For the first time in a decade, the Seahawks will open the 2022 season with a new starting quarterback under center after trading Russell Wilson to the Broncos for a bevy of draft picks and three veteran players.
Barring an unforeseen move for another quarterback, Seattle will turn to either Drew Lock – who arrived as part of the Wilson deal – or Geno Smith as the successor for the nine-time Pro Bowler. On the surface, with both players carrying losing records with more than 20 career starts under their belts, those two former second-round picks duking it out at the most important position in sports understandably may not inspire the fan base.
But while Smith appears to hold an early advantage due to his prior experience running offensive coordinator Shane Waldron’s offense and popularity in the locker room, if the Seahawks hope to unearth a long-term successor out of this competition, Lock presents the only viable option for numerous reasons. Just 25 years old, he has a cannon for an arm, boasts underrated athleticism to create as a runner and improviser, and has excelled in the past as a play action passer in a similar scheme.
Over the past two-plus months, coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have served up plenty of praise for Lock, who they held in high regard after an outstanding career at Missouri and a strong week at the Senior Bowl. When reflecting on his struggles in Denver, which included losing his starting job to Teddy Bridgewater a year ago in the preseason, the team’s brain trust agreed that circumstances held him back and a new environment could help unlock his potential.
“You go back to his first year when he was balling as a rookie, when he was 4-1, his third-down numbers were terrific,” Carroll told reporters on March 16. “Taking care of the football really well. For whatever reason, the coordinator left after that time, times changed for him, and he didn’t play to that same level. So exactly what we have evaluated, the process that we evaluated, he showed. John [Schneider] stayed with it and followed him all the way through his career, and we’ve watched it happen. We think he’s still that guy and so we’ll see.”
“He is a guy that, in my opinion, the media has beat down a little bit. We are excited to get him into our culture with our coaching staff,” Schneider added.
Normally oozing with unbridled optimism, Carroll and Schneider’s comments have been met with largely with skepticism by experts and fans alike. After all, Lock led the NFL in interceptions thrown in 2020 and couldn’t hold off a journeyman in Bridgewater from taking his job away last August, indicators that typically suggest a player doesn’t have what it takes to be a franchise quarterback.
In 24 games since entering the NFL, Lock has thrown 25 total touchdown passes, a mark Wilson equaled or surpassed in eight of his 10 seasons with the Seahawks. He’s also thrown 20 interceptions during that span, or a little under 25 percent of Wilson’s career total in 134 more games. His career completion rate sits at 59.3 percent, which is two percent less than Wilson’s worst season in 2017.
With Wilson already having a foot in the door in Canton, such a comparison head-to-head isn’t a fair one to gauge his chances of success in Seattle, however. Though Lock’s first three seasons didn’t go as envisioned and led to his exit from the Mile High City, for those doubting him as a viable answer for the franchise, history confirms a young quarterback of his talent level can struggle out of the gate before eventually turning things around in a better situation.
According to Pro Football Reference, since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, Lock is one of 26 quarterbacks to have thrown 25 or fewer touchdowns, tossed 20 or more interceptions, and posted a 60 percent or lower completion percentage while starting at least 20 games in their first three NFL seasons.
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Headlined by first-round busts Jamarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf, several former top picks on this list never rebounded from disastrous starts to their career and found themselves out of football entirely within five years. Others such as Blaine Gabbert, who remains in the league with the Buccaneers after a brutal start with the Jaguars, managed to secure backup roles and stick around for 10-plus seasons. That’s not company any quarterback wants to keep.
Looking at those 26 players, with Lock, Gabbert, and Colt McCoy being omitted since they are still active in the NFL, only seven of the other 23 players eclipsed 100 career passing touchdowns before hanging up their cleats. 14 of them – or more than 50 percent – didn’t even reach 50 touchdown passes, with five of those players – including Leaf and Russell – not throwing another touchdown after their third season.
Statistically speaking, 15 players (65 percent) from this group made less than 28 starts for the rest of their respective careers. Nine of those players started six or fewer games after their third season. Based on those percentages, the majority of quarterbacks who haven’t fared well as starters early haven’t been able to right the ship with or without a change of scenery.
But interestingly, on the opposite end of the spectrum, most of the eight players who did remain starters over multiple seasons after their third season turned things around in a big way. Six of those eight players played in at least one Pro Bowl later in their career and two of them – Steve Young and Dan Fouts – received multiple First-Team All-Pro selections. Each of these rare comeback stories offered unique differences.
Fouts looked like anything but a Hall of Famer in his first three seasons with the Chargers, throwing 16 touchdowns compared to a whopping 36 interceptions. In today’s NFL, he likely would have been benched long before he had the opportunity to throw that many picks, but the organization stuck with him and he led the league in passing yards four consecutive seasons from 1979 to 1982. A two-time All-Pro selection, he was inducted to Canton in 1993.
As for Young, he endured a rocky start to his NFL career with the Buccaneers after a stellar career at BYU and a brief stint in the USFL, throwing 11 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in his first two seasons. But after being traded to the 49ers, he flashed his elite talent by throwing 10 touchdowns and no picks in eight games behind Joe Montana in 1987 and after waiting several years to finally become the starter, he won two MVP awards and earned All-Pro honors three times on his way to Canton.
Looking at a pair of other success stories, long before he became a respected starter for three different teams, Alex Smith nearly played his way out of the league scuffling under multiple offensive coordinators with the 49ers. After being drafted first overall in 2005, he threw 16 touchdowns and 31 interceptions in his first three seasons and then missed his fourth season with a shoulder injury.
But upon the arrival of coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011, Smith enjoyed a tremendous rebirth, leading San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game that year. Joining the Chiefs via trade in 2013, he thrived in coach Andy Reid’s offense and led the team to four playoff appearances, making the Pro Bowl in three of the next five seasons before being replaced by Patrick Mahomes.
Three decades earlier, Steve Bartkowski traveled a similar path with the Falcons. Nearly washed out of the league after throwing 37 interceptions in his first three seasons, he erupted as an MVP candidate in 1980 with a league-high 31 touchdown passes and followed up with another 30 touchdown campaign in 1981. He made the Pro Bowl both seasons and enjoyed another strong season in 1983 with 22 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions.
Since Fouts and Young starred in different eras and featured vastly different skill sets, it’s a pipe dream to expect Lock to make a similar jump with the Seahawks. Nobody should be expecting him to start building a Hall of Fame legacy after flaming out with the Broncos. That’s just not realistic and based on past precedent, it’s more likely that he will be one-and-done with free agency around the corner next spring and a strong quarterback class coming in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Still, Carroll and Schneider don’t believe Lock needs to be the next Fouts or Young to be able to execute Seattle’s offense and help the team win football games. If he can emulate Smith’s path by cutting down on interceptions, being an effective third down passer, and using his legs as a weapon when necessary, he has the tools to not only win the starting job in August, but join exclusive company by potentially forcing his way into the franchise’s plans beyond 2022.