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Drew Lock and the higher ceiling presumption

NFL: AUG 26 Preseason - Seahawks at Cowboys Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Like many Seattle Seahawks fans, I wanted Drew Lock to be the team’s starting quarterback. He may still get that opportunity down the line, but for now it’s Geno Smith’s chance to turn his career around a whopping eight years removed from the last time he was a Week 1 starter.

The reasons for preferring Lock over Geno were understandable; he is much younger than Smith, has a stronger arm, is more mobile, and he figures to have a higher ceiling than Smith within the parameters of the Seahawks offense. We’ve seen Smith’s tenure with the New York Jets and it was horrible, and his few emergency starts during Russell Wilson’s absence were hardly anything to write home about. If the team’s going to be as bad as projected, at least go for the guy who might produce more excitement and splash plays.

This might not be a popular take, but Friday night’s performance against the Cowboys pretty much snapped me back into reality with Lock.

As I noted on Winners and Losers, Lock has had quarterback competitions against Joe Flacco, Teddy Bridgewater, and Geno Smith. Actually, he didn’t have a competition with Flacco as much as he had one with Kevin Hogan to get the backup job before his thumb injury back in 2019. Unlike this season, Lock did start out with first-team reps in training camp against Bridgewater but lost anyway.

The only year where Lock was unquestioned QB1 was in 2020, and you don’t need to be good at reading charts to know how awful Lock was.

Lock was 2nd among all QBs in air yards (depth of target from beyond the line of scrimmage) and dead last in Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE). The 2020 Broncos ranked 29th in yards per drive, 28th in points per drive, 21st in punts per drive, and 31st in turnovers per drive. While a couple of those Broncos games included the Kendall Hinton farce, and starts by Brett Rypien and Jeff Driskel, Lock was at the helm for 77% of the team’s offensive snaps and his group oscillated between punting and turning it over.

For all of the talk about what Geno has (or hasn’t shown) in his NFL career, Lock’s sample size is not insignificant. His 21 starts and 24 games played over three seasons have shown him to be one of the worst QBs in the league.

(And yes, Geno Smith was similarly at the bottom of the league in his first two seasons in the NFL. This is not an “in defense of Geno Smith” column.)

And for all of the hoopla over his arm and his ability to stretch the field, he’s not been good at actually completing those passes.

From Sports Info Solutions:

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan ended the 2020 season with an NFL-high 626 pass attempts and he likes to throw long, so it’s not shocking that he’s second on this list. Perhaps a surprise in the top eight is Drew Lock of the Broncos, a second-year signal caller, though he was known for his arm in college. While he threw the ball deep often, his on-target percentage of 50% was below league-average (52%) and ranked tied for 19th among our 32 qualifiers.

I’ve admittedly been in the camp that’s said Lock’s ceiling is higher than Smith’s, but I completely question that now. What are we basing Lock’s presumed higher ceiling on? His physical gifts? The five games he played in 2019? Because his regular season performances have not been consistently better than Smith’s, and that’s a low bar to clear.

We are conditioned to believe early round draft picks (except Geno, apparently) got there through some form of merit and thus any flaws and struggles they have in the pros are fixable. Other than being “not Geno” the entire selling point of Lock has boiled down to “what if the Broncos coaches were the problem?” and the belief that the Seahawks could get him closer to what he was projected to be...

...But draft busts are rooted to the bench or given the boot early in their careers all the time. Why should Lock get any more benefit of the doubt than a host of other busts taken in his draft range? DeShone Kizer was a second-round pick and is now out of the NFL after going 0-15 as a starter on the eventual 0-16 Cleveland Browns. Not one team is clamoring to bring him on board to see his untapped potential. Christian Hackenburg was taken 51st overall for some reason by the New York Jets and literally never threw an NFL pass. Paxton Lynch was a late 2016 first-round pick by the Broncos and even had a cup of coffee with Seattle, and he hasn’t been on an NFL roster since 2019. Jimmy Clausen was taken 49th overall by the Panthers in 2010 and oozed so much ineptitude that by 2011 they didn’t hesitate to go with Cam Newton at number one and he never threw another pass in Carolina again. Upside.exe is nowhere to be found among that pack.

Here’s a sampling of Drew Lock pre-draft scouting reports. The bold emphases are mine because they largely describe Lock’s Broncos career and a whole lot of the Cowboys game from Friday.

Lance Zierlein,

Full-field reader offering prototypical size and arm talent, but one that has a concerning lack of accuracy and consistency against top opponents. Inside of each game, Lock makes reads and throws that are worthy of an early pick. There will also be plays in the same game that highlight his random inaccuracy and issues defeating pocket pressure. He has as much pure talent as any quarterback from the 2018 draft, but he won’t reach that lofty potential unless he improves his accuracy and learns to play with better in-game presence.

MMQB, Sports Illustrated:

His arm talent is as good as anyone’s in this class; Lock will stress defenses vertically and horizontally with his arm. His athleticism combined with that arm talent give him the Mahomes-ian ability to zip throws from awkward platforms. He can also threaten with his legs, extending plays as a passer and picking up yardage as a runner (867 yards and 6.1 per-rushing attempt for his collegiate career). Shaky receiver play cut into his completion percentage early in his career (54.5% as a freshman through junior, 62.9% last year), but Lock is also streaky due to some bad habits that keep popping up. He has a Flacco/Cutler-like habit to drift back for no particular reason and rely solely on that arm talent. A career 52.5 completion percentage and 13-to-14 TD/INT ratio over 10 career games against ranked opponents is concerning as well.

Matt Miller, Bleacher Report:

Drew Lock has excellent arm talent and an attacking, gunslinger mentality, but his poor mechanics will frustrate his coaches unless he’s reined in. His natural gifts are obvious, and as a three-year starter at Missouri, he’s one of the most NFL-prepared quarterbacks in the class. But with the remarkable also comes the subpar decision-making when pressured and poor accuracy when his footwork falls apart. Lock has legitimate starting talent, but he needs a coach who can clean up his playing style and build an offense around his deep ball and movement skills.

“We know what we have in Geno, we should see what Lock has!” has been a common refrain on this site and among other Seahawks fans. And again, I understand the thought process! Just in Seattle we’ve got three preseasons of Geno and three regular season starts, whereas Lock has been with backups in his limited time here.

Seattle’s coaching staff most likely knows what the Broncos already knew: Lock is not an NFL caliber starting quarterback and probably never will be. That’s the real reason he has seldom worked with the starters this entire camp and into preseason. There is no mystery to be had here. What you’ve seen of him in Denver and briefly in Seattle probably is as good as it gets.

The book has seemingly long been written on Geno off the back of his horrid 2013 and 2014 seasons, yet for some reason we are working on the idea of “what-if?” with Lock. But there is tape! Lots of it! It’s been mostly bad! For every cool deep ball he throws to Penny Hart...

...he has deep album cuts of panicball littered throughout his record store:

Or he’s doing this:

Lock’s had chances to win quarterback competitions when given first- and second-team reps and lost them both to veterans who hadn’t started full-time in years. Some may see that as damning of Pete Carroll and Vic Fangio, two defensive-minded, turnover avoidance-obsessed coaches, but I cannot see that as anything other than a Drew Lock problem.

I am not vouching for Geno Smith as anything other than a backup-level QB and a bottom-tier starter whose bad moments will likely show in differently maddening ways. What I am arguing is that it is not a travesty nor is it unfair that he got the starting job. Not only is Lock’s ceiling probably a lot lower than realized — we’re talking at or below current Geno Smith — his floor is that of someone who could struggle to stick on an NFL roster much longer with his glaring flaws.

From a head coach’s perspective and desire to field the most competitive team possible, if your choices are an unremarkable bad quarterback and a highly volatile bad quarterback, you’re inclined to pick Option A. That’s what Pete Carroll has done, and now we wait to see if Lock will get his chance later on in the season... provided he survives Tuesday’s roster cuts.