Quarterback. Quarterback. Quarterback.
After going through decades of elite quarterback play with John Elway under center and the four-year blip of pure offensive joy that was Peyton Manning’s stint in the Mile High City, the Denver Broncos have been drudging their way through the years.
There can be blame placed on the offensive line, weapons, injuries, and coaches but in the NFL, it will always come down to the quarterback position. It’s a 'have or have not' league at the position, and although the Broncos historically have been ‘haves’, the team has found itself in the ‘have nots’ over recent seasons.
The Broncos are in a weird limbo currently at the QB spot with Drew Lock. After two seasons of up-and-down play littered equally with promising flashes, concerning mechanics, and head-scratching decisions with the football, the Broncos very well could be in QB limbo.
It’s not as if new GM George Paton is 'out' on Lock. In fact, Paton recently said, "We like Drew Lock." The GM went on to say, "Fortunately, we have a quarterback here and we have a nice quarterback room."
That said, Paton's GM-speak hasn't stopped him from being tied to several offseason scenarios in which the Broncos have rather publicly been looking for an upgrade at the position. After aggressively pursuing Matthew Stafford, the Broncos have kicked the tires on other QBs around the league as well.
With the first wave of free agency in the books and the veteran QB market all but evaporated, who could Paton and the Broncos be targeting?
According to NFL insider James Palmer, Paton spent time on the phones recently looking to upgrade the QB position but only if the upgrade is obvious. Palmer gave fans a snapshot of Paton's behind-the-scenes activity and overall mindset on the Broncos’ QB situation and Lock.
This is going to be an interesting offseason. It’s the biggest one in Drew Lock’s young NFL career but also what are the Broncos doing looking at other quarterbacks. To my understanding, they are going to go after Deshaun Watson if he is going to become available and they are going to be aggressive. But what I understand is this; there is a top group of quarterbacks that really alter your franchise. They were in on Matthew Stafford and made an offer.
While it's hard to deny that the Broncos haven't, at the very least, kicked the tires on options to upgrade the QB position, it is nice to see that Paton is being picky at the same time. Denver is not ‘desperate’ at the position because Lock has shown enough promise for the team not to be in abject loss if it comes out of this offseason without an obvious upgrade.
Rather than surrendering resources and capital for a possibly marginal free-agent upgrade, Paton appears to be assessing the market with a critical eye. If a no-doubt stud becomes available such as Deshaun Watson (depending on his legal situation), there is little doubt Denver would be aggressive in obtaining that QB.
In a QB-centric league, it’s not by accident that four of the six best signal-callers in the entire NFL made it to championship weekend this past season. Teams win championships, but outside of rare circumstances, an elite quarterback is needed to punch a ticket to the dance.
Palmer continued in his interview:
They (the Broncos’ decision-makers) don’t think that group is that much better perhaps than Drew Lock is in their mind. It may also show you that they think Drew Lock is on a trajectory into his third season that could be better than the one we saw. Obviously people in the building believe he had his ups and downs of this past season but they think at the end of the year he played pretty well. He had two of his highest passer ratings of the season, he had seven touchdowns and two interceptions in those final four games… Maybe they would like to see him with Pat Shurmur with a full offseason... to have a full offseason with somebody that he is familiar with is very important for Drew Lock. They are looking at other quarterbacks, but they don’t believe it affects his confidence either in terms of how he operates. He’s still been in the building regularly working out and they don’t think this will affect him by any means.
Lock did play better down the stretch. Was that because the Broncos’ simplified the playbook for Lock, who reportedly struggled with the mental side of Shurmur’s extensive playbook? Or rather was it Shurmur starting to figure out what made his offense ‘tick’ and what worked for Lock?
Was it because Melvin Gordon turned into a top-10 running back down the stretch? Or maybe it because Denver played a slate of bottom-tier defenses to close out the season?
Each component likely played a role but the one most responsible for Lock's obvious improvement from Week 11 on is hard to say. What Palmer revealed is that Denver is not desperate to upgrade Lock.
Lock has really good arm talent, is an underrated athlete at the QB position, is exceedingly cheap compared to most of his positional peers, and still has an obvious path to success. He has not been nearly good enough so far, mainly stemming from issues in his base mechanics leading to erratic accuracy snap-to-snap, as well as a few expletive-inducing decisions with the football when attempting to create outside of structure.
If a top-10 quarterback becomes available such as Watson, Denver will do more than its due diligence in pursuit of a more stable and proven commodity. If not? Denver will likely be fine standing back, rolling with Lock another season, and seeing where that takes them.
If he fails to launch in 2021, Paton will likely be even more aggressive next offseason. If Lock succeeds, Denver will then have to decide to what extent his success was attributed to his individual growth and what can be laid at the feet of his surrounding circumstances. By then, Lock will be looking to lock up a second contract.
Palmer's revealing remarks align with what many insiders have said about the Broncos’ current view on Lock. Lock and the Broncos are 'dating' but by no means is Paton ready to pop the question, let alone tie the know. In fact, Paton is in other QB's DMs asking 'you up?'
What Palmer's remarks fail to divine are Paton's intentions in the NFL draft. Picking at No. 9 overall, with an extremely talented crop of signal-callers in the first round this year, will Paton set his sights on someone like Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson, North Dakota State's Trey Lance, or Alabama's Mac Jones? That remains to be seen.
Odds are high that Lock will reprise his role as the understood QB for the Broncos to start the 2021 season, but given Denver’s pursuit of other signal-callers thus far, his inconsistent play, and how minimal the team's financial commitment to him is, the ice is thin for the third-year quarterback.
The rub is simple: until Lock plays better, Denver will be linked to every QB available as a possible replacement candidate. Play better, and the rumors go away. Will Lock get that chance? Stay tuned.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickKendellMHH.
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