When it Comes to Drew Lock, the Broncos' Greatest Enemy is Time
Time is a funny concept. Pink Floyd tried to define it, and it’s particularly apt as it relates to the Denver Broncos:
“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day // Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town // Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.”
The thing is, the NFL also has the reputation for meaning ‘Not for Long,’ and it’s particularly pertinent when it comes to Drew Lock, GM John Elway, and head coach Vic Fangio. Right now, their reputations are on the line and time is in short supply.
The Quarterback Issue
Lock could have more time overall than Elway and Fangio to figure things out and carve out a productive NFL career, but his days as the Broncos' starter could well be numbered if he doesn’t improve his fundamentals. His Week 7 performance against Kansas City, to put it mildly, was ugly.
Lock has regressed significantly this season with his footwork, processing, decision making, and has questions with his injury history that have already robbed the Broncos of much of the time needed to truly evaluate him.
While it is true that Peyton Manning and Elway were afforded the ability of time to develop in their respective careers as players, the increasingly QB-centric nature of the NFL and the impact of the rookie wage scale, makes hitting on a round-one signal-caller much more important, as well as finding out quickly whether he's ‘the guy’ or just ‘a guy.’
In 2010, the Carolina Panthers drafted Jimmy Clausen in Round 2, before drafting Cam Newton No. 1 overall in 2011, albeit with a new regime in place. The Arizona Cardinals have seemingly been vindicated with their decision to move on from No. 10 overall pick Josh Rosen in 2018, to drafting Kyler Murray No. 1 overall the following year, although they had the same GM in place. The Cardinals did what they needed to do to really build around a quarterback, with the scheme and coaching changes.
There’s a reason why Miami, flush with picks from Houston, has decided to name Tua Tagovailoa as the starter despite facing a difficult stretch of their season, and Ryan Fitzpatrick leading them to a 3-3 start with the second-best statistical season of his career.
The Dolphins simply need to find out whether Tagovailoa is ‘the guy,’ or whether they need to use that capital to trade up into the top-5 and pick another QB. The Dwayne Haskins era in Washington is over just a year after it had seemingly began, although the team has a new regime in place as well.
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
It is fair to say that Lock needed more development which is part of why he fell to the second round. The hope of a red-shirt year was quickly dashed by Joe Flacco’s ineptitude, and the Broncos' change in offensive scheme from Year 1 to Year 2 is a concern for his overall development.
Despite the bigger cost, first-round picks have more value, especially because they’re more likely to hit. Simply put, the chances of hitting on a ‘great’ QB are exponentially greater in the top-5 to top-10 of the draft and drop off considerably in rounds two and later.
‘Great’ QB play gets paid much more than it's ‘good’ counterparts. Low-paid QB production is the easiest way to jump-start a rebuild and to make a team competitive as it defines a four- or five-year contract to work with.
Cost-Controlled QB Creates Competitive Windows
To this point, Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes’ rookie deal, given that he was the No. 10 overall pick in 2017, was four years, $16.42 million, fully guaranteed with a $10.08M signing bonus. His fifth-year option was worth $24.8M.
As the No. 12 pick in the same class, Houston's Deshaun Watson had four years, $13.84M fully guaranteed with an $8.21M, and a signing bonus of $17.5M. At the beginning of the 2020 season, Watson signed a four-year extension with $156M in new money, and $73M fully guaranteed at signing.
Mahomes signed an eye-watering 10-year extension after winning the Super Bowl, with $450M in new money, $63M fully guaranteed at signing with another $141M guaranteed for injuries. For those two quarterbacks, Over The Cap has a valuation of $32M for Watson and $35M for Mahomes based on the 2020 season, which indicates that the Chiefs and Texans are getting so much in unpaid production at the QB position.
In comparison, as the No. 15 overall pick in 2019, Haskins signed a four-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $14.416M with Washington, and an $8.5M signing bonus. The max cap hit is $4.58M.
As the No. 42 overall pick the same year, Lock signed a four-year, $7M contract with a $3.1M signing bonus and $3.9M guaranteed. His max cap hit is just $2.2M, but hitting on a round-two QB is more likely to involve ‘good’ or ‘decent’ QB play rather than ‘elite’ or ‘great,’ which deserve the bigger contracts.
There are some exceptions to the rule, like Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott, when it comes to the controlled rookie-wage scale era. Wilson and Prescott became not just ‘good’ over the course of their rookie deals, but ‘great,’ and therefore have allowed their teams much more flexibility to build around them and really capitalize on their cheap rookie deals, but such gems are few and far between.
Other notable second-round success stories include Andy Dalton, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Derek Carr. Of those three, Cincinnati was able to win with Dalton while he was on his rookie deal, albeit not in the playoffs, but when it came to paying him, he didn’t have the talent to elevate the offense around him, and he never got the structure of a true franchise QB.
With Joe Burrow now at QB, the Bengals traded ‘good’ and ‘solid’ QB play for ‘potentially great’ and now have a quarterback who can help them compete in the AFC, with potential for more production than the value of the No. 1 overall contract and its fifth-year option. Garoppolo was traded to San Francisco, but there are plenty of rumors about the Niners moving on from him, precipitated by his mediocre performance in the Super Bowl, which trickled into this season, his high contract and its structure.
Of those three, Carr is perhaps the best QB, but there have been plenty of questions about the Raiders moving on from him, although they're always refuted.
Chiefs Were a Litmus Test Denver Failed Miserably
Right or wrong, success for the Broncos has to be measured by their ability to compete against Kansas City and other high-powered offenses in the AFC. In the division, while we all know about Mahomes and his capabilities, Chargers' rookie QB Justin Herbert looks like he is going to be another 10-year issue for the Broncos, while Carr is turning in another top-12 quarterback performance.
Granted, Lock has had just nine games as a starter in the NFL, and it may seem premature to even think about moving on at this point, given that he has undergone a new coordinator change after having three coordinators at Missouri, while sustaining the loss of his star receiver Courtland Sutton and key pieces on offense, all while having to deal with this weird, truncated offseason.
The fact that Lock's two worst performances as a pro have come in the snow against a juggernaut like the Chiefs, an opponent simply better than the Broncos in every facet, including coaching, adds to the concerns of jumping the gun prematurely. However...
2020 or Bust?
Lock will at least get the rest of the season to showcase his skills, improve his fundamentals, and show competency and growth, but don’t expect the Broncos to sit still at the QB position. Going with the status quo and starting Trevor Siemian in 2016 cost the Broncos a chance of looking at what they truly had in Paxton Lynch (although for a want of a better phrase, he lacked the requisite ‘above the neck’ talent) and so, the team lost the chance to draft Mahomes or Watson in 2017.
If there are questions about whether you have ‘the guy’ or not, well, you probably don’t have ‘the guy.’ QB is a position where it’s always a need until it absolutely isn’t.
To his credit, Lock is a hard worker and has excellent leadership and intangibles, but that can only take a player so far. Lock realizes that there is a lot of pressure to step up his game if he's going to avoid losing the locker room.
Even if Lock isn’t a ‘good’ or ‘great’ starter, he has a role in the NFL and would be an above-average QB2 in the league, and he’s under contract for two more years. The Broncos could be tempted to go back to the well in the draft, given that doing so would reset the window to five years, and because they are in line to get a very high draft pick.
But it's more likely the team targets a veteran QB in a trade, especially considering the small windows that Elway and Fangio have, and because this current roster is geared to being competitive by 2022.
For Elway, the QB position has been a bit of a curse to evaluate. Missing on draft picks hurts, but a GM can’t be afraid of swinging for the fences and striking out when it comes to landing the right QB. If a GM hits a home-run in the draft, that unpaid production is going to be important when it comes to competing.
If only the Broncos had the luxury of time.