Turnovers loom large over Broncos' quarterback competition

For Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock it may come down to who can take care of the ball best after 2020 saw the Broncos lead the league in turnovers. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos efficiently moved through a training camp practice on Friday, quarterback Drew Lock launched a 50-something-yard pass to KJ Hamler during a 7-on-7 period. A crowd of fans along the hill next to the practice field had been thirsting for just such a play and it drew a rousing ovation.

One fan, perhaps a fatigued veteran of the team's struggle to find a solution at quarterback in the post-Peyton Manning years, simply shouted: "That's the Broncos football I want. Stop the check-downs."

Welcome to the Broncos quarterback derby of 2021 where last season's festival of turnovers has definitely left a mark and brought the team to a position battle between Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. Ball security just might trump everything else when it comes to deciding the starter, come hell or 3-yard dump off.

"Who's the most consistent? Who's the most steady? Who's the most calm?" was how Broncos general manager George Paton previewed the competition at quarterback.

For many of the team's faithful, those words may not awaken echoes of Elway and Manning doing franchise quarterback things, but it is the state of affairs these Broncos face. The Broncos, who have missed the playoff in each of the past five seasons, led the NFL in giveaways last season (32) and also had the worst turnover margin overall at minus-16. Opponents turned those turnovers into 100 points or 22.4% of the points that were scored against the Broncos in 2020.

Lock, despite ranking just 20th in pass attempts last season, tied for the league lead in interceptions and was last in completion percentage. It is safe to say the safety-first approach just might be what tips the scales when Fangio and the rest of the team's offensive coaches make the decision about who the Broncos starter will be.

"There's a fine line," Fangio said this past week about quarterbacks taking the conservative approach. "Check-downs are good, but you need more than check-downs, you need the right mix."

When Fangio was asked if "wow" plays and mistakes counted the same for the quarterbacks, he said: "To me they're about equal, you know, I don't know what the intelligent equation would be of one s---y play that would really affect the game, how many wow plays do you need to wipe that off the books?"

Fangio took great lengths to split the work 50-50 for each of the quarterbacks during the first week of training camp. The Broncos made sure each quarterback got plenty of work with the team's top four receivers along the way as well.

The skim-the-surface, at-first-glance review would say Lock had more of the big plays -- many of those were in 7-on-7, however, with no pass rush -- but Bridgewater piled up completion after completion.

Both avoided the big mistake until Bridgewater closed out camp's first week with a three-interception Saturday against the first-team defense. One was tipped by defensive lineman McTelvin Agim, who then caught the deflection and returned it for what would have been a touchdown. After the practice was over Fangio said "every interception has a story" and he would review to see what the story of Bridgewater's were.

Still, both realize no matter how much grumbling might come from the fans sitting in the sun, turnovers are at the absolute top of the don't-do list, which may make both quarterbacks less inclined to push the ball down the field until a decision is made.

"I feel like I'm a smarter player now," Lock said. "I feel like the chances that I do take are more calculated chances rather than when I was a rookie or in that second year. When I press the ball, it's going to be a safer call. I know better when to check it down and when to get the 5 yards and when to get the 3 yards That's been stressed to me in the building. The gunslinger mentality can still be there, but it has to be a calculated gunslinger."

"It's all about maximizing the reps in your unit and getting your unit to the end zone -- moving the ball and being efficient, whether you're with the 2s, the 3s or if we have to go to the equipment managers and the folks serving us food in the cafeteria," Bridgewater said. "You just want to be efficient. In the end, the decision makers will make that decision based off the things that they see."

The 10,000-foot view is the Broncos defense, with the additions in the secondary to go with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb together again in the pass rush, could be one of the league's best. They have catch-and-run weapons in the passing game with Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Hamler, Tim Patrick and Noah Fant. They have four returning starters on the offensive line.

The quarterback's job, at least early in the season, with a coaching staff that needs to escape September for the first time with something other than disappointment (Fangio is 0-for-September over the past two seasons), may simply be Paton's consistent, steady and calm.

The coming weeks could bring at least some of "the separation" Fangio is looking for. The Broncos will practice against the Minnesota Vikings for two days before facing the Vikings in their first preseason game Aug. 14.

Fangio has said Lock and Bridgewater would each "probably" start a preseason game before a decision is made.

"I would expect and hope that whoever we pick and is named the starter can play well enough and be the starter," Fangio said. "If the play doesn't back it up, we have a capable backup. I'm not saying that to make whoever starts off nervous. That's just the fact of life in the NFL at all positions. Hopefully whoever we pick stays in there, plays well and we're winning."