How virtual reality training is helping Broncos rookie Drew Lock

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For 12 long weeks, Denver Broncos rookie quarterback Drew Lock was largely a football bystander.

The Broncos' second-round pick couldn't practice from the time he injured the thumb on his right (throwing) hand in a preseason game Aug. 19 until he returned to practice Nov. 12.

"I tried to do whatever I could," Lock said. “I can throw to bags and I can step over bags, but it's a little different when you've got guys flying around you."

Lock is still on injured reserve. He's in the second week of a three-week window to practice with the Broncos, who must soon decide to either move him to the roster or keep him on injured reserve for the rest of the season. Fangio said Monday it was "unlikely" Lock would even be the backup for Sunday's game in Buffalo if they decided to activate him.

Lock will try to make his case in practice, and should he succeed he may have technology to thank -- a technology that wasn't available to Broncos quarterbacks before this past July.

The Broncos are one of eight NFL teams to use Strivr, a virtual reality system developed by former Stanford kicker Derek Belch. The Broncos' John Elway was one of the first team executives in the league to test the system during a demonstration at the 2015 scouting combine.

At the time, Elway said, "You could see the applications for it, and right away I think it was something you could see could be another tool for guys as it develops."

The Broncos didn't add the system in Gary Kubiak's two years as coach or in Vance Joseph's two seasons, but offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello had seen the benefits of the system as the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks coach last season.

"It's the future," Scangarello said.

First-year Broncos coach Vic Fangio agrees, and Strivr is now part of the daily routine of quarterbacks in Denver. For Lock, it meant twice-a-day sessions with Strivr following team practices, in which he could not participate.

"With how we prepared in this whole time when I wasn't actually out here physically, doing anything to be able to be mentally ready ... helped put me a step ahead," Lock said.

The Broncos use 360-degree cameras mounted on telescoping poles during every practice to digitally record 7-on-7 drills and team periods. The cameras are placed next to the quarterback or 12 yards directly behind him.

The Broncos' video staff edits and moves the footage into Strivr, so when Lock puts on the headset, he sees plays from quarterback Joe Flacco’s perspective. The system collected data on Lock's head movements as he worked through each play, and the plays could be paused so coaches could type in questions at a point when the quarterback faced a decision in his reads.

Lock's accuracy and response time in his movements was recorded. Lock could arrange the plays to specific situations like third down, red zone or the two-minute drill, all seen through the eyes of Flacco as he made his reads.

Lock did all of his virtual reality work in a room with blank walls once used by the team's maintenance staff. He would go through Wednesday's practice on Thursday morning and Thursday night after the quarterbacks had finished their meetings. On Friday, he would go through Thursday's practice in the morning and again in the evening.

When Lock returned to the practice field last week, he said he felt "ready to go" and was taking about half of the scout-team snaps against the Broncos’ defense as well as eight to 10 snaps with the Broncos' offense.

Before Lock went on injured reserve, Fangio said the rookie was struggling with his footwork and decision-making in training camp practices.

But now?

"The time off in some ways, although you never want it, helped him," Fangio said. "You know, I think he learned a lot. Whereas when he was going through it in the spring and in training camp, before he got hurt, it was piling up on him. Besides learning the new offense, being under center, which he had never done in college, etc., those things were piling up on him, getting in the way of progressing the way you'd like to see him progress.

"Through his time off he's been able to solve some of those issues. Emotionally, mentally, I think he's looked a little bit better [in his first practices back]. Albeit, eight to 10 snaps, half the scout-team snaps, you know, a very limited sample."

Now it's a matter of Lock showing his homework and making the most of the limited snaps he's getting in practice as he waits to see if the Broncos decide to move him to the active roster or put him in a game.

The Broncos have three of their next four games on the road but do have back-to-back home games to close out the regular season. Fangio has said Brandon Allen’s play, the team's performance and Lock's ability to keep improving are all factors in whether or not Lock plays.

"I always say that I trust everyone upstairs and there's really no pressure from outside," Lock said. “I'm looking at just trying to get back to being me, not trying to prove anything too fast. Just trying to get back to being me, who I know I am as a quarterback. If that's who they want as their long-term guy, then so be it."