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NFL free agent profile: Safety P.J. Locke

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By: John Holmes

Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

Should the Broncos resign one of the heroes of their mid-season resurgence?

Should the Denver Broncos resign one of the heroes of their mid-season resurgence?

Player Profile: PJ Locke

Height: 5-10
Weight: 202 lbs
Age: 27
Games played: 59
Games started: 8

History

PJ Locke was undrafted out of Texas. While strong, his athleticism and size did not project future NFL success. His rookie year of 2019 he spent most of the year unsigned until Denver added him to the practice squad in December. He signed to the Broncos main roster after the season but was cut at the end of the off-season and resigned to the practice squad. During two call-ups to the main roster, he impressed the coaching staff with his special teams play, and he found a permanent mid-season spot on the Broncos roster. In the 2020-2022 seasons Locke would be a staple of Denver special teams, and in 2022 he finally played a bit of defense, ending the season with 10% of the Broncos defensive snaps.

Going into 2023 Locke was in a fierce competition for the last safety slot on the Broncos roster with Delarrin Turner-Yell, buried on a depth chart behind Justin Simmons, Caden Sterns, Kareem Jackson, and JL Skinner. New special teams coach Ben Kotwica was looking for a different culture, and it was not clear at all that Locke would make the final roster. In a situation like this, normally the worst thing that can happen to a player is to get injured, as happened to Locke on August 15th mid training camp. But for Locke, the injury was pure luck. His mild injury was enough for him to go on injured reserve after cuts, and his injury meant that the team could defer a decision between him and Turner-Yell. When Caden Sterns suffered a season-ending injury in week one, it meant the Locke would almost certainly have a roster spot as soon as he was eligible to return. When Turner-Yell proved in two starts against Miami and Chicago that he was not ready to start in the NFL, and with the team seeming to have no confidence in JL Skinner, Locke came off IR having jumped from 6th on the depth chart to 3rd.

2023 Season

Locke started his season late because of his mandatory 4 weeks on IR, but seemed to pick up where he had left off in 2022, playing primarily on special teams but with a few safety looks mixed in as the third safety. Then against Green Bay, Kareem Jackson was ejected for a personal foul late in the game, and Locke took over. The following week against Kansas City was Locke’s first start in the NFL. He started both games Jackson was suspended, though he suffered an ankle injury against Buffalo that would also sideline him the first week after Jackson’s return. This week was Jackson’s last as a Bronco, as he was suspended again following the game and later released. Locke was back in the starting lineup for the rest of the year, and played reasonably well. He ended the year with one interception, three sacks, and 33 tackles while allowing 60% of passes against himself to be completed for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Locke certainly showed an ability to play safety at an NFL caliber level through the year, but it is no certainty that he will or should be a priority free agent signing for the Broncos or any other team. His coverage stats show why. In his first 5 games playing Locke was targeted 21 times and allowed 10 completions for 122 yards, no touchdowns, 1 interception. He also had all three of his sacks, and did this against Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, CJ Stroud, and Justin Herbert. But in his last 4 games he was targeted 14 times, allowing 11 completions for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns. He did not rack up a ton of targets, but weaker opposing quarterbacks found more success against Locke as the year went on.

Why the Broncos should not resign PJ Locke

Locke is a 27 year old with 8 NFL starts and brings flexibility to blitz, or hide weird coverages or do other interesting things that a defensive coordinator needs done. This can be valuable. But flexible defensive players frequently end up not working naturally at any position once teams figure them out, and 8 starts is not a lot of reason to be confident in Locke moving forward. Most NFL players peak at about 27, and Locke has not made that much money in his career, so I would expect him to need and try to position himself for his one great payday. His question marks mean that its probably better if some other team pays him that money.

Why the Broncos should resign PJ Locke

Denver has holes all over the team and very limited cash resources to address these holes, a consequence of the Russell Wilson trade and several poor drafts, particularly last year. Locke understands Vance Joseph and can succeed in his system. His costs could be very cheap. He does not have a lot of starting experience, so he could continue to make significant improvements.

Final Outlook

If I was the Broncos GM, I would call PJ Locke into my office with defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and have the following conversation. “PJ we love you. You came through big for us last year. We believe in your talent, and that you are going to do great things as a starter.

Unfortunately with our cap situation, we do not believe that we can compete against the kind of contract you deserve. So while we want you back, we also want you to test the market and see if you can find a team that will pay you better than we can afford to. We would love the opportunity to try and match a deal, but if its what we think you deserve, we know we won’t be able to afford to.” If he gets a deal in the first couple of waves of free agency, that’s fantastic for Locke.

If he still has not gotten a great offer after the draft, I would see if he would sign for 3 years for $10 million total, with about half guaranteed. He is a great target to resign, as long as the price is right.

Originally posted on Mile High Report