DENVER — For the first time in his young career, Drew Lock is facing criticism and questions about whether he can cement his status as a franchise quarterback.
The second-year pro ranks last in the NFL with a 56.5% completion percentage. He has shown a tendency to leave the pocket, drifting right with waning results. Wednesday, ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who entered the season bullish on Lock, expressed concern with Lock's play this season.
"Future unknown," Orlovsky tweeted when asked by ESPN's Ryan Clark if Lock was the Broncos' quarterback back of the future. "(Lock) has very poor pocket feel too many times -- doesn’t see coverage change pre-snap to post-snap -- won’t get off #1 (target) too often. But (he) has a ton of upside stuff with talent and showed in (the) Chargers game some great eyes late."
That serves as a SparkNotes summary of Lock's season. He is athletic, authentic, confident and inspires teammates with the way he competes. However, in his first full season as a starter, Lock has not experienced linear growth. In fact, statistically he has regressed in Pat Shurmur's offense.
It is why the last eight games of this season have taken on added significance.
The Broncos began the year committed to Lock after his 4-1 cameo last season. He is 2-4 this year, but boasts qualities that suggest he can remain The Man, but not without improvement.
The Broncos must use the next two months to figure out whether Lock is good enough to make Denver an annual contender. It is a challenge made sobering with the AFC West boasting Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr and breathtaking rookie Justin Herbert.
Lock walked into a difficult spot this season. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Broncos' OTAs were shuttered and preseason games were nixed, not ideal for a team introducing a new offense. Defined by youth at most positions, the players needed those reps in coordinator Pat Shurmur's attack, and it didn't help when top receiver Courtland Sutton suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game. Still, other teams are dealing with similar issues, and they are succeeding.
The Broncos average 21.8 points, 27th in the league, and their passing attack ranks 24th.
"Like I said after the (Falcons) game, I’ll stop the young excuse. Any rep for any quarterback in any offense will help them mature and grow and end up being a stronger offense because of these reps and because of the experience together. Whether it’s your fifth year or your first year, it doesn’t necessarily matter," Lock said. "If you get more experience with a certain team and certain guys, certain positions, certain offensive lineman, you’re going to grow and be a good offense together."
Over the second half of the season, what needs to be fixed?
First, let's narrow the lens on Lock. He has done some things well. Rallying a team from a 21-point deficit against the Chargers, the fourth greatest comeback in franchise history, represents first line of resume material. Those moments do not happen by luck or accident. It has created a trend for Lock, who has accounted for six touchdowns (five passing, one rushing) in the fourth quarter the past two weeks. Lock has looked comfortable in uptempo.
The reality is that NFL teams require balance. However, the uptempo question with Lock remains painted in contrasts -- all or nothing. A gray area exists -- watch how the Los Angeles Rams pull it off -- where an offense can throttle up and down on the same drive.
In the fourth quarter, the Broncos average 9.5 points. Only the Bears, Chiefs, Bills and Seahawks are better. In the first quarter, the Broncos average 3.1 points and rank 27th time in possession. They start out as American Idol's William Hung and end as Kelly Clarkson. A soothing melody exists somewhere in between.
For Lock, it starts with improved mechanics, seeing the entire field, trusting his line to climb the pocket, which should produce better decision-making. He made progress in that regard last season in Rich Scangarello's offense, and rarely repeated the same mistake twice. I asked Lock if he was more comfortable in that attack.
"As far as the offense is compared from last year to this year, there’s a blend. Still trying to figure out the answer to that question down the line if it’s exactly one or the other. I’d say it’s just a decent blend," Lock said. "Shurmur had his offense that he’s always run and he saw some of the things that we did well -- like any great offensive coordinator they’ll see the things you did well the year before, take some of it over, steal a little bit, modify a little bit, and kind of make it his own. I think he’s done a great job of doing that.”
The Broncos have shown a willingness to take deep strikes, a primary reason coach Vic Fangio replaced Scangarello, a first-time playcaller, with Shurmur, who features two decades of experience. Lock continues learning the risk-reward of taking chances and taking care of the ball. The former Missouri star is on pace to for 2,480 yards passing, 12 touchdowns and 12 picks. Anything less than a two-to-one, TD-to-pick ratio makes it hard to excel.
While Lock uses the next two months to win over fans and win more games, his development connects to the overall offense.
Part of the reason for Lock's ordinary play can be traced to first down. Denver ranks 30th in yardage on that play. It has created consistent third-and-long situations (their 37.9 percent conversion rate ranks 29th), putting Lock in onerous, if not predictable, positions.
"I think that we need to play with more of a sense of urgency at the beginning of the game," running back Phillip Lindsay said. "There’s no gradual thing to it. It’s third downs. We’re three and out—we go three and out too fast. We don’t get enough yards at the beginning of the drives to make it manageable. We don’t make it third-and-two, third-and-three, third-and-four—we’re making it third-and-10, third-and-seven, penalties — that right there kills drives, and after a while you cant expect your defense to continue to hold up when you keep going three and out. I think that’s the biggest thing, then it’s about executing. We definitely do have a young team but that’s no excuse to why we can’t start how we end. We have to find a way to put it all together and it starts with everybody."
Lindsay is right. Offensive improvement is a group effort. However, how the second half of the season unfolds will, fair or not, serve as a reflection on Lock. He can't be the conservative game manager we've seen in the first quarter. And it's not realistic to be the fourth-quarter gunslinger over a full 60 minutes.
The answer lies in the middle, consistency required to keep him first in line for the position this offseason.
Rookie receiver Jerry Jeudy did not practice Wednesday because of a shoulder issue. ...
Cornerbacks Bryce Callahan (ankle) and A.J. Bouye (concussion) returned to practice. ...
Right tackle Elijah Wilkinson is making progress in his return from a fractured shin.