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Ask Aric: How can Drew Lock improve in 2020?

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —Veterans are back at UCHealth Training Center, Drew Lock is leading some of his teammates through walkthroughs and the Broncos' season opener is just over six weeks away.

We've reached August, and I couldn't be happier that football is back.

In this edition of "Ask Aric," I take a look at how Drew Lock can improve in 2020, what the Broncos' tight end room looks like after Jeff Heuerman's release and how the left tackle competition is impacted by Elijah Wilkinson being placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.

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Greetings. Considering that Elijah Wilkinson is now on the PUP list, are they going to give a chance to Calvin Anderson as a Tackle, or might they look on FA for a replacement? A Mile High Salute from the Broncos Fan Club in Costa Rica. - Oscar J.

Oscar, while Anderson, Jake Rodgers, Quinn Bailey and Hunter Watts could all presumably compete for reps at left tackle, everything we've heard since the NFL Draft suggests that the competition is between Bolles and Wilkinson. If Wilkinson isn't able to return from his injury in time, that obviously gives Bolles the edge to earn that spot. That said, several reports from earlier this week suggest that Wilkinson could be ready to return by the time the Broncos take the field for full-speed practices in mid-August. Even if both players are healthy, though, I'd still give the edge to Bolles to earn the starting job. Asked about the competition on Tuesday — before the news about Wilkinson broke — Fangio said Bolles was in the "best spot" of his young career.

"I do think Garett — I saw him the other day — has had a very good offseason," Fangio said. "I think he feels he's in his best spot both physically, mentally and emotionally than he's ever been in during his career. I think he feels good coming back with the same offensive line coach for the first time, I think, in his career. He's had me as the head coach now for two years. I think the arrow is up as far as it goes for Garett. That's easy to say here as we sit late July. We'll see how it unfolds. I think he's in a good spot as it relates to everything as much as he can be."

Hi Aric, I'm excited to see Drew Lock just like every other Broncos fan. I think the Broncos will go as far as Lock takes us. My questions for you is: what do you see as Lock's weaknesses and what will he need to work on during the [pre]season?  — Orlando C.

Orlando, I don't mean this in a negative way, but I think Lock can improve in almost every area. 

If you're a Broncos fan, that should actually be great news, because he played fairly well in his five-game audition to end 2019. Lock completed more than 64 percent of his passes, threw for 1,020 yards and recorded a 7-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He was sacked just five times in those five games, and he led the team to a 4-1 record. That, in my eyes, is that baseline for what Lock can in this league. I'd be very surprised if he played any worse in 2020, which is reassuring. Denver already proved it could win four of five games with Lock playing at that level, so I doubt Denver is going to have a major fall off in 2020. Now, if he posted those numbers three or four years into the league, I think we'd probably be having a different conversation. At some point, the Broncos will want to see Lock be the reason the team wins game. As things stand today, though, the team seems encouraged after Lock posted decent numbers as a rookie.

With plenty of room to improve, it's quite reasonable to expect Lock to post better stats in 2020. Lock's footwork, accuracy, decision-making (both in when to run and where to throw the ball), time-management and understanding of the offense can all improve. Decision-making, in particular, is an area in which most young quarterbacks need to improve. Lock's interceptions against the Chargers and Texans were both the result of ill-advised throws, and a more-seasoned quarterback would likely realize to not take that chance. He's talked about his gunslinger mentality in the past, but there's a time and place for that attitude. Similarly, Lock will learn when to dive for a first down and when to slide, as he'll need to stay healthy for the team to realize its potential. That's not a knock on Lock at all — and the fact that he already posted good numbers while he still has so much room to grow? That's an encouraging sign for what could come next.

Hi Aric! I was wondering with NFL teams having few or no fans in the stadiums this season, would teams be able to turn on loud audio during the home games to simulate crowd noise during big plays or obvious momentum swings?  - Joe O.

Joe, I asked Broncos President and CEO Joe Ellis this question during his media availability last week, and it sounds like the Broncos are talking through different options if fans can't be in attendance. 

"Playing football in a 75,000-seat stadium without any fans is going to be odd if that were to happen," Ellis said. "No question about it. Hopefully we can do some things to spice up the environment a little bit and add to the entertainment value of television minus fans, since they'll be missing. No concrete plans. Some things have been talked about, but no concrete plans. We will do this banner program in the lower bowl regardless [to place advertising coverings over the first few rows of seats].That's about it for now. There's still a lot of stuff in the works and a ways to go before we are able to let fans know if they can come back in the stadium to watch games. I will say this, almost to a tee when I've been out and about town — people want to come watch us play. They really do, but we have to respect the fact that it's important for everybody in this community and in this state to stay safe, follow the protocols that the governor has put in place and do everything we can to not put people in harm's way. So, we'll follow that."

One important note: Ellis did not reveal how many fans would be allowed at Empower Field at Mile High, nor did he say when the Broncos would make an announcement about if a limited number of fans can attend the season opener. 

Aric, how many tight ends do you think the Broncos will keep on roster and who might make the team besides Fant, Vannett, Okwuegbunam and Beck? Who could be traded or placed on the practice squad? - Greg G.

We received this question a few weeks ago, but I thought it would be good to revist after the Broncos released veteran Jeff Heuerman on Friday. Greg, I think you're spot on with those four players — Noah Fant, Nick Vannett, Albert Okweugbunam and Andrew Beck — being the most likely to make the roster. Fant and Okwuegbunam are major threats in the passing game, Vannett should help the Broncos in the run game and Beck has positional versatility that makes him valuable. 

That leaves Jake Butt, Troy Fumagalli and Austin Fort — and it wouldn't surprise me if two of those players end up on the 16-player practice squad. The practice squad eligibility rules were already relaxed under the new CBA, and that only increased when the NFL and NFLPA agreed upon a 16-player practice squad for the 2020 season. All three players, though, would be subject to waivers before they could return to the Broncos' practice squad.

Hello, I am wondering with the possibility of being able to opt out of this season, which is being reported on that players may be able to opt out of this year's season. Do you think any of the Broncos players would use this and not play this year? - Alex C.

Alex, although we've heard of several high-profile players across the league choosing to opt out, the Broncos have had just one player choose not to play this season. Reserve defensive tackle Kyle Peko qualified for the league's Reserve/Higher Risk Opt-Out list, and the Broncos officially placed him there on Tuesday. John Elway said earlier that day he had heard "rumblings" of other players considering an opt-out, but there haven't been any reports in the days since. 

According to reports, the NFL is aiming to make Tuesday or Wednesday the opt-out deadline, so we should know a final list soon enough. And while the Broncos haven't been impacted much, a couple of their opponents have had key players opt-out. The Jets, Denver's Week 4 opponent, saw star linebacker C.J. Mosley opt out this week just days after they traded Jamal Adams to Seattle. New England, meanwhile, has had a league-high nine players opt out for the season. The Broncos are slated to play the Patriots in Week 5.

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