Patrick Mahomes was one of the most polarizing and fascinating draft prospects I can remember in years at the quarterback position. He put up mind-boggling numbers at Texas Tech, including a senior year with over 5000 yards and 41 touchdowns through the air. At his pro day, Mahomes threw the ball 80 yards and he showed off his tremendous arm talent throughout his collegiate career, when he was tossing deep bombs on a weekly basis. However, he came from an Air Raid offensive system, which have produced dozens of signal-callers who have put up crazy stats in college but never were able to come close to that kind of success in the pros. Therefore the Chiefs received some criticism for trading up all the way to the tenth overall pick for their quarterback in 2016, with Alex Smith still on the roster. Less than two years removed from that, Mahomes now has set a new NFL record for most passing touchdowns in his team’s first two games with ten of those and has his offense scoring 40 points per game. I want to recap why I had him graded as a second-round pick and how he has proven me and so many other analysts wrong in such phenomenal fashion.
Like I said, I had Mahomes graded as a second-round pick when I worked on my draft rankings for April last year. The incredible talent was apparent and I could see the potential, but Mahomes was far from being a quarterback under control, who could run a pro-style offense. For the purpose of this article I went back to his tape at Texas Tech and to be honest, I still wouldn’t move him up too much if I had to grade him again, Way too many times he didn’t step into the throw and tossed the ball all over the yard off his backfoot, He kind of picked up his back-leg or kept it planted into the turf instead of swinging it through and had a basketball-type release. When Mahomes did step up into the pocket, he rushed things and sometimes saw the ball leave his hands with both feet in the air.
With that being said, I thought the mechanical issues could be fixed, since I saw him perform a flawless motion occasionally and the ball came out beautifully, but getting Mahomes to function within the structure of an offense felt like trying to tame a wild horse. It didn’t look like the Texas Tech star was working through his progressions and making the correct read according to the defensive coverage, but rather he just had his primary guy schemed wide open or he would run around and fling it down the field. Routinely Mahomes would move to either side and set up his throws in favor of moving up inside the pocket and ended up throwing the ball across his body. He was kind of playing catch out there with his guys and way too often he threw up wild prayers that would make me pull my hair out on the sideline as a coach.
I simply thought Mahomes took way too many chances, that he didn’t need to take. There were so many plays where he continued to back up, spin away, pull himself out of a tackle and then threw the ball late over the middle of the field. That just won’t work in the NFL. Players are too fast and stuff like that screams for turnovers. The Texas Tech offense was a firework with Mahomes at the helm, but that didn’t really lead to wins as the Red Raiders went 12-16 with him as a starter and they even had a negative record when he had that historical junior campaign. Just take his performance versus Oklahoma back in 2016, when he set a new FBS record of 819 total yards. The Red Raiders needed every single one of his 52 completions in a 66-59 shootout, but it was a silly interception he threw rolling to the right, not setting his feet and just letting it float up in the air for the safety to pick off, that put them into catchup mode and down by two scores until the very end of the game.
First signs in the NFL:
Unlike most guys from Air Raid systems, Mahomes actually came out of school with elite size for the league and when he first put on that red Chiefs jersey in last year’s preseason, he looked like an NFL quarterback. In limited playing time (54 pass attempts through four games), the then-rookie already looked very intriguing. The accuracy was wildly inconsistent and there were still some reckless throws across his body, but you saw the tools he has work against pro defenses. Mahomes showed touch over the top, hip flexibility to get himself into position to hit a crossing route while sprinting to the outside, the anticipation to rifle in some passes into the intermediate level and just the pure throwing power to deliver passes other guys wouldn’t attempt at all. Yeah, his numbers looked better due to several screen passes and he ran around as if this was this college, but he would come back with a much better understanding of this offense.
With Alex Smith in the driver’s seat for all of the 2017 season, Mahomes had plenty of time of learn the system and how to be a pro behind the 13-year veteran. However, with the Chiefs big win over the surging Chargers and another dub to seal the AFC West title, Kansas City decided to sit most of their starters and including their number one QB who had maybe his best season yet in week 17 and let their young guys get some live-game experience. While the Broncos had been eliminated for a while at that point, this was a Divisional matchup with nothing to play for other than pride and you could tell they wanted to win that game. So what did Patty Mahomes do versus Von Miller, Brandon Marshall, Chris Harris and company?
Well, the numbers didn’t jump out to anybody, but when you put on the All-22 you see a playmaker. After two drops by his receivers, Mahomes faced the first third down of his career and completed a beautiful ball down the seams for 30 yards against cover-two with the dime backer in perfect trail position, followed up by a long touchdown run by Kareem Hunt (his only carry of the game). The ensuing drive, the rookie quarterback and his offense were set at close to midfield after a poor punt. Followed up by a bubble screen out of a bunch formation, Mahomes made his only big mistake of the day. Denver ran cover-one and De’Anthony Thomas had a step on Chris Harris one a post route out of the slot, but instead of leading him to the sideline, the throw went upfield and right into the arms of the free safety.
After a high snap to start the next drive and a sack on 3rd & 18, the Chiefs were set up at their own five the possession after that. On the next third down they needed 14 yards for a conversion and it already looked like they would punt again, but Mahomes shook off an unblocked blitzer in Will Parks and completed a deep curl with a defender right on the receiver, while that rusher had him by his ankle. The next third down opportunity he did something I loved – he didn’t like anybody defeating man-coverage downfield, but he knew that he had equal numbers to the trips-side, so he checked to a swing screen with his back because they could block everybody over there. They were stopped short, but if it wasn’t for the backside linebacker sprinting all the way across the field, this should have easily resulted in a new set of downs.
When KC got the ball back down 10-7, Mahomes did something that let me know he’s just a different dude. The Chiefs faked a dive play, but Brandon Marshall did an excellent job not falling for it and got depth as well as width on his drop into cover-three. The young signal-caller wanted to go to Albert Wilson on the crosser to the weak side all along, but knew he needed to clear out the linebacker dropping into the flats. So he stepped up into the pocket with his eyes down the middle and gave everybody the idea he could only throw in-between the hashes or tuck it, but at the last moment he flicked the ball out to Wilson near the sideline, almost as a no-look pass. I had never seen that before from a rookie.
Mahomes took them down to the opposing one-yard line and Anthony Sherman got the cheap TD after a scramble by the quarterback. For the rest of the contest, the new Chiefs franchise QB defeated Broncos’ single-high safety coverages with his mobility to extend plays and unbelievable arm talent to complete high-difficulty throws, combined with the smarts to understand when one his receivers can clear out that area for another one of his guys. He also should have had a passing touchdown, but his receiver dropped the back-shoulder pass on the goal-line. Once again, Andy Reid took some pressure off the shoulders of his rookie by calling easy screen passes and rub-routes, but Mahomes led his team to an impressive victory despite a multitude of starters resting, including their best skill players offensively, while the Broncos had most guys out there. Yes, he still attempted some passes you would say he can’t continue to if he wants to stay in this league, but this was only the start of something special.
The 2018 season:
After blowing a 21-3 lead to the Titans in the Wildcard Round, it was time for the Chiefs organization to make a change and they decided to trade Alex Smith to Washington, immediately handing the reigns to their second-year man Patrick Mahomes. He now had a full offseason to get reps with the ones and with the addition of Sammy Watkins, they already looked loaded on paper. However, through this year’s preseason the starting offense struggled, putting up a combined 20 points on 11 possession, while throwing an interception and turning it over on downs once. A lot of that was overshadowed by that one 70-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill. Once the regular season rolled around and Andy Reid started drawing up his clever play-designs instead of the vanilla plays of the preseason, Kansas City started rolling.
In the season-opener versus the Chargers, Tyreek Hill returned the first punt of the game 91 yards for a touchdown, but Philip Rivers got his team into field goal range and Mahomes went to work with a score of 7-3. After simple zone run, quick hitch to the single receiver and scramble for first down out of an empty set, a completed stick route to a detached Travis Kelce out of trips set them up with 2nd & 4. Andy Reid drew up an RPO with Hill motioning out wide from a stack with the Kelce and Anthony Sherman in-line to the opposite side. Hill ran a shortened post route and broke the tackle by the free safety to take it to the house. When you watch the play more closely, you can see that he has Sammy Watkins wide open on an easy flat-route out of a short split because the Chargers are in cover-three and that run fake freezes rookie Derwin James, who is responsible for the flats. Yet Mahomes sees that middle linebacker Denzel Perryman is moving with the zone run and can’t get depth into his drop, so he trusts Hill to flatten his route to go underneath the free safety and 58 yards later he has his first passing touchdown. While that play was perfectly drawn up and executed by the QB and receiver, it should still not have worked because there was some miscommunication who would pick up Brandon Mebane as the center expected the right guard to slide with him, but Mahomes was able to side-arm that throw while getting hit regardless.
When the Chiefs got the ball back, they ran an almost identical concept, only with the single-receiver to the short side this time. The ball was right on target, but Sammy Watkins just dropped it. After another incompletion and surprise run call they are forced to punt. When they get the ball back, Mahomes fires it to Hill out of the slot on a double-post concept as he sees the high safety backing up with the wideout. The next play describes the second-year QB perfectly. The Chiefs come out in a two-by-two set with a tight-end and wing-man to the left. They go play-action once again and have Anthony Sherman is wide open sliding underneath the formation. Mahomes sees him, but immediately shift his eyes to the skinny post by De’Anthony Thomas motioned out wide, because he sees the corner peaking to Sammy Watkins on the deep out and he trusts his receiver to burn Derwin James in the deep middle in cover-three. If it wasn’t for the rookie stretching every last inch to get his hand on the ball, this would have been a touchdown. While I would have liked to see him take the easy completion for a solid gain, it shows the type of mentality he brings to the table – he always wants to go for the kill-shot. Oh by the way, he tossed that one 50 yards off his backfoot.
Kansas City now comes out in empty set and Mahomes makes correct read on the quick-out, but rookie Kyzir White responsible for the flats covers it perfectly and Mahomes fires it high to avoid a negative play. However, I guarantee you that 3&10 would have ended up in another touchdown if the pocket stayed intact for just a little longer. They go bunch right, Kelce occupies the corner as the single receiver on the left side running an out-route and the middle safety is sweating already again, because the furthest receiver out of that bunch takes the corner with him on a deep out, now forcing that safety now to decide between one of the seam routes. Unfortunately there’s a miscommunication on the left side of the protection and Derwin James comes unblocked off the left edge to take down Mahomes from behind, who is stepping up. Did the protection hold up for three seconds (and they had the numbers to block it), this would have been another 45-yard touchdown to Chris Conley.
The Chiefs start their next drive with that set of Kelce and Sherman lined up tight to one side and two receivers to the opposite one. Tyreek Hill comes across the formation on a jet motion, but instead of finishing it, he changes directions and fakes the end-around back to where it originally came from, to occupy the defense and open up the inside for the zone-split with Kareem Hunt. The very next play, the Chiefs O gives the exact same look, only this time Mahomes is lined up in the gun and runs the triple option for a first down. What I want you to pay attention to is how the QB fools the unblocked defender. First the D-end takes away the dive, so Mahomes pulls it. Nickelback Desmond King now becomes the second read-man. He tries to slow down the action to allow his teammates to rally up, but Mahomes gives him a quick one-two and flips his head to the option man, forcing the DB to open his hips and give up an easy running lane.
After all those RPOs and other option runs, the second level defenders are forced to hesitate and allow running room on the inside. With another set of downs close to midfield, this is the perfect time for a shot play. The Chargers are in a two-high safety look with the outside corner immediately turning their hips parallel to the numbers, signaling cover-two. Therefore Mahomes could either go to Kelce running a corner route as the single guy to the left in a short split or Conley running a post route out of the slot. However, this is where I see that young signal-caller has grown. First, he looks left for Kelce, but doesn’t like how much depth the corner gets into his drop and when he glances to the trips-side and sees that the safety was able to stay inside the numbers because the Chargers actually run cover-six and the corner stays with that outside fade, he pulls it down once more, buys a little time and finds Hill working his way back to him off a hook route. That is the type of smart risk-taking I needed to see from Mahomes. I want him to take chances and put fear into the hearts of defenses, but if it’s not there I don’t want to see him force it.
The drive ultimately ends in field goal after a pass is batted down at the line and Spencer Ware can’t quite keep his balance along the sideline on the swing route out of the backfield and Desmond King redirects exceptionally well to force him out of bounds, even though this should have resulted in another first down by running off the defenders to that side with slant routes. Even though Ware breaks loose for 30 yards when they get the ball back with less than a minute on the clock, Mahomes and Hill show off what kind of relationship they have already by completing a broken-off corner route against cover-three, a holding call sets them up with 1st & 20 and they are forced to chuck it to the end-zone twice, which almost led to Mahomes’ first interception of the season.
However, KC gets the ball back at the start of the second half and they know they have this defense on their heels. With motions out of different formations and misdirections, they drive the ball the length of the field and finish off the drive with a little touch pass sweep to De’Anthony Thomas. An interception by safety Ron Parker on a late throw to the outside by Rivers sets the offense back up at their own 14-yard line. After a zone run and an end-around being sniffed out, the offense is set up with 3rd & 13, They come out in far bunch to the right and run what I would call an uncommon sail-concept. They have Kelce hesitating on a quick out, Watkins breaking out at almost 20 yards and Hill at a similar depth breaking to the corner. I’m not sure if any other team would call this play in that situation because of how much time it takes to develop since the corner can sink so deep before he has to break with Watkins. With that being said, Mahomes is a different cat and after taking a quick step up and scrambling right he just flings it 40 yards on the run as it if was nothing, because there is no way the free safety can get there.
The plays later the Chiefs come back out in that tight-end and wing set and he burns them with a perfect throw in stride to Sherman on a wheel-route, as Kelce clears out the cornerback to that side with deep third responsibility by breaking to the post. This was all set up by those post patterns they had completed throughout the game and with the quarterback’s eyes baiting Trevor Williams to cheat inside, all the guy who is listed as a fullback needed to do was run faster than the linebacker covering underneath and he just did.
After going three-and-out following a Rivers TD pass, the Chiefs were forced to punt the ball, but the Bolts’ return man muffed it and set up the opposing offense inside the five. All it took at that point was another one of those touch-pass sweeps to Hill to make this a three-score game once again. At that point Andy Reid decided to just run down the clock and the Chargers hopes of a miraculous comeback were crushed by another crucial missed field goal late to get within a touchdown. So we saw unbelievable arm talent, mobility and fearlessness, but also a ton of understanding of how to identify coverages pre-snap and then clarify how they change once the play in under way, plus when to be smart with the ball and not force something that isn’t there.
Following up a four-touchdown performance in a big divisional win is hard to top, especially at Heinz Field, but Mahomes made it his mission to absolutely torch the Steelers in week two.
Since the Steelers saw Tyreek Hill burn the Chargers on a long punt return in the season-opener they decided to pin the dangerous weapon along the sideline when they went three-and-out, but the Chiefs counters by dropping two extra return-men deep just before the snap and De’Anthony Thomas takes the ball back along the sideline all the way to the opposing 10-yard line. As if it wasn’t hard enough to stop this Chiefs attack, Mahomes & company are in scoring range right off the bat. After a nice lead-run by Hunt a holding call put the offense back to the 15, but they come out in an empty-set with trips to the left and as the single-high cheats over to Hill’s side, Mahomes drills in a seam route to Chris Conley out of the slot where the corner just can’t get to open the scoring party.
A broken coverage by the Steelers allows a big chunk play to Sammy Watkins. The Chiefs motion Hill from trio right behind the single tight-end on the left, the right cornerback Cameron Sutton bumps Sammy Watkins and keeps his eyes on the QB as if they were playing cover-two over there, but the single-high safety stays in the middle of the field and Watkins releases outside for a forty-yard gain on a fade route. However, it is the play after a stretch run that I want to focus in on. Once again Kansas City comes out in trio left with Kelce in-line to the right and they motion Hill to a tight split on the right. Pittsburgh originally counters with single-high safety alignment, but as Sutton follows Hill on the motion he already slightly drifts back signaling a two-deep shell. At the snap Mahomes’ eyes go towards safety Sean Davis on the two-receiver side and when he sees him move outside the hashes to the left, he immediately shifts back to the opposite side and can now see which way Sutton leans as he plays half field. Sutton opens up his hips to Hill on a wheel route and Mahomes shreds the Pittsburgh with another seam ball to backside of Kelce, where he can avoid a hit from linebacker Jon Bostic, who is way too slow to play Tampa-2 against a tight-end of that caliber.
Following a missed PIT field goal attempt the Chiefs offense starts their ensuing drive at their 39 already. A clever drive with Mahomes hitting a wheel route to Watkins booting to his left, draw plays, jets sweeps and zone runs the KC offense is back at the Pittsburgh five-yard line in a hurry. That is when Mahomes misses one of his only throws of the game, when he diagnoses man-coverage across the board through another Hill motion across the formation and has him and Kelce running quick-in routes while Hunt is going into the flats. Sean Davis and rookie Terrell Edmunds mess up and both take Hunt in the flat, leaving Kelce uncovered, but the balls a little high and in front. However, the Chiefs come out with the same formation, only now Watkins is the inside receiver and comes across. Once again Burns moves with the receiver in motion and give the Chiefs cover-zero with a six-man rush. Watkins runs a slant to clear out room to the outside. Now Mahomes has two options – Kelce on a whip-route working back to the outside or Hunt running a swing route. He goes to his back, who breaks a tackle and makes the score 21-nothing.
After the Chiefs defense almost gets a scoop-and-score, but sees it called back by an Orlando Scandrick holding call, the Steelers go on to rally all the way back to tie the game at 21. Even though Mahomes & company didn’t manage to score on their two possessions in-between due to false starts and sacks putting them in third-and-long situations and an incompletion forced by a hit, there was some good stuff by their young leader to watch. On one play Kansas City goes with a two-by-two set with a tight-end on the left side and they run shallow cross with Conley on a drag route from the right and Kelce with a dig from the left. Before the play starts, Mahomes sees Davis backing up deep and Edmunds staying low, signaling cover-three with a robber and Mike Hilton lined up in the slot. Once Mahomes takes the snap he confirms that Hilton stays in the flats and now he can just read how Morgan Burnett leverages himself. The veteran drops out a little and stays balanced, so Kelce can get some easy separation breaking inside and the ball gets there right on the number to protect the TE from a hit. Had Burnett jumped on that immediately Mahomes could have simply gone to the crosser.
With just 18 seconds left, Kansas City takes a knee and gets the ball back to start half number two. A nice back-shoulder fade to Hill after Artie Burns misses the bump and a good run after catch takes the offense all the way to the PIT 25. The Chiefs move from trips right to an empty set with Kelce and Conley coming across the formation and the RB going out to the right slot position, They now have the wide side to work while the defense still has to respect Watkins out wide into the boundary. Running four verticals versus cover-four usually isn’t the best option, but this is all about spacing. The front-side safety Edmunds has to stay at the level of the second receiver with everybody on that side going downfield and as Kelce is bending inside, the opposite safety Davis would have to sprint all the way to the middle of the field immediately to be able to make a play on the ball. The placement low and away from contact is perfect, so all Davis can do is give Kelce a shove into the end-zone even though he has his eyes towards the trips side the whole time.
With the Steelers putting together a long touchdown drive themselves, this explosive offense is asked to keep the scoring up. Kansas City now comes out in empty a lot and Pittsburgh counters with cover-two man. After hitting a whip-route to Kelce, Mahomes doesn’t really have a man-beater called, but feels T.J. Watt jumping inside off the right edge and scrambles for a first down. Following another one of those little touch sweeps with Hill, curl and stick routes being open now that the Steelers are afraid of being burnt deep and another huge gain to Kelce right in-between the numbers, the Chiefs are already back inside the PIT five. The following play they come out in ace right with an I-formation behind it. They fake zone left with Hunt sprinting out to the opposite flats where Mahomes is rolling, Kelce runs off the CB on a corner route and Burnett sucks up as Sherman comes back underneath the O-line. Therefore Mahomes finds Demarcus Robinson crossing the field at the back of the end-zone throwing slightly across his body to go back out in front.
The KC defense finally forces another punt and their offensive attack looks to give them a little cushion in this shootout. After completing another curl route to Watkins out of the slot and him turning that into a 25-yard gain, followed by a couple of trap runs, they are at the back at the opposing 26-yard line. As they present a double-wing empty set, Hunt motions from out wide to the left all the way directly into a swing screen fake to the right. Kelce and Hill run crossing fades over of the top of that while Harris and Watkins do the same to the left. Mahomes looks off the free safety by staring at Hill all along and then quickly shifts back Watkins, as he knows that he has man-coverage to that side. I would have liked to see that ball placed further to the inside, because Watkins had a step on his man and a perfect would have resulted in a touchdown, but this shows just how much Mahomes can manipulated defensive players already when you look at how long it takes Davis to redirect to where the ball is actually going.
An illegal hands to the face by one of the offensive linemen would have washed away whatever happened anyway and pushed them to a 1st & 20. After a tunnel screen to Williams out wide and forcing a neutral zone infraction, Mahomes comes right back in empty set with trips to the short side. The single-high alignment leaves Burns one-on-one on an island with Hill out wide to the short side. Davis is the free safety and all Mahomes needs to do now is hold him in the middle for a second by looking to the far side before throwing a beautiful go-route to Hill for his sixth touchdown of the day.
While Mahomes still completed another post-route on an RPO, this would prove to be too much for the Steelers to overcome. Overall the young signal-caller 23 of his 28 passes for six touchdowns and no picks. That means he had more touchdowns than incompletion, which is ridiculous. While I think his week one performance might have been even more impressive, Mahomes once again showed coverage recognition and manipulative skills to open up throwing lanes, while having the arm talent to hit all of them outside of those mentioned.
The bottom line:
Mahomes has been phenomenal over these first two weeks of the season, setting a new mark with his 10 touchdowns while avoiding turnover-worthy plays for all but one or two snaps. It’s obvious that he won’t be able to keep producing quite the same numbers over the entire season, because that would put him at 80 touchdowns, but there are some other questions that still have to be answered.
How long will it take until defensive coordinators figure out this creative Andy Reid playbook or when will they not have any new looks to present to opponents? Will Mahomes struggle eventually in some games where he is too aggressive and posts multiple interception? The answer to both of these questions is yes. Kansas City’s offenses have started hot for several years now and at some point there seems to a blueprint for how to slow them down. And when you have the early success that Mahomes has put together, you will be too confident somewhere down the road and take chances you probably shouldn’t have.
With all that being said, I still believe in this kid. I was very skeptical of him coming out of Texas Tech, but his transformation from a backyard quarterback into a pro has been astonishing. Mahomes definitely has the passing talent to make any throw, but it’s that confidence in his arm that enables him to not hesitate and just play freely. I thought the biggest area of improvement for Mahomes was to take what defenses are giving him and not always try to force that huge play. While I think he has learned that for the most part now, he still just doesn’t leave big plays on the table. He doesn’t simply get the ball to the open man, but he delivers it accurately so his receivers can catch it in stride and make things happen with the ball in his hands. He can get off pin-point throws with defenders right in his face and he is just not afraid of taking shots.
Watching all of his tape and how he has developed, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the way he has already sped up taking in information and how he has translated that onto the field. Of course having all those weapons around him and Andy Reid taking pressure of his signal-caller with genius play-designing helps a lot, yet with their defense they need to put up a lot of points on a weekly basis. There will be some tough tests down the road with Denver twice, Jacksonville and others, but Mahomes only just turned 23 years old and if I had to invest into a quarterback on his rookie deal outside of Carson Wentz, I would probably put my money on the Chiefs young signal-caller right now.