Back in February of 2016, Peyton Manning helped deliver a third Super Bowl title to the city of Denver. And just as John Elway did after winning the second of the Broncos' first two Lombardi Trophies, Manning walked off the biggest stage in American sports into the proverbial sunset.
Since Manning's retirement, Elway has employed a specific philosophy while attempting to build a roster that can compete year in and year out. But one player changed that thinking this offseason: quarterback Drew Lock.
"We've tried to concentrate on the defensive side, with the idea that, if we can keep the score down, we'll stay in football games and eventually try to find the quarterback we can replace [Manning] with and get the offense back on track," Elway said after the conclusion of the 2020 NFL Draft. "I think with the way Drew played at the end of last year, we saw the signs of a guy that has a chance to be very successful in this league."
Elway has been frustrated with Denver's inability to score points over the past four seasons. Since the Super Bowl-winning campaign of 2015, the Broncos have finished 22nd, 27th, 24th and 28th in scoring. And in the first 59 games after Manning's retirement, Denver started six different quarterbacks. But then, in the final month of the 2019 season, the Broncos deployed lucky No. 7.
An early second-round pick who spent much of his rookie year on injured reserve after a preseason thumb injury, Lock entered the lineup for the 3-8 Broncos on Dec. 1. Denver proceeded to win four of its final five games, with Lock completing 64.1 percent of his passes for 1,020 and seven touchdown passes (against three picks), logging two game-winning drives along the way.
"I know there's been a lot of talk about the quarterbacks in Denver," Lock told me last week during a Zoom interview for NFL Network from his parents' house in Lee's Summit, Missouri. "You know, Peyton was the man there, obviously. We've had some good ones, and up-and-down [QBs] in there, and I didn't want to be that for John. I wanted to be a steady guy for him. I wanted to show everybody that they drafted the right quarterback."
At the NFL Scouting Combine back in 2018, when Elway was asked about the revolving door of quarterbacks Denver had started since Manning's exit, the Broncos GM famously responded: "Believe me, I'm not done swinging and missing." Two years later, Elway and the organization feel like they've finally hit on their guy. The Broncos have clearly expressed that sentiment this offseason through the moves they've made -- we'll get to those shortly -- and the moves they haven't made. In a free agent pool littered with big-name quarterbacks, Denver never even considered taking the plunge on a known veteran commodity. Furthermore, prior to the 2020 NFL Draft, Broncos brass called Lock and asked what he would like to have added to the roster. Does that sound like something an organization would do with an expendable player?
Lock's promising December gave Elway a confidence that, apparently, he hadn't felt with any of the previous signal-callers since Manning. He was convinced that now was the time to change the organization's approach heading into free agency and the draft. The goal was simple. For Lock to be successful -- for him to maximize his abilities in Denver -- the Broncos needed to surround him with more talent. Specifically, the offense needed to get faster and more explosive. Consequently, Denver selected Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy with the 15th overall pick. Many considered Jeudy the best receiver in the draft. But the surprise came in the second round, when Elway nabbed Penn State speedster KJ Hamler. Back-to-back receivers with the first two picks of Denver's draft?
"Me and Andy (Lock's father) both gave some loud 'Let's go!' there in the room," Lock said of their reaction to the Jeudy pick. "Going into that second pick, we didn't really know what to expect. Maybe they'd pick a defensive player. I'm not sure. Then they go KJ and I was ecstatic. We both were just screaming 'No way!' Clapping, jumping up and down -- it was exciting. Then they put their highlights up there and that got me excited, to say the least."
Whenever the Broncos get back together, Lock will be flanked by an enticing collection of young playmakers. In the backfield, Phillip Lindsay has a new running mate in free-agent acquisition Melvin Gordon, with both RBs boasting Pro Bowl notches on the resume. At receiver, Jeudy and Hamler will complement Courtland Sutton, the big-bodied 24-year-old who just broke out with a 1,112-yard campaign that ended in the 2020 Pro Bowl. And at tight end, Denver added the fastest prospect at the position for the second straight year, as fourth-round pick Albert Okwuegbunam (Lock's college teammate at Missouri who blazed a 4.49 40-yard dash at the combine) joins Noah Fant (last year's first-round pick who ran a 4.50 in Indianapolis).
"We saw a lot of teams start doubling Courtland towards the end of the year when I was playing," Lock said during a Zoom conference call after the draft. "Being able to have speed on the other side, it's going to scare D-coordinators. ... You're not going to shade a single safety over to Courtland if you've got those guys on the other side. You're probably going to have to stick to more two-high stuff and really play it straight up. If you play two-high, you have to think about our running backs and our O-linemen. We've got Phillip and Melvin. I think we're very versatile."
It's no secret that the AFC West has made an effort to try and keep up with the defending Super Bowl champions.
"I think teams are certainly ready for a track meet when they play the Chiefs," Kansas City general manager Brett Veach said after the draft.
"I'm not going to put that scenario out there and let everyone run with that," Lock said laughing, when I asked him that over Zoom. "I think we added some great weapons, but the thing with Kansas City is they have a lot of reps and a lot of games under their belt. We're a pretty young team. We got three rookies that are probably going to have to come in and make a big difference for us on the offensive side of the ball. Those guys just went all the way and won the Super Bowl. We got a lot of work to be the Kansas City Chiefs, but with the weapons in place, there is the potential to be that."
For that potential to take shape, Lock needs to live up to the expectations Elway and the organization have placed in him -- and fast. The Broncos, who also snagged plug-and-play center Lloyd Cushenberry in the third round last month, have surrounded Lock with a talented young core. Now he has to produce. There will be no excuses for not taking a massive step forward this season -- although it would be easy to try and make some, given the current climate.
With COVID-19 disrupting daily activity across the globe, this is an NFL offseason unlike any we've seen before. Lock is aggressively learning a new system with new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in a virtual format. The 23-year-old quarterback can't start building chemistry with all of his new weapons because the pandemic is preventing them from getting together and throwing. Lock is so excited about getting a jump on this season that he actually had the Broncos check the legality of him popping in on the rookie Zoom meetings, just so he could at least talk with them. He joked that it was very much illegal, so he's sticking to private calls and texts. His anxiousness to get going, though, is understandable. Starting quarterbacks always face immense pressure. Then there's the additional stress that comes with playing the position in Denver. Think about it. The Broncos own a region of the country, having established themselves as one of the most successful franchises in the NFL. (Only the Patriots have been to more Super Bowls.) And when you're Denver's starting quarterback, your boss is the greatest player in franchise history. Oh, and he's in the Hall of Fame for playing the same position you do.
At the same time, though, Elway can obviously be a tremendous resource, something Lock doesn't take for granted.
Lock still draws from the advice Elway gave him on the day he placed the rookie on injured reserve before the season started last year. The nine-time Pro Bowler told his rookie pupil that it would not be a vacation year; hard work would be required. Elway informed Lock that the Broncos could bring him back from IR later in the season, and if so, he better show improvement. Lock took that to heart, and hit the ground running in his December debut. The GM and QB also talked a lot after each of Lock's five starts. They would obviously go over how the game went, but more importantly, Elway would remind Lock that the focus must always quickly move to next week's game. They discussed how you can use momentum from game to game. And Elway tried to make sure Lock kept proper perspective as a young starter in the NFL -- being able to handle winning, but more importantly, being able to handle losing. That mentorship has been really good for Lock as he strives to become the next great quarterback for a franchise with a rich history at the position.
Is Lock built for this challenge? The personality traits he's displayed thus far are encouraging. He's easy-going, but certainly enjoys the fine art of competitive trash talk. He's mature enough to grill Manning for advice on how he should go about his first NFL offseason, but at the same time, doesn't take himself too seriously. He has a smile that is just as big as his arm and claims he's picking up this new offense 10 times quicker than he did last year, when he was reading plays into his bathroom mirror. Shurmur was brought in to mold Lock into the quarterback he wants, but Lock grins when he explains that the system will still showcase his free-flowing style and won't take away his ability to make things happen on his own.
Those closest to Lock will tell you he's unbelievably observant and perceptive. He knows everything that is going on around him, so there's no way he'll be able to block out the mile-high expectations.
"It puts a little extra confidence on my back," Lock said of the current roster. "Now, at the same time, those expectations do rise when you have so many weapons around you, but I like to say that I hold myself to high expectations. I like to put pressure on myself in general. I think the pressure that I put on myself always outweighs the pressure that comes from media or even friends and family. I feel like the pressure that I hang on my head always means the most in the end to me."