It's been one of the worst kept secrets in all of the NFL this offseason; the Denver Broncos' mission to build the nest around their young franchise quarterback of the future Drew Lock.
The Broncos already had a great start with WR Courtland Sutton, TE Noah Fant, and RB Phillip Lindsay in tow, but the moves GM John Elway made in free agency and the NFL Draft telegraphed the team's intentions. Making the offense as simple as possible, giving Lock a plethora of weapons to choose from in the passing game was the objective in 2020.
Lock showed major flashes of franchise-caliber quarterback play over his five-game debut in 2019, displaying the ability to manipulate the pocket behind a makeshift offensive line, work through progressions, and make plays necessary to win games. His immense arm talent was especially on display in the first half of the Week 14 game against the Houston Texans, where he made several impressive throws en route to a massive first-half lead and victory on the road.
However, Lock still needs to show more consistency on a play-by-play and game-to-game basis. There were flashes of brilliance at times followed by plays that made you scratch your head, kind of like the back-foot throw across the field in Kansas City that resulted in a red zone interception.
One of the biggest reasons why Elway chose back-to-back wide receivers in April's draft, as well as signing Melvin Gordon to a big-money deal, was to give Lock as many weapons as possible, all capable of winning in different and multi-dimensional ways. Giving Lock multiple options to deliver the football should flatten his learning curve and accelerate his development.
But bringing in these options means little to Lock's development if they don't step in immediately and make an impact. Sure, the young QB has to take that next step himself, but there are large negative implications for Lock's developmental learning curve should these personnel moves not pan out the way Elway and company envision.
There are multiple Broncos that need to have highly productive seasons in order to make life simple for Denver's second-year signal-caller. Here are the five Broncos critical to Lock's development in 2020 in descending order.
5. Graham Glasgow | RG
With the drafting of Lloyd Cushenberry in the third round of this year's draft, it's a pretty good indication that Glasgow will man the right guard position at the onset of training camp. Solidifying the interior of the offensive line was a major focus for Elway this offseason.
Giving Lock a clean pocket to step up into and deliver the ball should be huge for his development, especially with the young QB already showing the ability to do so behind a ramshackle crew down the stretch of last season.
Being able to escape vertically within the pocket rather than outside of the arc of the edge rushers makes it easier for the QB to keep his eyes downfield longer, which allows for further progression throughout the route tree and play design. Glasgow, a supreme pass protector, needs to step in immediately and effectively to provide veteran leadership on the interior of the O-line.
4. Noah Fant | TE
Don't get me wrong, Fant had one heck of a rookie season. He made several explosive plays as he progressed throughout his first NFL campaign and set franchise rookie tight end records along the way.
But one of the best things you can give a young signal-caller is a quality safety blanket; a TE he can depend upon when things go south. Fant has shown the explosiveness that made him the 20th overall selection in the 2019 draft, but the reliability aspect was left to be desired.
Fant had a handful of frustrating drops last season and struggled early on in the season. Even in a TE-heavy offense like Broncos' ex-OC Rich Scangarello's West Coast scheme, Fant could have done more.
The rapport he showed with Lock down the stretch was a sight for sore eyes. The Broncos hope Fant can continue his growth and provide a nice security blanket, as well as continue his explosive tendencies for Lock's sake. It'll be interesting to see how Fant is used in new OC Pat Shurmur's offense.
3. Ja'Wuan James | RT
This seems like picking low hanging fruit, but the fact of the matter is this: James needs to be healthy this year.
James played less than 100 total snaps in 2019, leaving Elijah Wilkinson playing out of position at right tackle. Wilkinson could be a quality swing backup or a decent option as a starter inside, but as a full-time player, he was a complete disaster.
When James was in the first half of the game in the blowout against Houston, the Broncos' offense was clicking at its highest level of the season. The play-calling and execution were terrific and there was nothing the Texans could do defensively to slow the Broncos' offensive explosion. Once James left the game, the Broncos' game plan became stale and ineffective.
I'm not going to say that James was the key to the offense having its best half of the season, but it does raise some eyebrows. Was the conservative attitude of Scangarello's play-calling more to protect Lock from himself, or to protect Lock from Wilkinson? I'll let you be the judge of that.
Bottom line, though, Lock needs a quality pocket to step into, but having quality edge protection doesn't hurt either. Wilkinson wasn't able to provide that all of 2019. James could be a big piece for Lock's development.
2. Melvin Gordon | RB
Whether you like the signing or not, Gordon's acquisition points directly to the need to stock the cupboards as much as possible.
Denver already had Lindsay, a Pro Bowl running back who's produced back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his young career. However, there are a couple of aspects to Lindsay's game that Gordon can enhance to make things easier for Lock.
First and foremost, Gordon is an excellent receiver out of the backfield — a trait that Lindsay has struggled to master through two seasons. Given Shurmur's new offensive scheme, the Broncos need a reliable receiver that can work out of the backfield in the flats and on circle and arrow routes over the middle of the field.
Secondly, Gordon knows how to read and react in pass protection and does a great job of picking up blitzers in that respect. It will be interesting to see the carry splits shake out between Lindsay and Gordon, but I'd opine that Gordon sees the lion's share of the reps at the running back position based on these two aspects.
Having a quality TE security blanket and a running game helps a ton, but having a high-quality check-down option out of the backfield as well as a reliable option against the blitz in pass protection is even more invaluable.
1. Pat Shurmur | OC
You can add all of the weapons and protection you want, but the single easiest way to help a young QB succeed is by simplifying the offense. Make the terminology, concepts, and learning process as simple as possible.
Being a quarterback guru in his own right, Shurmur is the single biggest key to Lock's development. Going back to 2019, a huge part of Daniel Jones' early success with the New York Giants was Shurmur's offensive scheme.
Shurmur made reads simplistic and fast-paced while also working with Jones' strengths as well as the roster's overall weaknesses. That was all derailed by a ravaging injury bug at the skill positions and Jones hitting the rookie wall, but the early signs were very promising.
Shurmur, alongside QBs Coach Mike Shula, will have the most singular impact on Lock's development. They both have to be able to work with Lock's strengths, the development of the Broncos' young pass-catchers, as well as a revolving door situation at the right tackle position.
Having a plethora of weapons means little if you don't deploy them in a way that highlights their biggest strengths as well as limiting the weaknesses of the quarterback delivering them the football.
Scheming Fant, Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and KJ Hamler open early in the down, providing quick and easy reads as well as taking well-timed shots down the field, can help Lock take that next step as a quarterback.