Broncos Predicted to Draft Ohio State QB Justin Fields by NFL Network Analytics Expert

Is George Paton angling for the right QB to fall to pick No. 9 in the 2021 NFL draft?
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Drew Lock was a bottom-5 quarterback in the NFL in 2020. As cantankerous as that statement can come across, the numbers don't lie. 

There is an exorbitant number of excuses to justify why Lock was bad last season — from having to learn another entirely new offensive system, to leading an exceedingly young receiving corps, to playing behind an offensive line that took about half the season to gel, to suffering an injury to his throwing shoulder early on. 

And, of course, the restrictions placed on teams due to the pandemic which saw Lock lose all of OTAs and the preseason, only added insult to injury.

Still, it begs the question of whether the justification for Lock's poor play holds water, or were they just excuses for a quarterback who displayed much of the same struggles in college as he has his first two years in the NFL? The answer depends on who you ask.

While the Broncos offense is young, it's also exceedingly talented. After sinking a disproportionate number of draft and free-agent capital on the offensive side of the ball, the Broncos offensive infrastructure is for the most part set. 

Yes, the team has some depth questions as well as everyone’s favorite offseason game of 'What the heck is Denver going to do at right tackle?' Even with the right tackle question answered on Thursday by GM George Paton, nothing comes close to the questions surrounding the quarterback. 

The 2021 Broncos will only improve as much as the quarterback position does. Given Lock’s struggles in 2020, it should be no surprise that many mocksters around the league think Denver is a possible landing spot for one of the top QB prospects in the 2021 draft class. 

While most mocks have four QBs off the board by the time Denver is on the clock at pick No. 9, one of the most recent mocks conducted by NFL Network’s analytics expert Cynthia Frelund had Denver selecting the third QB off the board in Ohio State’s Justin Fields. With a QB going off the board at pick 8 in BYU’s Zach Wilson to the Carolina Panthers and Fields to Denver at pick 9, Frelund explains her selection for the Broncos. 

Fields also has a really nice projection given his athleticism. He can run the ball… When you have those receivers he is going to be in great shape to grow behind a nice offensive line and running back situation where he will be able to run, figuring out zone reads and how to use his legs optimally.

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Justin Fields

Frelund's mock selection for Denver is odd considering the analytical formula she used is completely predicated on adding players that will help the team improve and win the most games for the 2021 season, specifically. Anyone who has followed football long enough knows that teams don’t (and shouldn’t) draft players based on their year-one impact, but rather what that player can do over the duration of their rookie contract and, hopefully, their entire career. 

This model tends to discriminate against quarterbacks who are more valued at what they will do later at a premium rather than their immediate return. Even still, Fields goes to Denver. An endorsement of Fields or an indictment of Lock? Again, it depends on who you ask.

Further in the article itself, Frelund discusses the Broncos' other potential roster needs that could make a big difference for the team's win-loss projection in 2021, but ultimately, she has Denver taking the Buckeye quarterback.

The Broncos have a need at cornerback, but -- presuming free agent safety Justin Simmons returns -- Fields' ability to make use of Denver's pass-catchers gives the Broncos about 0.8 more wins than they would add by selecting the best CB prospect and slotting either incumbent Drew Lock or any of the available free agents in at QB. PFF notes that 69.9 percent of Fields' college passing yards came through the air, and my models add that his time to throw took 0.45 seconds less on non-primary reads in his final three college career games than in his first five. Between offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's play design and teaching ability and Fields' ability to run the ball, the QB will have the chance to learn and adapt to NFL speed quickly.

For the most part, many mocksters have been listening to contemporary Broncos insiders, regurgitating the expectation that Denver will roll once again with Lock in 2021, instead opting for a veteran hedge to compete with Lock and going a different direction with pick 9, but Frelund's model suggests even taking the best cornerback in the draft is worth a full win less than selecting Fields, despite QB being devalued in her model compared to general draft consensus.

Would Denver consider Fields if he fell to pick 9? Is Fields worth using a first-round pick on even with the flashes and improvement Lock showed down the stretch last season? Will Fields even be there at pick 9? 

“We’re open to any position with that first pick," Paton revealed on Thursday. "We’re going to take the best player that can help this football team. Quarterback, safety—it doesn’t matter what player and what position. If it’s the best player on the board, we’re going to take him.”

There is a multitude of opinions out there, but the only one whose opinion really matters is Paton's. In less than two months, the drama of the NFL draft will officially unfold and we'll all have our answers.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.

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