For the first time since the 2017 season, the Denver Broncos will host a true open competition at quarterback wherein the first-team reps will be split 50/50. The days of yore featured heavyweight bouts between Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch (lol) and after Case Keenum’s unassailed starting job in 2018, Joe Flacco’s in 2019, and Drew Lock’s in 2020, the Broncos are mixing things up this year.
Newcomer Teddy Bridgewater has thrown down the proverbial gauntlet at the feet of Lock. Acquired via trade from Carolina the day before the 2021 NFL draft, Bridgewater brings seven years of NFL experience and 49 career starts to the battle vs. Lock’s two years and 18 starts.
Bridgewater is no joke. And Lock knows it. He feels it.
Meanwhile, Brett Rypien will bring up the rear as the fail-safe’s fail-safe. It’s a safe bet to assume the Boise State product makes the Broncos’ final roster but with the NFL’s newer, loosey-goosey practice squad rules and gameday roster expansion, there’s a chance he could be relegated there.
With that said, Rypien is not a factor for the starting job, barring injury. So with training camp set to kick off next Wednesday, July 28, let’s preview this QB battle by breaking down the contenders, starting with the transplant.
Bridgewater was a Minnesota Vikings first-round pick back in 2014 out of Louisville. His NFL quarterbacking career was off to a more-than-solid start as he led the Vikings to an 11-5 record in his second year and a playoff berth.
It earned him a Pro Bowl nod. Bridgewater had momentum and was definitely a young gun on the rise.
Then tragedy struck as Bridgewater suffered a grievous knee injury during an OTA practice that not only threatened his NFL career but potentially his very life. Fortunately, doctors were able to save his leg and surgeons did fine work of putting him back together again but his injury-caused absence forced the Vikings to scramble at quarterback, which saw the team acquire Sam Bradford via trade in 2016.
From there, Bridgwater slowly worked his way back to health and was cleared to resume his NFL career in 2017, though, by that time, the Vikings were well-invested in Bradford and had signed Keenum as a veteran backup. When Bradford went down with a knee injury early in the 2017 season, then-Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur opted to call Keenum’s number, who went on to win 11 games, leading Minnesota all the way to the NFC Championship game where the team fell to the eventual World-Champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Because of his injury, the Vikings did not exercise Bridgewater’s fifth-year option, as was the team’s prerogative as a former first-round pick, and so the young QB hit the free-agent market alongside Keenum, signing with the New York Jets. On the doorstep of the season-opener, the Jets traded Bridgewater to the New Orleans Saints, where he spent the ensuing two years.
Bridgewater started just one game for the Saints in 2018 (a loss), though he went on to start five contests in relief of Drew Brees the following year, finishing that season 5-0. This earned Bridgewater a fat free-agent contract the following offseason from the Carolina Panthers, who signed him to a three-year deal worth $63 million.
The Panthers hoped they’d found their successor to Cam Newton but Bridgewater and the entire team struggled, especially after star running back Christian McCaffrey went down with an ankle injury early in the season. Bridgewater struggled to rekindle the same magic he’d conjured in Minnesota and New Orleans and the Panthers finished the year 5-11.
When Carolina acquired Sam Darnold via trade from the Jets this past spring, the writing was on the wall for Bridgewater, who suddenly found himself being courted by a familiar front-office face. George Paton, who was part of the Vikings front office that drafted Bridgewater in 2014, was now calling the shots in Denver as the general manager and executed a trade to bring his former project to the Mile High City.
- Football IQ
- Game manager
- Average Arm Strength
- Injury Concerns
- Conservative nature
Ace Up his Sleeve
If Bridgewater has any leg up in this competition beyond what I’ve listed above, it’s that this isn’t his first rodeo with Coach Shurmur. Although Bridgewater appeared in just one game for the Vikings with Shurmur as the coordinator — a Week 15 crisis that saw him enter in the fourth quarter and throw two passes, one of which was picked off — he spent the better part of two years in that playbook.
While things have certainly changed schematically in Shurmur’s offense, for Bridgewater, it’ll be mostly a game of learning new nomenclature as opposed to new concepts. This experience with Shurmur goes a long way toward leveling the playing field vs. Lock.
During the 2019 pre-draft process, then-Broncos GM John Elway was rumored to be enamored with Lock. When the former Missouri star plummeted out of the first round, seeing the likes of Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, and Dwayne Haskins hearing their respective names called ahead of him, Elway stayed patient and didn’t reach.
In the second round, as Elway turned in the pick for Dalton Risner at No. 41 overall, he consummated a trade-up for Lock, taking the signal-caller at No. 42. Lock arrived in Denver with the gusto of a first-rounder, despite being an early Day 2 pick because of his swagger, sure, but also because he’d been mocked all year long in Round 1.
However, the Broncos had just acquired Flacco via trade from Baltimore and moved forward with the former Super Bowl MVP as the ‘understood’ starter. Alas, Lock suffered an injury to his throwing thumb in Denver’s third preseason game, and with Flacco in the fold, the Broncos felt no urgency to rush the rookie back to health, placing him on injured reserve despite a negative fan backlash.
Flacco struggled as the starter, then got hurt. By Week 8, he was on injured reserve. By this time, Lock had been healthy for nearly a month, and yet, the Broncos bided their time, resisting activating the rookie while the journeyman backup Brandon Allen held down the fort, starting three games.
In a matter of about 24 hours, Lock went from IR to the starting lineup, making his NFL debut in the Broncos’ Week 13 home tilt vs. the Los Angeles Chargers. Lock tossed two touchdowns and won his first career start.
The next week, Lock and company rolled into Houston and absolutely destroyed Deshaun Watson and the Texans, who went on to win the AFC South and make the playoffs. Lock tossed three touchdowns and eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark, making him the first rookie QB to ever do that in his first career road start.
Lock was then dealt a reality check as he ran into the blizzard-driven buzzsaw that was the Kansas City Chiefs. But the kid bounced back, finishing the season strong with two more wins. When it was all said and done, Lock led the Broncos to a 4-1 finish as a rookie.
It was enough that Elway and head coach Vic Fangio opted to release Flacco and did not pursue and big-named veteran to come in even as a backup. The Broncos settled for Jeff Driskel to serve as that veteran fail-safe and boy, did the team pay a price for it.
Not long after, the entire world was rocked by a pandemic, which saw the NFL close its doors, canceling all offseason training programs and the preseason. The pandemic also led the league to negotiate a unique, truncated version of training camp, which limited the reps (relative to a traditional camp) and led to players not walking through the facility doors until August.
With the Broncos having fired offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello following the 2019 season, despite his success developing Lock relatively quickly, the second-year QB was faced with the mammoth obstacle of learning and assimilating a new system under Coach Shurmur without the benefit of OTAs or the preseason.
The results, in hindsight, were predictable. Lock and the Broncos’ offense struggled. Adding insult to the issue, he was injured in Week 2, hurting his throwing shoulder, which led to him missing the next two games. After a month away, Lock returned in Week 6 and led the Broncos to an improbable road victory over New England, becoming the youngest QB to ever win in Gillette Stadium.
The triumph was short-lived, however, as Lock would enter a deep and concerning slump that would last from Week 7 through Week 10, with an ever so tantalizing remit in the fourth quarter of Week 8. In that game, Lock led the Broncos back from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Justin Herbert and the Chargers with a walk-off touchdown pass to rookie wideout KJ Hamler.
The next two weeks, alas, were concerning as the slump persisted. During that streak, Lock showed alarming signs of regression from sloppy footwork and poor mechanical discipline to apparent struggles in reading the field. He seemed to go backward in his development and repeated the same ol’ mistakes often.
However, the kid bounced back with aplomb in Week 11, defeating a Miami Dolphins club that was quarterbacked by rookie top-5 pick Tua Tagovailoa and seemed destined for a playoff berth. Lock played well and handed Miami a loss which saw the rookie QB suffer a mysterious injury and Ryan Fitzpatrick take over the Dolphins. That loss, however, completely upended Miami’s momentum and the team would miss January football.
Week 12 was an absolute travesty as Lock was ruled ineligible to play vs. the New Orleans Saints due to potential COVID-19 exposure after Driskel showed up to a QB meeting room infected and the entire room was sent into NFL-mandated quarantine. Despite not having a quarterback, the NFL strong-armed Denver to play the Saints, which was a debauchery of the game despite undrafted rookie wide receiver Kendall Hinton’s Herculean effort.
Lock returned to the lineup the following week, and while the Broncos would only win one remaining game (poetically against Bridgewater and the Panthers where Lock tossed three touchdowns en route to an easy road victory), the second-year QB’s play had stabilized dramatically. However, when the Broncos finished 5-11 and missed the playoffs for the fifth-straight year, there were consequences.
Elway relinquished his role as GM and his replacement — Paton — while publicly positive and optimistic on Lock’s prospects, made short work of acquiring a veteran competitor to challenge the incumbent. The Broncos tried it with Lock as the ‘understood’, unquestioned starter, and the results didn’t come out in the wash the way the team hoped.
By not drafting a quarterback at pick No. 9, Paton’s Broncos telegraphed that the team hasn’t given up on Lock, however, this time around, he’ll have to sing for his supper.
- Very strong arm
- Athletic ability to improvise off-schedule
- Confidence and swagger
- One year of experience in Shurmur’s scheme
- Unchanged footwork and technical foundation from college
- A penchant to go for the jugular and risky throws
- Questionable decision-making
Ace Up his Sleeve
Last year, this was ‘Drew Lock’s team’ and that emotional loyalty in the locker room counts for something. But at the same time, leadership is Bridgewater’s calling card so as much as Lock’s teammates might be rooting for his success, if it doesn’t translate sooner than later, it won’t be difficult for guys to throw in with Teddy.
Another plus Lock really has going for him is coaching continuity, which he hasn’t had year-over-year since his sophomore-to-junior campaigns at Mizzou. Lock now has a firm foundation in Shurmur’s scheme, which should serve as a launching pad of sorts if all the offseason work the QB has put in comes to fruition.
Lastly, Lock spent 9-10 hours in an intensive film study with Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning. We don’t yet know how the benefits of that interaction, and what the knowledge gleaned therefrom, will look like for the third-year QB. But it can’t hurt, eh? Also, Elway still dwells at Dove Valley as president of football operations.
While it’s hard to predict, if I were a betting man, I’d wager on Lock — if for no other reason than the continuity aspect. But again, Bridgewater is a serious threat and it wouldn’t surprise me much to see him vanquish Lock.
The rub: fans shouldn’t expect to see a whole new-and-improved Lock when training camp opens because just as we saw in OTAs this past spring, he’s still very much the up-and-down, in-chrysalis quarterback Broncos Country has come to know, and in most cases, love.
The strictures of training camp practices favor the more buttoned-up game manager, which might make one want to bet on Bridgewater. But Coach Fangio has stated that the preseason games, of which there are three this year, will comprise the lion’s share of the data that gets factored into the team’s decision on who wins this competition.
That gives Lock an edge because he’s always had a bit of a ‘gamer’ in him. When the lights come on and he steps onto the stage, that’s usually when Lock’s best play is most likely to come to the surface.
Either way, the good news is, even if Lock falls flat on his face and fails to launch in Year 3, Paton and the Broncos did well by seriously raising the floor of the team’s quarterback room. Even if Lock starts off the season and gets hurt or demoted, Bridgewater is the type of QB that can keep a team as talented as Denver competitive, especially if the two-headed rushing attack comes alive.
Stay tuned. All will be known in due time.
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