Hope is as high as Long’s Peak in Colorado that Drew Lock will become the Broncos long-term answer at quarterback. And, there’s a reason for all the optimism.
After struggling to an 0-4 start, Lock took over with the team sunk at 3-8 overall. But, the Denver Broncos went 4-1 with the fun-loving rookie at quarterback. Context is important, and the Broncos didn’t win just because of Lock — the defense found its groove down the stretch — but the youthful QB was certainly a key element to the winning.
And, now that all the numbers are out post-season, we can see exactly how Lock affected winning in a positive way.
According to Pro Football Focus, his third down passer rating of 117.0 was nearly 30 points better than the NFL average (87.2). Additionally, Lock’s grade on those all-important third downs was fourth-best in the NFL last season.
It’s no secret to Broncos fans that their team has struggled offensively since 2014. Yes, that includes the Super Bowl 50 winning season, when the defense carried the team to a championship. And, on those third downs, the Broncos were 25th-best in 2015, then 31st, 15th, 28th and finally 30th in the NFL with a 31.7 conversion percentage in 2019.
Sustaining drives is crucial in the NFL, even if your team is built to be defense-first, like the Broncos are. If the defense goes out and makes a stop, or even limits an opponent to a field goal, it’s necessary for the offense to gain at least one first down on the ensuing drive. That allows the defense to rest, and if they’re lucky, the offense can find a way to manufacture points as well.
That’s where Lock sparks hope.
Not only was his passer rating better than the NFL average on third downs, but the Broncos offense was able to convert on third downs 41 percent of the time with him at QB. That would place Denver in 14th if they were able to sustain it for an entire season.
In their QB Annual, PFF goes even more in depth for 35 starting quarterbacks last season, including Lock. When it came to needing a first down, which Broncos receiver would you guess was his go-to guy?
If you said Jeff Heuerman, you’re right! The tight end caught all four of his targets and each of them moved the chains for Denver. The surprises keep coming as Tim Patrick (5-of-7 targets) was the second-most consistent receiver for the Broncos on third downs.
And when teams can more regularly convert on third downs, they can score more points, too. The Broncos averaged a mere 15.9 points per game pre-Lock, but that number jumped to 21.4 with the new QB.
Part of that has to do with his prowess in the red zone, which is particularly exciting for fans considering his inexperience. Lock seemingly went out and had fun every, single week. He was treating the NFL like it was the school yard, running and gunning, and it worked for him.
That carefree style helped him go 18-of-27 in the red zone last year (66.7 percent) with five touchdowns and one interception (in the loss to Kansas City). Interestingly, five Broncos receivers — all complimentary players — caught 100 percent of their targets in the red zone. But, stars Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant were a mere 4-of-11 combined (36.4 percent) inside the 20 yard line.
So, at least the burgeoning superstar Sutton and the fantastic Fant know where they need to work this offseason. And, those lower completion percentages are also likely a product of defenses expecting Lock to target one of those two because they were clearly the best receivers on the team last season.
The fact that Lock has already excelled on third downs and in the red zone has to be exciting news for Broncos fans. And, imagine what he can do with an improved receiving corps as well as a better offensive line. Lock enjoyed a better than average 105.3 passer rating when kept clean, but that fell to 58.4 (31st) when he was under pressure.
And now that Denver’s found their quarterback for at least the short term, it’ll be interesting to see how they build around him starting this offseason, with around $80 million in cap space to spend as well as 12 draft picks to use.