ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Just a week removed from facing Patrick Mahomes, Drew Lock and the Broncos find themselves approaching a game against another potential long-term foe.
Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert has found early success after being taken with the sixth-overall pick in April's NFL Draft, and he earned the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month honors for his play in October.
Herbert, an Oregon product, has thrown for 1,542 yards, 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions during his five starts, and he threw 10 touchdowns and one pick during his three starts in October.
His 108.1 quarterback rating ranks seventh in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks, and he's already distinguished himself to Head Coach Vic Fangio as a player that the Broncos will have to match wits with for a long time.
"Ultimately, this guy is just very talented," Fangio said Thursday. "It looks to me like he's made up of the right stuff to be a quarterback in the NFL. Fortunately for them and unfortunately for us, I think they found their quarterback for the next 10 to 15 years."
Lock and Herbert were similarly ranked prospects coming out of college. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah told DenverBroncos.com in April that he assigned Lock and Herbert the same grade, though he said he likely would've ranked Lock slightly higher.
"[Lock] would've been in that conversation with Herbert, but I would've probably had him over Herbert," Jeremiah said. "I gave them the exact same grade, but I think Lock's a little bit more of a playmaker. Herbert's a little bit more conservative. You can kind of split those hairs either way."
Lock showed his playmaking nature against both the Patriots and Chiefs, as he's looked for big plays down the field since his return from a shoulder injury. He wasn't able to connect on many of those passes, and Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said Thursday there are times when it would be best to simply take a completion.
"He's still a very young quarterback, and he will be through this full season," Shurmur said. "He's only played in [eight complete] games. People forget that. All those things are things that you work on through the length of a long career. It's certainly what we do with him. You want to be aggressive, and you want to take advantage of what the defense presents down the field. It's also important that you get completions."
Lock and the Broncos will particularly focus on third down, an area in which they rank 29th in the NFL. The Chargers' offense, by contrast, ranks seventh in the NFL in third-down conversion rate.
The Broncos were 5-of-14 on third down against the Chiefs, but Lock said he saw several plays that were easily correctable.
"I missed a couple of baby throws, those that I made in Pop Warner, and that's unacceptable by me," Lock said Wednesday. "Again, like I said, I'm working on that not happening again and just sharpening the focus a little bit there on those third downs."
There are plenty of factors that will decide Sunday's outcome, including a pair of defenses that each feature talented pass-rushers and secondaries. Lock and Herbert, though, will garner most of the attention as they aim to prove they can be the new faces of a division rivalry.
The two players certainly have a long way to go before they're Manning and Rivers, but Lock and Herbert will aim to show they can offer similar longevity and consistency at the quarterback position.
For Lock to do that, it likely begins with protecting the football. He has thrown two interceptions in back-to-back weeks, and the Broncos' minus-eight turnover margin is second worst in the NFL. Denver has turned the ball over multiple times in five of its six games, and the team has won the turnover battle just once this season.
Lock also will need to boost an offense that has averaged just 16 points in the three full games in which he's manned the offense. The young quarterback has thrown just one touchdown this season — he has rushed for another — and is hoping to help the offense reach a more productive output. Perhaps he can do so against just the second opponent that he will face for a second time in the NFL. In his first start against the Chargers — which doubled as his first career start — Lock completed 18-of-28 passes for 134 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a game-winning drive.
"I thought he got better as the game went on," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said Thursday of that performance. "That was unfortunate because I like for rookie quarterbacks to get uncomfortable as the game goes on. I thought he got better. I liked him when he came out of college. He was a good quarterback then, and he's a good quarterback now. He's going to get better. He has a bright future in this league. I don't think there's anything he can't do. He can throw from the pocket and he can move around and extend plays."
Should Lock lead the team to a win in his second game against the Chargers, it would secure Denver's first three-game winning streak against a division opponent since the Broncos beat the Chargers five times (including a postseason win) from 2013-15.
The second-year player's entire development, of course, cannot be judged based on this Week 8 game. The Broncos' contest against the Chargers this weekend is just one data point on a scatterplot that will help the Broncos determine Lock's trajectory.
"It's one of the pieces of the puzzle," Fangio said Thursday. "We still have eight or nine games after this one. It's just another step. I think he will bounce back. The one thing I do like about Drew is that after a bad play — or in this case, a so-called bad game — I think he doesn't let him drag himself down. I think he plays the next play and the next game with the same confidence and energy that he would if things were going much, much better. I like his mentality that way and I'm just hopeful that all 11 of us out there are operating on the same page and doing a good job."
If the Broncos' offense can accomplish that task, Lock may be able to earn the first win in a potentially long rivalry between the two young quarterbacks.