The Broncos are up to 13 starting quarterbacks in 11 years with their Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway as general manager. A potential breakout for second-year, second-round draft pick Drew Lock hasn’t happened in 2020, bringing more up questions for Denver at the game’s most important position.
Elway was able to restore the team’s Super Bowl glory briefly with one shrewd quarterback move — the signing of a late-career Peyton Manning in 2012. That led to two AFC championships and a defense-fueled victory in Super Bowl 50.
Before Manning, it was a mix of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. Before drafting Lock in 2019, the Broncos tried to make it work with Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian and Case Keenum. Including Week 13 at the Chiefs, Lock has been healthy for only 12 starts in the team’s 28 games the past two seasons.
After a promising 4-1 finish to his rookie season, Lock has struggled as a sophomore. He has completed only 55.6 percent of his passes with an awful 67.5 passer rating. He has thrown 11 interceptions with a microscopic 5.3 adjusted yards per attempt.
Lock also already has had two offensive coordinators, Rich Scangarello and Pat Shurmur. Another issue has been his health and that of key support around him, namely No. 1 wide receiver Courtland Sutton going down early with a torn ACL. That said, the Broncos did take two wide receivers, Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, in the 2020 draft and have seen a breakout season in pass protection for 2017 first-round left tackle Garett Bolles. They also have a promising receiving tight end in 2019 first-rounder Noah Fant, who’s finally fully healthy again.
Patience hasn’t been Elway’s strongest suit when it comes to his quarterbacks or coaching staff. When it’s been evident the Broncos won’t be getting desired results from either, he is not afraid to make quick changes. For Lock to be a lock to get a third year as the starter, he must show promise for next season over the final five games, much like he did last season.
If he doesn’t, let’s explore where Elway and the Broncos might go in 2021 in trying to secure a franchise quarterback:
1. Stick with Drew Lock
With Elway’s history, it’s not certain that both Shurmur and head coach Vic Fangio will be back next season. Shurmur flipped the offense much heavier toward more 11 personnel, or three wide receivers, and the team has lost rushing effectiveness to support Lock. The Broncos are No. 31 in scoring offense, No. 26 in passing offense and No. 27 in total offense.
Losing Sutton, a top field-stretcher and red zone threat as a true No. 1, was a big blow in Week 2. The Broncos have found some success with Tim Patrick in his place, but between him, Jeudy, Hamler and Fant, they have all battled injuries of varying degrees.
The Broncos could simply rest on their current system and personnel, knowing they are in better shape with their offensive line and how much a difference a go-to guy such as Sutton can make. They should also look to make further tweaks to lift Lock beyond hoping for better health.
There were reasons that Lock took considerable lumps, including his own shoulder and ribs injuries. The Broncos could easily give him one more mulligan, knowing he still has the arm and athleticism to put it all together in Year 3 with improving fortunes around him.
2. Sign a veteran non-bridge QB
The Broncos need to get out of the business of settling for a Keenum type who has a limited starting shelf life. So that means not going after Philip Rivers, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tyrod Taylor, who all will be free agents in 2021. That also means avoiding lower-ceiling recent starters such as Andy Dalton and Jacoby Brissett.
The two obvious choices then would be Jameis Winston, now on a one-year deal with the Saints, and Cam Newton, now on a one-year deal with the Patriots. Winston would have more appeal of his arm and durability, and the fact he doesn’t turn 27 until January. With Taysom Hill getting the nod to start for Drew Brees, Winston is less likely to be in New Orleans’ plans for 2021. Newton has his history of wear and after flashing early for New England, he’s struggled both running and passing of late. He also turns 32 in May.
There’s reclamation uncertainty involved with both quarterbacks, to the point Lock, with his untapped upside, still would be a more comfortable option to further his development vs. either Winston or Newton finding their groove on their third teams in unfamiliar systems.
3. Take a flier on a recent first-rounder
The Jets are bound to be moving on from Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, as they are positioned to draft either Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields at the top of the 2021 draft. The Bears also are ready to go away from Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017.
Elway and the Broncos did get a good pre-draft look at Darnold and there are signs that he can perform better with the right coaching. Trubisky still has moments with his arm and athleticism to think he could have some success as a more seasoned QB elsewhere.
Darnold would have more appeal at only 23 because part of his issue has been staying healthy and adjusting to multiple offenses. Trubisky, at 26, seems more “damaged” after not coming through in a Matt Nagy offense that has done more to cater to his skill set with limited return. Either way, with the Jets and Bears headed to different directions, Darnold can be had with a lesser draft pick in a trade and Trubisky will be an unrestricted free agent like all those other veterans listed above.
4. Draft another quarterback early
The Broncos won’t be positioned to land Lawrence or Fields. But now there are several other intriguing first-round QBs emerging, including North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask. Denver would pick at No. 12 at the moment. It also would select at No. 43 overall in the second round — or one spot after it took Lock in 2019.
The Jets and Jaguars seem destined to grab Lawrence and Fields, but the other four QBs’ landing spots will remain in flux until next April with several suitors, either drafting a franchise QB now or one for the near future. The Broncos could also trade up or trade down to get positioned to land one of those talented passers.
5. Make a blockbuster trade for Carson Wentz
This is the longest of shots but something that can’t be ruled out with Wentz struggling for the Eagles and rookie second-round pick Jalen Hurts looming behind him. The Broncos are looking at little more than $20 millon under the salary cap in 2021 and with his current contract for the Eagles, Wentz carries more than a $34 million cap hit for next season.
There’s a lot of Elway in Wentz in his gritty playing style, equipped with a big arm and plus athleticism. Wentz has showed how special he can be as a MVP candidate in 2017 and is being hurt by Philadelphia’s questionable offensive coaching and injury-riddled limited personnel.
The Eagles’ only way to cut their financial losses with Wentz in taking the least amount of cap damage would be trading him to a willing suitor. Trading him right after the new league year begins in March would cause them to eat $33.8 million in dead money now but also come with some immediate cap relief of more than $850,000 and open up great financial flexibility in the future. Philadelphia is staring at a grim cap situation for 2021.
With how much money the Eagles have locked into Wentz, a trading team such as the Broncos would get more of a “bargain” deal in relation to the market, assuming they think he can find his ceiling as a QB again. The Broncos would have Wentz signed through the 2024 season taking average cap hits of around $25 million.
Based on Elway’s history with the position he played at a legendary level, there are a wide range of outcomes with the future of QB in Denver, Lock or not.