrong in 2020 and what will go right in 2021. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce top-12 fantasy QB, DREW LOCK!

2019

Credit: denverpost.com

First and foremost, I should probably explain why I liked Lock in 2020. Lock’s rookies season in 2019 was derailed from the start, suffering a sprained thumb on his throwing hand in the Broncos’ third preseason game. In an abundance of caution and need of a roster spot, Lock was designated to return from IR during the Broncos’ bye week in Week 10. He took over as the starter in Week 13, starting the final five games of the season.

Lock ended the season with a 4-1 record with a completion percentage of 64.1%, 1020 yards, 7 TDs, and 3 INTs. But, as many are well aware, those numbers do not tell the whole story. Lock had his ups and downs in those five games. He had a 300 yard, 3 TD game in which he completed 81% of his passes against the Houston Texans. He also had a 208 yard, 0 TD, 1 INT game in which he only completed 45% of his passes. In those five games, Lock only surpassed 200 yards twice. Some of that is not entirely his fault, but we will get into that.

Drew Lock: The Prospect

Credit: kshb.com

While the numbers were fine, there were other promising signs for Broncos fans in 2019, particularly with Lock’s advances in how he plays the game. Most of Lock’s success through college came from his arm talent. Some even compared Lock to Patrick Mahomes. While maybe superficially true because of their arm strength, it is not a good nor fair comparison. The revered (at least by me) Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) gives a good analogy to the comparison in his 2019 Rookie Scouting Portfolio (RSP) Waldman wrote “If quarterbacks were saxophonists, Drew Lock would be Kenny G(orelick) and Patrick Mahomes would be James Carter… Kenny G is a pop musician with R&B influences whose music lacks the same adventurous quality and complexity as Carter…” Basically, Mahomes could and can do so many things that Lock did not show coming out of college.

Lock’s biggest issue in college was that he relied too heavily on that talent. Do not get me wrong. Arm talent can play a huge factor in a QBs success, especially early on. It allows Lock to make basically every throw on the field, especially outside the hashes. Lock’s confidence in his arm makes him more aggressive and unafraid to make difficult throws, which can be a good and a bad thing overall but is a good thing early in his career. Lock can hide lazy or bad footwork, lazy drops, bad reads, bad timing, etc., because of the throws he can naturally make. QB guru, Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield), did a wonderful breakdown on the double-edged sword of arm-talent for Waldman’s RSP, shown below:

What Schofield shows is that Lock’s arm, and facing college-level defenders, was able to overcome bad footwork and slow decision-making. He will not be able to get away with poor decisions and footwork in the NFL.

2019 Improvements

I started this thought by talking about Lock’s improvements as a QB, so let’s look at those improvements. Alex Rollins (@AlexRollinsNFL) of Niners Nation broke down the film on Lock’s rookie season, finding both plays where Lock flashed and showed improvements and others where Lock showed that he needs to improve. There were two major themes that Rollins focused on: first, his mobility, and second, his reads. Find the full breakdown below.

Lock’s mobility is a blessing and a curse. His ability to move around and avoid pressure allowed him to tie for the league lead in sack % with Drew Brees. Joe Flacco, Lock’s predecessor, faced the same rate of pressure. However, Flacco was sacked 9% of the time versus Lock’s 3.1%, according to Rollins. He was also sacked at the lowest rate when facing pressure. However, Rollins also found that this mobility can result in Lock drifting in the pocket, particularly to the left, creating undue pressure, missed opportunities, and poor footwork.

Lock improved the most with his footwork over his first five games. Rollins found that through Lock’s first two and a half games, he would drift to the left a significant amount of plays. A switch was flipped at half-time of Lock’s third game in Kansas City, and instead of drifting, he was stepping up in the pocket and setting his feet. As was mentioned above, Lock’s footwork left something to be desired in college. It seems, however, that there was a vast improvement through his first few starts in the NFL.

The second thing that Rollins keyed in on his Lock’s ability to make pre-snap reads. In particular, two touchdown passes in his first two games. Lock has shown the ability to recognize pressure as well as simple coverages, making the right throws at the right time. The two touchdowns mentioned were tight-window throws that Lock read either pressure or the correct coverage and made a well-timed throw with the proper touch, resulting in two fantastic touchdowns to Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant.

Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) of The Athletic found that Lock has good anticipation of throwing windows, especially on crossing routes. This seems to be an improvement on his college tape because, if you remember from above, Mark Schofield found that Lock’s timing can be off.

The vaunted Greg Cosell (@gregcosell) of NFL Films and Fantasy Points saw several promising aspects to Lock’s game. First, he saw some Matthew Stafford in Lock, which is a comparison not to be taken lightly. Lock’s poise and composure as a rookie were also positive points for Cosell, especially on third down. Cosell also found that Lock’s vision, especially moving out of pocket, was good, and his ability to progress through reads and execute route concepts as a rookie was a plus.

Zac Shomler (@zacshomler) found that Lock was a good decision-maker as well. The decision-making is especially promising because Lock tended to play “hero ball” at Missouri, resulting in plenty of mistakes. Shomler’s breakdown can be found below.

The major detraction most, if not all, analysts found Lock’s tendency to drift to the left. This can result in creating undue pressure where stepping up in the pocket would have avoided said pressure, as well as sloppy footwork and a bad throwing base. This is the major improvement that Lock needs to make in 2020 to make the next step in being considered the Broncos’ next franchise QB. and to be able to break into the top-10 fantasy QBs next season.

2019 Fantasy Season

One of the major excuses that Lock’s detractors will use is that he was not good for fantasy football. And that is fair. Lock only produced 16.04 fantasy points per game, ranking 31st among QBs, according to RotoViz’s Fantasy Points Summary. He also only produced one game of over 20 fantasy points in his five games as a starter last season.

However, much of the blame does not lie with Lock. First, on the season, the Broncos threw the ball 57% of the time, ranking 24th in the league, per Sharp Football Stats. Lock only attempted 156 passes in his five games as a starter. This averages out to the sixth-fewest attempts per game in the league. The Broncos as a team also only averaged 6.7 yards per attempt (YPA), with Lock only averaging 6.5 YPA. These two data points point to the Broncos trying to protect their rookie QB.

2021

Now we skip forward to 2021. The list of reasons I like Lock in 2021 largely remains the same as it was in 2020. The Broncos made several moves in the offseason before 2020 to help Lock achieve success. In a division with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos offseason moves seem to indicate that they want to keep up with the Chiefs offense. Which is a good indicator that Lock will have a prime opportunity to take a huge step forward in his career, both as an NFL QB and fantasy QB.

Pat Shurmur and Mike Shula

The Broncos were near the bottom of the league in passing attempts and pass-to-run ratio. Having to play the reigning champion Chiefs twice a season, the Broncos looked to become more aggressive offensively. The first step was to let Rich Scangarello go as offensive coordinator. The Broncos then former New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur as the OC. Shurmur brought former Giants OC Mike Shula with him as QBs coach.

First, let’s look at Shurmur’s coaching history. He has been an offensive coordinator or head coach since 2009, starting with the then St. Louis Rams and going to the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, and New York Giants. According to Pro Football Reference, Shurmur’s QBs have attempted 508 or more passes in every season since 2009, over 550 attempts in all but two seasons, and over 600 attempts three times. His offenses have also ranked inside the top-10 in passing attempts in four of the last six.

Shurmur’s offensive scheme/philosophy seems to have changed after being fired as the Cleveland Browns head coach. As the OC of the Rams and HC of the Browns, the QB YPA of those four seasons were 5.5, 6.0, 5.8, and 6.5, respectively. With the Eagles, Vikings, and Giants, the YPAs were 8.7, 7.4, 7.0, 7.0, 7.5, 7.6, and 6.7, respectively. Several factors could have led to this more aggressive, downfield approach, from the evolution of offenses in the NFL to being mentored by Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. Regardless, Shurmur’s offenses have become more aggressive and vertical, which plays to Lock’s strengths.

The QBs that Shurmur has coached over the 2009-2019 time frame are Marc Bulger (end of career), Kyle Boller, Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Nick Foles, Michael Vick, Mark Sanchez, Case Keenum, Eli Manning (end of career), and Daniel Jones. Not the most inspiring group. One can argue that Lock is the most talented QB that Shurmur will have worked with from a raw and arm talent standpoint.

A coach in the NFL since 1988, Mike Shula has been an OC and QBs coach since 1996 with a short stint in college. Since coming back to the NFL in 2007 as an OC and QBs coach, Shula has mentored David Garrard, Cam Newton (including his MVP season in 2015), and Daniel Jones. A fairly impressive resume. But, much like Shurmur, Lock may be the most talented PASSER that Shula will have ever worked with.

Offensive Line

While Lock’s mobility is a desirable trait in QBs, teams would prefer if pocket passers like Lock did not have to move much off their platforms. The Denver Broncos allowed 41 sacks last season, and the eighth-highest adjust sack rate according to Football Outsiders.

Injuries did not help. Newly-signed, starting right Tackle Ja’Wuan James sustained a knee injury in Week 1. He only played in three games all season. On top of that, starting right guard, Ronald Leary missed the final four games of the season with a concussion. James’ replacement, Elijah Wilkinson, ranked 59th among offensive tackles according to PFF and 80th (!) in pass blocking. Unfortunately, James chose to opt-out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, so Wilkinson once again was asked to anchor the RT position.

The Broncos did bolster the offensive line in free agency and the draft. First, they signed former Detroit Lion, Graham Glasgow, to start at right guard after declining Ronald Leary’s 2020 option. While Leary was a fantastic guard in his first season with the Broncos, his play has declined in each of the past three seasons. He finished 2019 74th among guards. Glasgow played right guard for the Detroit Lions in 2017 and 2019, ranking tied for 28th and 11th overall among offensive guards. He also played center in 2018, ranking 17th overall. So not only his Glasgow and upgrade at RG, but he is also versatile.

Credit: 9news.com

Finally, the Broncos made some very deft picks in the 2020 draft to improve the offensive line. The Broncos’ first third-round pick was Lloyd Cushenberry (a projected second-round pick), out of LSU. Cushenberrry anchored the Joe Moore award-winning (best O-Line in CFB). Cushenberry has the leadership, intangibles, and skillset to mitigate the loss of McGovern.

The Broncos also selected Netane Muti, an offensive guard from Fresno State, in the sixth-round. Muti is powerful, especially in run blocking, but has an injury history and has some deficiencies that he needs to work on. Despite that, Muti ranked as PFF’s top interior offensive lineman in the draft. Muti probably does not start in year one, but he gives the Broncos depth.

Unfortunately, these moves did not pan out in their first season as Wilkinson ranked 117th at tackle according to PFF, and the rookie Cushenberry ranked dead last among qualified Centers. On a positive note, James should be back and healthy in 2021. Also, the Broncos extended left tackle Garrett Bolles. He had the best season of his career and ranked third overall among tackles by PFF. With the return of the young guys as well as the vets, the outlook for the Broncos line in 2021 is looking up.

Offensive Weapons

Credit: milehighreport.com

The biggest reason to be excited about Lock and the Broncos’ offense was their additions at the offensive skill positions. Paired with the hiring of Shurmer, the Broncos’ additions to their receiving corps indicate they want to be more aggressive to keep up with the Chiefs. With their first two picks, the Broncos drafted Jerry Jeudy from Alabama and KJ Hamler from Penn State. They joined the Broncos WR1, Courtland Sutton, who broke out in 2019 with 72 receptions for 1,112 yards and 6 TDs.

In Jeudy and Hamler, the Broncos added speed. Jeudy ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Jeudy was extremely productive in college, catching 145 targets for 2,478 yards and 24 TDs in his final two seasons. His breakout age is in the 82nd percentile, and college career yards per reception is in the 81st percentile. Jeudy was also considered by many to be the best route runner and arguably the overall best in the 2020 WR class. Film analysts have been drooling for months about Jeudy’s route running abilities, his ability to start and stop, drop his hips, etc., as is demonstrated by the video below.


Hamler claims he ran a blazing 4.27 before the combine (he did not run at the combine because of a hamstring injury). He should also make an impact in his rookie year because of his speed. Hamler’s speed puts a lot of pressure on safeties, which will help produce 1-on-1s for Sutton and Jeudy. His speed can also change the outlook of a game, including the return game. In 2019, Hamler scored all of his TDs from over 20 yards out. He is a perfect fit for Drew Lock’s arm talent.

The Broncos also drafted Lock’s college teammate, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, to pair with Noah Fant. Albert O., like Fant, is a physical freak of nature. He ran a 4.49 40-yard dash (99th percentile) at 6’6″, 258 lbs. The Broncos do not lack speed or game-breakers.

An additional pass-catching weapon already on the Broncos roster stepped up in 2020, as well. Third-year WR, Tim Patrick, had a breakout year with 51 receptions for 752 yards and 6 TDs. He presents another outside threat for Lock and the Broncos’ passing offense.

What Went Wrong?

Injuries

A lot went wrong for Drew Lock and the Denver Broncos in 2020. It first started with a season-ending ankle injury to superstar OLB Von Miller, right before the season began. In Week 2, Lock injured his shoulder in the first quarter and did not return until Week 6. In that same game, Sutton tore his ACL, ending his season. Running back, Phillip Lindsay also missed multiple games, Hamler missed multiple games, Albert O. was put on IR in Week 9, and Wilkinson was put on the IR for six weeks in the middle of the season.

COVID-19

We can all admit that COVID-19 hit us hard and had a great effect on the NFL season. Many players on all teams missed time with the virus or opted out. The Broncos were no different. As I mentioned above, the Broncos starting right tackle, Ju’Wuan James, opted out of the 2020 season. Starting guard, Glasgow missed three games. The Broncos entire quarterback room missed a game due to COVID protocol violations, resulting in WR Kendall Hinton starting Week 12.

Not only did COVID affect the health of the players, though. With the hiring of a new offensive staff comes a new offensive scheme. COVID, however, limited his exposure to the new offensive scheme. Lock was not able to physically work with Shurmur or Shula, nor his pass-catchers and visa-versa. This especially affects a young QB like Lock, who has to learn an entirely new playbook for the sixth time in seven years, not to mention chemistry with his new pass-catchers.

Conclusion

Drew Lock, the Denver Broncos young starting quarterback, was poised for a breakout in 2020. The Broncos made the moves necessary to help Lock succeed, bringing in a new offensive coordinator, offensive line help, and new pass-catchers with game-breaking speed. However, due to a myriad of reasons, from COVID-19 to on-field injuries, Lock and the Broncos never got off the ground.

The excuses likely stop for Lock in 2021. He gets an entire offseason with Shurmur and the offensive playbook. Star WR, Courtland Sutton, is back and healthy. Elite prospect Jerry Jeudy is entering year 2, the year where most WR breakouts occur. The offensive line should be healthy, better, and the young starters a year older. This is the year that Lock has to “Lock it in,” if you will. And, because of all of these factors, Lock will finish as a QB1 in 2021.

Thank you for reading. You can follow me and receive more insights on Twitter @StompBearPig. Find more dynasty content here. Subscribe and download the podcast. Finally, follow DynastyNerds on all social media platforms: FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube
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