"I think I'm going to come out here every single day and practice my butt off and give everything I have for this team, for this state and for everybody in that building. Lives, jobs and families depend on it."
– Drew Lock
The quarterback competition in Denver is real and consequential, serious enough to decide the fate of the Broncos' 2021 season, the job security of the team's coaching staff, the trajectory of a young and talented player and, possibly, the future of the franchise.
Oftentimes during training camp, coaches and front-office leadership decline to declare anything definitive. They might say there's true competition at every position, but, in many cases, that's just lip service from GMs and coaches to keep players motivated.
Peyton Manning, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sunday, led Denver to a Super Bowl title in 2015. Since his retirement the following offseason, the Broncos have started Trevor Siemian (13-11), Lock (8-10), Case Keenum (6-10), Joe Flacco (2-6), Brett Rypien (1-0), Brandon Allen (1-2), Paxton Lynch (1-3), Brock Osweiler (0-4) and Jeff Driskel (0-1). That's nine different starting quarterbacks in five years without a trip to the playoffs, including four straight losing seasons and three head coaches.
Not even one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, John Elway, could solve the issue. The team's general manager during that stretch, and now its president of football operations, traveled almost every avenue possible -- outside of taking a swing at a QB near the top of the draft, an opportunity he passed on -- in search of the team's next great signal-caller.
So why is solving the quarterback quandary now so much more vital for Denver than it had been during the past five training camps? Why is THIS quarterback competition more costly?
Simply put, the 2021 Broncos have the best overall roster since the franchise's Super Bowl 50-winning squad. Having spent time in Dove Valley during the opening days of training camp, it's apparent that the organization -- which, just a few years ago, hung its hat on the fact that it had been to more Super Bowls than it had losing seasons -- has recaptured its winning mindset.
That said, how often do you see a talent-rich team with legit playoff aspirations have no clue who its starting QB will be in training camp?
Who are the decision-makers, and what are their priorities?
Denver's QB1 dilemma might be best characterized as a decision on what the franchise values more heading into this season: the present or the future.
Lock is 24 years old and has started just 18 games. The 2019 second-round pick has tremendous arm talent, but, by his own admission, is still developing. A season with Lock at the helm would perhaps include several bumps along the way as he grows with each start.
By taking the safer route and starting the more seasoned Bridgewater, who is 28 years old, Denver could be navigating through calmer waters. They'd benefit from more consistency in the moment, but with a cap on ability. The decision could also signal the possible end of Lock's career in Denver without the franchise ever truly learning whether he could develop into a viable long-term option. The Broncos would potentially then find themselves right back in the same spot again this time next year.
The two men with the most say in the decision, GM George Paton and head coach Vic Fangio, are in very different situations. Paton is a first-time GM who just signed a six-year contract in January. He'd been pursued by teams for years while serving in Minnesota's front office and finally decided this offseason to join Denver. He has time on his side. He inherited the vast majority of this roster and isn't expected to transform the organization overnight; still, the perception around the league is he's off to a very strong start. Paton has already shown tremendous patience in how he handled his first free agency period and by ignoring outside pressure during his first draft. He selected Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II with the ninth overall pick instead of jumping on Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, proving Paton is willing to stay true to his board and his plan.
With a young, talented offense already in place upon his arrival, Paton spent the offseason focused on strengthening the team's defense. On paper, it's a top-10 unit that has a chance to be the best in the league under Fangio, who is considered one of the best defensive minds in football.
And so while Paton is beginning his tenure in Denver, Fangio is doing everything he can to make sure his doesn't come to an end.
The 62-year-old has a 12-20 record in two seasons with the Broncos, his first opportunity as a head coach. Where Paton has more time for his success and failures to be evaluated, Fangio's job security is more directly linked to this season and this decision. If you think all this adds up to Paton wanting to see if Lock develops, while Fangio is in favor of the more consistent Bridgewater, you should remember that Paton is the one who decided to trade for the seventh-year passer in April.
What will go into the decision, and when might it happen?
As of the publishing of this article, there is no favorite to win the job. Daily film sessions, individually and in groups, will lead to long conversations and debate. The team's decision-makers will assess everything. Mistakes are among the most important factors being evaluated. More specifically, not just how many each QB makes, but the magnitude of the mistakes and whether they're correctable.
The Broncos' brain trust would like to see some separation between the two quarterbacks by the time the team begins joint practices with the Vikings ahead of their Aug. 14 preseason game. What complicates the evaluation is that the two players play the position very differently. During the first week of practices, Denver has simply run its offense without catering to the strengths of whoever's under center in terms of scheme or play calling. However, that will change the further the team gets into camp.
My understanding is that how each quarterback performs during the three-game preseason slate -- Denver would have preferred the league had stuck with four -- will factor greatly into the final decision. The team plans to give both passers several opportunities in multiple preseason games before naming a Week 1 starter, placing a high value on performance during live football situations. The Broncos would like to avoid dragging out the decision, but there's a scenario in which the team waits until after the third preseason game to name its starter. In a perfect world, Lock or Bridgewater essentially makes the decision for them based on performance.
Bridgewater's path to the Broncos' starting job
The Broncos believe that even with limited arm talent, Bridgewater can win games. They saw the former Viking go 11-5 in 2015 operating a Minnesota offense predicated on the run and opposite a stout defense.
Although Bridgewater's record basically flipped last season with the Panthers (4-11), he did finish fifth among qualifying passers in completion percentage (69.1%). He's one of the most accurate and efficient quarterbacks on short-yardage throws. Only Aaron Rodgers (85.4%) had a higher completion percentage than Bridgewater (82.7%) on passes of fewer than 10 yards, per Next Gen Stats, a perfect stat to show how the Broncos QB doesn't take unnecessary risks and doesn't make many mistakes. If Denver's goal is to play great defense, protect the ball and rely on its run game (with Melvin Gordon and second-round pick Javonte Williams), you could easily make the case that Bridgewater is the best option.
But the Broncos have a receiver group that includes Pro Bowler Courtland Sutton, last year's first-round pick Jerry Jeudy, speedster K.J. Hamler and the sure-handed Tim Patrick (74 targets, 0 drops). And they also have one of the NFL's top young tight ends in Noah Fant, another former first-rounder, who led the team in catches last year (62). Being limited at the quarterback spot means limiting this talented group from making game-changing plays, something Bridgewater understands.
"When you have a room at receiver like we have, they're outstanding," Bridgewater told me recently. "A ton of young talent. They are all explosive. They all have unique skill sets. So, as a quarterback, you want to get the ball to them and allow them to make plays. And sometimes you want to challenge them to see what kind of guys you have. Do I have a guy that I can just throw it up to in double coverage and he'll come down with the catch? Or can I squeeze it in the middle between two linebackers? So this is the time to continue to learn (about) one another. No better place to be."
With this group of pass catchers, a quick slant can become a 40-yard gain with ease. So it's certainly possible for Denver to create explosive plays without airing the ball out downfield. But the Broncos want to see Bridgewater find the right mix between checking the football down and attacking deep. He's working to find that balance, and that effort is showing up at practice.
"To me they're about equal," Fangio said when asked about the importance of wow plays vs. turnovers. "I don't know what the intelligent equation would be, but one s--- play that could really affect that game, how many of the 'wow' plays do you need to make to wipe that off the books? I don't know the answer to that."
The knock on Bridgewater is that he's not a franchise quarterback, or, in other words, a guy you build your team around. He's a stopgap. That's the perception among several coaches and executives around the league, because he doesn't make many of the "wow" plays Fangio is referencing. He hasn't yet consistently put a team on his back and been the primary reason for the team's success.
That, of course, doesn't mean he can't win games in the right situation. And after playing for three teams in three years, Bridgewater believes he's found a good fit with the Broncos and hopes Denver is a more permanent stop.
"I'm a survivor. Throw me in the jungle, and I'm going to come out with a fur coat and a headband that I made out of some leaves," Bridgewater said with a laugh. "It's about surviving at this point. Every day, I have my fire that's lit and it's like God is placing me in different positions for a reason. I've made an impact everywhere I've been -- some on the field, some off the field. For me, this is an opportunity for me to come in and compete. We have the third-youngest offense in the league and the fourth-oldest defense. When we combine the two, it's a ton of wisdom, but some inexperience. When you can come in and gel and mesh the way we have so far, I feel like that's my purpose -- to keep things together and perform on the football field."
If Bridgewater wins the job, it could equate to a double-digit win season and a potential playoff berth. But it would also leave the organization with unanswered questions about Lock. That might bother some people in the building and be completely fine with others, but it's worth mentioning.
Lock's path to the Broncos' starting job
There's a valid argument that Lock needs more time to develop. He's been cruelly handed a revolving door of offensive coordinators dating back to his time at the University of Missouri. This year, Lock will have the same offensive coordinator (Pat Shurmur) for consecutive seasons for the first time since his freshman and sophomore years. It's hard to develop if you're learning a new system every offseason. Shouldn't he be given a pass of some sort?
"After playing quarterback for a while, quarterbacks get zero passes ever," Lock told me with a laugh. "That's in life or on the football field. Zero passes ever. I am really excited. It worked out well in college when I got to have the same offensive coordinator and we set the records we did, won the games that we did. But I know the NFL is a different game. But from where I was this time last year to where I am now, I say it every year, it keeps getting better. I'm super comfortable right now."
Last year was Lock's only full NFL season as a starter. He tied for the most interceptions (15) in the league and finished dead last in completion percentage (57.3%). He struggled badly. But it's important to put those numbers and his performance into context. He missed out on valuable offseason field work due to the pandemic, lost his best playmaker in Sutton to a season-ending injury in Week 2, had a new offensive coordinator, and, with just five career starts under his belt, was tasked with leading one of the youngest supporting casts in the league. Is it possible to evaluate his play fairly without factoring all of the above into the equation?
Lock could very well show improvement over the next few weeks and still not win the starting job. If that happens, might the Broncos bail on his development? Would they be giving up too soon?
In comparing Lock's first two NFL seasons with Josh Allen's, another QB many had written off after his second season and who just finished as the runner-up for MVP, there's reason to believe that playing the long game with Lock could be the Broncos' best option.
"We're a society that lacks patience," Bills GM Brandon Beane said to me over the phone during the week leading into the Bills-Broncos game last season.
Buffalo's ownership allowed Beane and head coach Sean McDermott to be patient and develop Allen. As a result, the Bills organization is now on a completely different trajectory. The quarterback spot appears set for the next decade, and they're a Super Bowl favorite in 2021. It's worth nothing that Allen was the seventh overall pick in 2018 and a player the Broncos passed on. Despite Allen's early struggles, his first-round pedigree likely worked to his advantage, as high selections (bigger investments) typically receive more opportunity to develop. Second-round picks, such as Lock, often receive a quicker assessment.
Lock has actually trained with Allen in the past and saw Allen's development first-hand.
"I feel like it's patience with him," Lock said of Allen before their Week 15 matchup last year. "Obviously, he struggled a little bit when he got into the league as far as completion percentage goes, but he figured it out. He's playing extremely good ball right now. It's football that I want to end up eventually getting to and playing like."
Beane told me last December they knew Allen would be able to correct his issues over time, specifically his accuracy, because of Allen's work ethic and coachability. Allen has also benefited from being in the same system with the same OC (Brian Daboll) for his entire NFL career. The Bills quarterback knows continuity has played a major role in his success. Lock hasn't been granted that same luxury, but from all accounts within the building, he has put in the time and work this offseason. He's watched film with Peyton Manning. He threw with teammates throughout the summer. He changed his diet and bulked up from 219 pounds to almost 230. And he's really grinded on his footwork and overall grasp of the playbook.
"Well, being the quarterback position, probably the mental part of it," Lock said when I asked him about the work that has paid off the most so far in camp. "Not to undermine the footwork or getting the body right. But the mind stuff, even in OTAs and even rookie minicamp, just to be able to have all the time this year. To come out here and feel really relaxed. Kind of get to play more of the style of football where it's clean, it's clean, it's clean -- don't force anything, just keep the ball rolling. You're doing it because your brain is doing it, and your body just reacts."
When deciding between Lock and Bridgewater, the evaluation is clearly a complicated one. When an organization doesn't have a top-tier franchise quarterback, it has to undergo an honest self-evaluation. What does the team need? Who available can best fill that need? Time and talent can be viewed differently depending on the lens.
The Broncos as an organization appear to be back on the right track. How many wins that equates to this season remains to be seen, but the team's decision at quarterback will undoubtedly play a profound part in the outcome. The choice Fangio and Paton make at Denver's most important position could have a ripple effect across the franchise for years to come.
As Lock said, "Lives, jobs and families depend on it."