Many, many Denver Broncos fans turned off their TVs when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell read off the name of Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II with the ninth pick in the 2021 draft. That demographic of fans were dejected, and in some cases, engraged, that first-year GM George Paton passed on Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to take Surtain.
Some tin-foil-hat fans theorize that Paton passed on Fields and every other QB in the 2021 draft class in order to keep Denver's options open relative to the ongoing Aaron Rodgers situation in Green Bay. However, NFL general managers are much more pragmatic than that.
No GM, Paton included, is going to alter the course of a draft class in hopes that a legendary QB might, maybe, perhaps find his way into his team's lap. Are Denver's options open on Rodgers? Yes. Is that why the Broncos didn't draft a QB? No.
Paton's call to pass on quarterback was a not-so-silent vote of confidence in third-year incumbent Drew Lock. Paton had already hedged on Lock's upside by acquiring veteran Teddy Bridgewater via trade from Carolina the day before the draft.
Bridgewater's arrival will provide some competitive anxiety for Lock but it's in those situations where the cream rises to the top. Broncos' legendary QB Jake Plummer was glad Paton passed on Fields because he still hopes to see big things from Lock in 2021 and beyond.
In a recent appearance on 104.3 The FAN's Nick and Cecil show, Plummer had a loving message, not a sharp, critical missive, for Broncos Country.
"I think bringing in a quarterback at this point, with Drew Lock here already, the fans were mad but why? They could be mad again when Justin Fields takes two years to be a good quarterback and they get two more years of development to try to get to the big game," Plummer told hosts Nick Ferguson and Cecil Lammey. "I still believe Drew Lock has it. I still believe that if you really want to be a true Bronco fan, you buy into the guys that here right now and you try to send them the love they that need and deserve as your guy."
After missing the playoffs in each of the last five seasons following the Broncos' Super Bowl 50 triumph, fans are tired of being on the outside looking in come January. Despite the unfair and unique obstacles that Lock faced as a result of the Broncos' hiring a new offensive coordinator last year and the pandemic, many fans feel they've been patient long enough.
Lock's 2020 body of work was very up-and-down, though there were some extremely impressive ups. His come-from-behind victory over Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 8, which saw Lock battle back to overcome a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to win the game in the clutch comes to mind as a strong glimpse of what his ceiling might look like.
Lock's Week 14 performance in Carolina in which he clearly out-dueled Bridgewater to the tune of nearly 300 yards passing and four touchdowns was another highlight. However, following the injury to his throwing shoulder in Week 2, when Lock returned to the field, there were some very concerning signs of regression.
That play steadied out from Week 11 on as Lock led the Broncos to an upset win over the (at the time) playoff-relevant Miami Dolphins. Week 12's mask snafu in which the NFL harshly used the Broncos as a whipping boy and scapegoat, making an example of them by forcing the team to play the New Orleans Saints without a quarterback, was the only speed-bump to Lock's improved play down the stretch.
It didn't result in a perfect record in the final frame of the season but Lock showed significant improvement as he quarterbacked an injury-decimated Broncos team. With a second straight year in Pat Shurmur's offense, and by virtue of Courtland Sutton's return from the ACL tear that claimed almost all of his 2020 campaign, Plummer remains bullish on Lock's prospects of vanquishing Bridgewater in training camp and growing as a leader.
"He may get the last laugh. I hope. I hope he has a chance to come in here and still battle for the position against Bridgewater and show us that he has talent. It's obvious he does," Plummer told The FAN. "I think maybe there's some leadership things—I'm not saying he's not a good leader—I'm just saying there's some things maybe he doesn't know he can do or isn't allowed to do, or hasn't been told, 'Hey, it's okay to be like that. Go be yourself, man. These players will respond better to you when you're just you and you take control.' And that's where I felt like my biggest attribute was that I worked my ass off with the guys every offseason. I was there working with them, working out, pushing them, pissing them off on Friday when they wanted to catch a plane home and I'm like, 'no.'"
Indeed, as a young player, Lock is surely still growing into his leadership shoes. But we know his teammates respond to his "swag" and confidence. A few additional tweaks along the way, with some on-field results, could bridge the gap from what Lock is now to what he could become as a true team leader.
"So you can do a lot of things as a leader without being vocal, without being ya-ya, like in-your-face kind of guy," Plummer told Ferguson and Lammey. "I'd love to see the kid succeed. I think he has a ton of talent so not bringing in a QB is okay with me becasue I think there's room for that kid to improve. And I hope he can suprise everybody and find his little groove here next year."
Paton himself concurs with Plummer's take there at the end. The week before the draft, the Broncos' GM said something that I knew then would foreshadow the team's draft maneuvers.
"We’re really high on Drew. I like seeing Drew here every morning when I come in," Paton said on April 22. "He’s working hard and trending in the right direction. As you know, he has a lot of talent. I think he’s becoming a better pro, but we’re still going to look at the quarterback position. I’ve said since I’ve gotten here that we want to bring in competition. That’s the goal, and we plan on doing that.”
A few days later, Paton traded for Bridgewater and now the Broncos have a nice balance of young, unproven upside at quarterback juxtaposed with a plausible veteran fail-safe. If Lock disappoints in 2021 and fails to launch, with this roster, Bridgewater could step in and keep the Broncos competitive.
But I'm inclined to agree with Plummer's overall view on Lock. The best is likely yet to come for Lock.
The caveat is Rodgers. But, again, that's not something the Broncos can control so Paton is not going to plan around it as an eventuality. Truly having a shot at Rodgers would change the game but that's not the world the Broncos are living in right now.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.
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