Why Drew Lock Can Exploit His New Favorable Situation
Drew Lock is officially on notice.
Getting a plethora of weapons around you is both a good and bad thing for a quarterback. On the plus side, situation matters a ton for quarterback play, and not many can succeed without surrounding talent. The Denver Broncos have made Lock smile in that regard with the additions of Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler.
But adding that talent also means you don't have any more excuses. If Lock fails to succeed with the investments the Broncos have made around him, he's going to be out of a job in a hurry. No matter how much confidence they've said publicly they have in him, that can dry up fast if he doesn't come through.
There are legit reasons to question whether Lock is truly the long-term answer. Quarterbacks drafted outside the first round rarely succeed, and his small-sample success last year came against soft competition. He's far from a sure thing.
With that being said, Lock seems to have enough tools to take advantage of the opportunity the Broncos have gifted him.
There's a reason that quarterback scrutiny increases when they have talent around them. It's because situation matters for a quarterback, and we should expect their play to improve when their environment gets better. There's no doubt things are better for Lock now than they were in his five starts last year.
Lock threw a grand total of 156 passes in that time. Of those 156, 24.4% were to players who were undrafted free agents, and 62.8% were to players who were taken after the 70th overall pick. The only players with legit draft capital tied to them were Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant.
Now, Lock will have Jeudy and Hamler, both of whom went within the first 50 picks. They bring a speed element as a complement to Sutton, who can win with his physicality.
Jeudy and Hamler won't be the lone speedsters in the offense, either. They also nabbed Lock's old Mizzou teammate, Albert Okwuegbunam in the fourth round.
Across the past three NFL combines, two tight ends have run a 4.50 or better in the 40-yard dash. They're both Broncos with Okwuegbunam checking in at 4.49 and Fant running a 4.50 last year.
If we go back to Lock's 156 pass attempts, we'll see just how drastically different this offense will look. Only 15.4% of those attempts went to players who ran a 4.50 or better in the 40-yard dash, and almost half of that was targeting Phillip Lindsay out of the backfield. Jeudy ran a 4.45 at the combine, and although Hamler didn't run due to an injury, he was clocked at 4.36 while training before hurting his hamstring. There may now be times where Sutton (4.54 40) is the slowest player on the field, and that's a glorious situation to be in.
Lock has gone from Sutton-plus-scrubs to a speedy bunch that should help free up coverage on Sutton while generating opportunities elsewhere. His situation is clearly better than what it was previously. We've seen the impact of that in the past.
Jared Goff shrugged off a horrendous rookie season with additional skill-position talent and a new scheme. Dak Prescott went from good to great thanks to the addition of Amari Cooper. Alex Smith went from champion of the checkdown to deep-ball deity once he was throwing to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Lock's situation may not be as good as what those guys had, but it's better than what it was previously. Even if his individual skills don't necessarily shift, improved talent around him has the potential to make an immense difference.
A Quality Prospect
It's important to start with the pieces around Lock because that matters so much in projecting how well a quarterback will perform. But it's also worth emphasizing that Lock himself has presented cause for hope in the past.
Lock's final year at Mizzou was a disappointment as he finished with just an 8.5 AY/A. It slipped even further to 6.6 when he faced top-50 defenses by Bill Connelly's SP+, and both of those numbers are below average for FBS quarterbacks drafted since 2010.
It's important, though, to note the context behind those numbers. Specifically, Lock had to play four of those games versus top-50 defenses without wide receiver Emanuel Hall. In the three games where Hall was healthy, Lock's AY/A versus top-50 defenses spiked to 9.0 versus 3.3 when Hall was out. Again, situation matters.
We've also previously seen Lock put together a full season of efficient play. With Mizzou in 2017, Lock threw 44 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, good for a 10.2 AY/A, which was tops in the SEC and fourth in the nation. The schedule for Lock wasn't as difficult, and his play still slid when facing tougher foes, but Lock showed he has the ability to put up big numbers.
It's possible that Lock's draft stock got dragged down due to the disappointing senior season, and that dip in play is explainable with both Hall and Okwuegbunam missing at least four games apiece. He may not be your run-of-the-mill second-round pick.
The big allure of Lock, though, was his experience level coming out. He had at least 10 pass attempts in 47 games at Mizzou, and whether you're looking at top-end picks or later-round gems, many of the most successful quarterbacks in the NFL racked up a ton of playing time in college. Lock did so starting with his true freshman season and is thus only a month older than this year's first overall pick, Joe Burrow.
There were certainly on-field red flags with Lock coming out, so he wasn't a perfect prospect. But he may not have been as flawed as perception, so our prior assumption that he'll fail just because he slipped out of the first round could require some adjustment. His small sample as starter last year furthered that line of thought.
Glimpses of Hope
Before looking at Lock's numbers, it's worth reiterating that he got a gem of a schedule to face. His average drop back came against the league's 20.2-ranked pass defense, according to numberFire's metrics, which would have been the easiest in football had he qualified. This year, Denver's average opponent will have ranked 15.6 against the pass in the previous season, making it the eighth-toughest projected schedule in the league. The road is about to get rockier. But Lock took advantage of that soft schedule.
Locked finished 2019 averaging 0.14 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back. NEP is the metric numberFire uses to track the expected points added and subtracted across the course of the season, and Passing NEP includes deductions for expected points lost on sacks, incompletions, and interceptions. Lock's mark ranked 14th out of 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs.
Clearly, this number is inflated by the schedule. Pro Football Focus had Lock graded at 57.6 out of 100, which would have ranked 34th among quarterbacks if he had recorded enough drop backs to qualify. We should not blindly believe the numbers he posted down the stretch. But it's also the only sample we have on Lock at the next level, so it would be silly to simply toss it out the door.
Between Lock's flashes at Mizzou and his acceptable level of play in the NFL, we've gotten reasons to believe he can perform well enough to hold down a job. Denver reiterated that by giving him votes of confidence before the season was even over. Now, with the additions they've made, the odds Lock hits and exceeds that threshold are steadily increasing.
This time of year, we're mostly talking best-ball and dynasty leagues for fantasy football. In both formats, job security for a quarterback is paramount (shout out to all my dead Marcus Mariota teams from last year), and that's still an open question for Lock. Even with that being acknowledged, it's okay to buy high on Lock going forward.
The big plus for Lock -- something that also applies to Derek Carr post-draft -- is that he's more likely to perform well enough to hold the job now that he has better weapons around him. Generally, you have to suck in order to get benched, and the odds that Lock struggles enough to get the boot just went down.
It also seems unlikely that the cost tied to Lock will increase as much as it should. In dynasty drafts in August of 2017 on Dynasty League Football, Goff was the QB27 in startup drafts despite having been the first overall pick only 16 months earlier. Entering last year, Prescott was the QB14 in startups even though we had already seen him play alongside Cooper for half of a season. Lock's going to get positive buzz the next few weeks, but that's unlikely to make the costs tied to him overly prohibitive. Fantasy managers tend to underrate a quarterback's situation, and it shouldn't be surprising to see this happen again with Lock.
Lock has the potential to add a bit of upside with his legs, though he didn't necessarily flaunt it as a rookie. He ran a 4.69 40 at the combine last year, an 83rd-percentile mark, according to Player Profiler. Lock ran for six touchdowns his final year at Mizzou, and a re-discovering of that giddy-up would give a boost to both his floor and ceiling.
But for Lock to be a plus in fantasy football, it'll come down to his efficiency as a passer. If the Broncos would have headed into 2020 with a similar supporting cast to what Lock had last year, we would have expected disappointment. He was due for regression due to the schedule, and things could have gone sideways quickly. Now, with a handful of speedy, high-impact players at his disposal, Lock has the potential to exceed those expectations. Even though the cost to acquire him just went up, the reasons for the increase are justified, and he's still someone we should at least look into buying before he further solidifies his stock.