The Broncos want to get back to their winning ways in 2019. They’ve completely revamped the roster with the hopes that this combination of players makes a run at the postseason – or at least plays .500 football or better.
This roster is full of talented players on both sides of the ball, but there are questions that need to be answered during training camp. In this series on 1043TheFan.com, we will go through each position group searching for those answers.
This is the latest part in our Training Camp Preview. Today, we’ll take a deep dive on the quarterback position.
Starter: Joe Flacco
There wasn’t much to get excited about in 2018 with Case Keenum as the Broncos starting quarterback. That’s one of the many reasons why general manager John Elway traded the Ravens for veteran quarterback Joe Flacco earlier this year. The Broncos surrendered a 2019 fourth-round pick for the rights to Flacco, which could end up being a great deal if he can still produce as a solid starter.
It could essentially be a bargain if Flacco plays good football. Flacco has three years left on his current contract and there is zero remaining in dead money. He’s has a cap hit of just $18.5 million in 2019, which ranks 17th in the league amongst quarterbacks. Flacco is not making a lot of money based on what other veteran quarterbacks make and if he doesn’t work out, then the team can move on rather painlessly.
His game is well-known, and most will point to his postseason run in 2012 when the Ravens went through the Broncos in the first season they had Peyton Manning at quarterback. Flacco played lights out that postseason (11 touchdowns, zero interceptions) and eventually led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, where he won MVP honors. Since then, Flacco has not really come close to that level of play or production.
We have to judge or project Flacco on who he is today and not on the quarterback he used to be – or the fact that he’s just “not Case Keenum.” To examine his potential in 2019 the right way, there first must be a few questions answered about the veteran quarterback.
Can Flacco stay healthy after two years of battling with various injuries?
That’s the biggest question when it comes to Flacco. He did play a full 16-game season in 2017, but Flacco was bothered by a back injury for most of the season. He didn’t look quite like himself and threw for only 3,141 yards – a mark that ranked 21st in the NFL. During the 2017 season, Flacco had a poor touchdown (18) to interception (13) ratio. His play that season (and questions about long-term durability) likely led the Ravens to select Lamar Jackson in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Flacco’s 2018 season started out strong. There was one point early in the season when the Ravens were 100 percent scoring in the red zone. He wasn’t filling the air with footballs, but Flacco in the first month of the season had eight passing touchdowns, only two interceptions and was throwing for a little more than 300 yards per game. After four games, the Ravens were 3-1 and coming off back-to-back victories over the Broncos (Week 3) and the Steelers (Week 4).
Then, the injury bug bit Flacco again. A hip injury limited his 2018 season to just nine games and he was replaced by Jackson. The Ravens changed their entire offense to fit the rookie quarterback’s rushing style and lack of nuance as a passer. The team made the playoffs where Flacco returned healthy, but by that time, he was a backup to Jackson.
Even when they were struggling mightily in the wild card round against the Chargers, the team did not go back to Flacco. He began his Ravens career as a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and ended his time with the Ravens sitting on the bench. This leads us directly into the next question about Flacco.
Is he still capable of playing at a high level?
We have to define “high level” when it comes to Flacco and his potential production for the Broncos. Flacco has never been one of the league’s best passers and nobody should be expecting him to transform into some perfect passer now that he’s in Denver. Instead, Flacco needs to run the system as designed and make good decisions with the football.
Last year, Flacco did have a much better touchdown-to-interception ratio throwing for 12 touchdowns and six interceptions in nine games. He was averaging about 250 passing yards per game for a team that is built much like the Broncos will be molded in 2019. Both teams want to run the ball, play great defense and not really have the passing game lead the way.
However, there is one big difference between the Flacco-led Ravens offense last year and the Broncos offense this year. The talent of wide receivers in Denver is much better than what Flacco had to deal with during the last few years in Baltimore.
Older guys like Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead were Flacco’s top targets with the Ravens in 2018. It’s likely to be quite refreshing to Flacco to see much better players like Courtland Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders and DaeSean Hamilton catching passes from him this year.
Flacco won’t be asked to do much in the Rich Scangarello offense, and he should be able to run the plays in an efficient and effective way based on his history with this offense. Back in 2014 under then Ravens coordinator Gary Kubiak, Flacco had the best season of his career statistically and looked incredibly comfortable and effective in a similar system. The Scangarello offense is going to utilize Flacco for his strengths (play-action passing, big arm) and minimize his weaknesses (throwing on the run). Running a Shanahan/Kubiak system doesn’t mean Flacco will throw for 30 touchdowns (or 27 like he did in 2014), but it does help his comfort level in an offseason that saw the most upheaval of his career.
Can he hold off Drew Lock?
Many are worried about this question the most, although I think it’s the least likely to happen in the way some imagine. Simply put, last year was a special scenario where Flacco had to get hurt, the Ravens completely changed everything for Jackson (because he can’t do what Flacco can) and then didn’t feel like going back to that offense when Jackson was struggling in the playoffs.
As aforementioned, Flacco had the team 3-1 after the first month of the season when the injury bug started again. It’s safe to assume that had he stayed healthy for the entire year, the Ravens would’ve kept Jackson on the bench except for using him as a gadget quarterback.
Instead of playing the “what if” scenario, let’s simply look at Jackson compared to Lock. While Jackson is an elite-level athlete, one could argue that Lock is the better passer. Both quarterbacks had little to no experience working from under center and Jackson only started because Flacco was hurt.
The Ravens went run-heavy and won with Jackson starting and that offensive formula. The Broncos are going to be run-heavy on offense this year, so that will help Lock if he happens to get thrust into the starting lineup – but only due to injury.
I’d say yes, Flacco should be able to hold off the rookie so long as he stays healthy. After watching this team and every practice that was open to the media this offseason, I can safely say that Lock merely isn’t ready. He’s not even getting most of the second-team reps, but more on that a little bit later in this article. Flacco is safe as the clear-cut starter with no threat from Lock… for now.
Future Starter: Drew Lock
Every report during the Reese’s Senior Bowl earlier this year indicated that Elway was almost “stalking” Missouri quarterback Drew Lock. It’s not a coincidence that Elway selected Lock in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. What was surprising was the fact that Elway didn’t use the No. 10 or No. 20 overall pick on the strong-armed gunslinger.
I had a late first-round grade on Lock and felt that in this quarterback-desperate league, someone would take him in the top 10 or the teens at least. That didn’t happen, as Lock miraculously fell to the Broncos in the second round. He was their second second-round pick and they had to move up to No. 42 overall to get him and the potential steal they could get here is outstanding.
I compared his game to that of former Broncos starter Jay Cutler. Like Cutler, Lock is more athletic than you would think, has an incredibly strong arm to make any throw required in the NFL and has some mechanical flaws to clean up. Lock to me could be what Cutler would’ve been if he cared a little more about playing in the NFL. Scouts in the NFL I trust regularly compared Lock to Raiders starter Derek Carr. While I agree with that sentiment, I do think Lock could be much more.
Simply put, Lock has everything you want in a franchise quarterback. He just needs to be more consistent in what he does and how he does it.
Lock’s big arm is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because there is no window too small for him to fit a pass into. However, it’s a curse because he will sometimes try to fit passes in he has no business attempting and will overlook (or bypass) easier throws that would’ve been shorter, but might’ve moved the chains (or kept the drive on schedule). Lock goes for the kill shot with his arm when sometimes nuance and patience is needed. Again, not a bad thing necessarily but something he needs to clean up.
Lock’s big arm also means his mechanics are sometimes out of whack. He can launch a pass 70 yards down the field off his back foot with just a flick of the wrist. It’s an amazing skill to have, but that pass might’ve been better if he had just set his feet and properly set up to throw with the ball released at the right moment over his head.
I’ve talked to Lock several times about this ability. The kid loves that he can sidearm a pass like Patrick Mahomes, but there are times when he does that for no reason or without a defender in his face. I like the fact he can make off-platform throws with ease, but it would be better to execute that pass for a reason and not just because his arm angle got a little lazy.
The biggest topic I’ve brought up whenever talking to Lock is his footwork. When he sets his feet and delivers a throw on time and in rhythm it’s a thing of beauty. Take a look at this pass he threw at the Senior Bowl. I have access to the coaches film, and this angle shows exactly how Lock can throw with touch and trajectory on an intermediate throw.
— Cecil Lammey (@CecilLammey) January 25, 2019
Most will concentrate on his big arm and the big downfield throws, but this single throw shows how he can also throw with nuance and precision. I always talk to Lock about his footwork because ever since I talked to him at the Senior Bowl, Lock has emphasized how important it will be for him to master this part of his craft.
So far in offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp, I’ve seen better footwork from the young passer.
His arm angle is still wild at times, but his footwork looks vastly improved from the Senior Bowl earlier this year. Improved footwork will hopefully help him work from under center, something he only did five times as a senior at Mizzou.
College quarterbacks don’t operate under center that often, and it’s something Lock will certainly have to get used to in the pros – and especially in this Scangarello offense. Lock can be the quarterback of the future for this team, but they just need to give him time.
Reserves: Kevin Hogan, Brett Rypien
The group behind Flacco is led by Kevin Hogan at this time. Yes, he’s even ahead of Lock in the pecking order – at least at the beginning of training camp. Hogan has one key ingredient to his game that no other quarterback on the roster besides Flacco has – experience.
A fifth-round pick of the Chiefs in the 2016 NFL Draft, Hogan had the job of following superstar quarterback Andrew Luck at Stanford. He performed well in college, but Hogan never had what scouts considered a starter’s skill set for the pro level. He failed to impress in the preseason with the Chiefs and was waived at final cut-downs that year. The Browns scooped him up for their practice squad and then eventually elevated him to the active roster.
Hogan appeared in eight games over two years with the Browns, including a small handful of starts. During that brief time as a starter or reserve quarterback, Hogan threw for four touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s just not that good as a starter. Hogan is smart, tough and capable of holding a clipboard, but thinking there’s anything more there with him is just folly.
I know there’s a collective groan from some of the media (myself included) anytime Hogan comes out ahead of Lock with the second-team offense. Simply put, I think the Broncos are wasting valuable practice time for Lock by giving these reps to Hogan. I understand they are making the rookie “earn it” and that’s not a bad thing. However, time is of the essence in the NFL and Lock won’t have much time to work on his game during the regular season – even if he is the primary backup to Flacco.
While Hogan is keeping Lock from seeing most of the second-team snaps, Lock is keeping fellow rookie Brett Rypien from seeing much of any time on the playing field. Rypien is one of the most-interesting undrafted free agents the Broncos signed earlier this offseason. He does have a quality skill set, but I think his best upside is that of a 10-year backup and spot starter.
One aspect of Rypien’s game that gives him an edge is his experience of working from under center. In 2018, Rypien had 48 passing attempts from under center – a rare number for today’s college football – which ranked 15th for all FBS quarterbacks. He has no problem dropping back and analyzing a defense.
Rypien seems bound for the practice squad, but that may come as a risky move for the Broncos. They have five preseason games this year as they’re playing in the Hall of Fame Game to kick off the preseason. That means Rypien will get plenty of exposure early in the preseason and if he impresses during that time, the Broncos may have a difficult time sneaking him through to the practice squad.
The Broncos are hoping that Flacco still has some gas left in the tank and can be a quality starter for them in 2019. So long as he can stay healthy, Flacco should be able to run the Scangarello offense as designed and could thrive in a system that caters to his skill set. Keeping Flacco upright will come down to protecting him as best as the Broncos can. That means offensive line coach Mike Munchak had better get through to guys like left tackle Garett Bolles.
Flacco is not the most-mobile quarterback and is pretty much a statue in the pocket when he sets up to throw. He’s throwing to much better receivers with the Broncos and that should help his numbers, but none of that matters if he’s on his back or scrambling for his life because the o-line is not holding up.
Behind Flacco, we’ll see the progression of potential franchise quarterback Drew Lock. He’s got all the skill to make it big in the NFL, but Lock is not ready for primetime just yet and that’s why Flacco is the understood starter.
For the Broncos to sniff the postseason again they’ll need Flacco to be at his best. That won’t make him one of the best in the league, but it makes him a serviceable starter who is an upgrade over Keenum. We’ll see if that upgrade leads to more wins in 2019.
OTHER BRONCOS 2019 TRAINING CAMP PREVIEWS
- Five ideas to rebuild the Broncos: Flip the organizational model
- Broncos-Chiefs: The good, the bad and the ugly from Thursday
- Cheers and Jeers: For Elway and the Broncos, it’s time
- Around the AFC West: The Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders forge ahead
- 60 Seconds with Cecil: Broncos Country, this is rock bottom