Finding the Fit: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
What the Kansas City Chiefs have done over the past few seasons is a rarity in the NFL. Matt Cassel, once Tom Brady’s backup, and Brady Quinn were the Chiefs quarterbacks for the 2012 season. The Chiefs won two games that season and quickly realized they needed to address the quarterback position. Unfortunately, the upcoming 2013 NFL Draft provided a slim-to-none chance at a legitimate starting quarterback. The Chiefs had to either embrace their demise or look for an option in free market. The San Francisco 49ers provided an answer.
Prior to the 2013 season, the Chiefs traded for ex-49ers quarterback Alex Smith. Smith, at the time, was a seemingly broken former first overall draft pick replaced by Colin Kaepernick during the 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl in 2012. Bringing in Smith was a relatively cheap, low-risk move. If Smith could provide stable quarterback play, the Chiefs had a good enough team structure that they would be able to compete. Had Smith not worked out, it wouldn’t have cost them much and his contract would have been up after the 2014 season.
Smith did his job in Kansas City. He did not add a dynamic element to the offense, but his smart, conservative style of play was a perfect fit for head coach Andy Reid’s offense. From 2013 until now, Smith provided a baseline level of efficiency and ball control that allowed the Chiefs to be competitive. The Chiefs’ front office, headed by GM John Dorsey, was able to steadily build a top notch roster over the past four years while Smith kept the boat afloat. However, the Chiefs are still missing the final component that would propel their roster to a legitimate chance at a Super Bowl run: a quarterback.
The time has come for Smith to be replaced. He is a starting quality quarterback in the NFL and he would be an upgrade for a handful of teams around the league, but he lacks the gusto and physical ability to elevate the Chiefs’ roster. Save for a handful of rare outliers, a team can only be as good as its quarterback allows them to be, and it’s clear Smith can’t get the Chiefs over the hump. This year’s NFL Draft provided the Chiefs their opportunity to strike while the iron is hot.
The Chiefs jumped up to the 10th pick in order to secure Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech. In their ascension of more than fifteen draft slots, the Chiefs coughed up their 27th overall pick, their 91st overall selection in the third round, and their 2018 first-round pick. Despite there being three trade-ups for quarterbacks in the first round, it was the Chiefs who climbed the most in order to grab their guy.
Selecting a quarterback was no surprise. After years of dilly-dallying with Smith, the writing on the wall started to look bolder this off-season. However, it was presumed the Chiefs would try to secure a quarterback who was more like the one they had, but better. To many, that meant Deshaun Watson. The Chiefs instead went in the complete opposite direction by selecting a strong-armed gunslinger in Mahomes.
The selection of a quarterback who is nothing like Smith made the writing on the wall begin to gleam with bright neon colors. It’s over for Smith in Kansas City. The question for Smith is not if, but when. The Chiefs have Smith under contract through 2018, but there is a $3.6 million buyout option after the 2017 season the Chiefs could exercise, forcing Smith to look for a new job. Mahomes’ development will be the determining factor for Smith’s stay in Kansas City. If Reid feels that Mahomes is ready in 2017 or will be in 2018, it’s fair to say Smith won’t be wearing a Chiefs uniform in 2018.
Transitioning from Smith to Mahomes may be rocky, but Mahomes has an impressive skill set that Reid can mold. Mahomes, although generally a gunslinger, has an underrated ability to throw to the shorter areas of the field and play the efficiency game. Additionally, Mahomes provides the same mobile aspect that Smith did, but with far more potential as a deadly passer outside of the pocket. Mahomes will need to be tamed and mechanically refined, but the Chiefs drafted the right player for their particular situation. Let’s break down the move and see how Mahomes fits in Kansas City…
Kansas City’s Offense
West Coast principles are the foundation of the Chiefs offense. Reid wants to get the ball out quickly and let the skill players do what they are paid to do. Sprint outs and max-protection are thrown into the passing attack as change-ups, but most of what the Chiefs do through the air is quick passing and using extensions of the running game, like screens. With Mahomes in the fold, the Chiefs now have the potential to press the intermediate and deep sections of the field in a way that they couldn’t do with Smith. Mahomes will have to adjust to and excel at throwing traditional West Coast concepts, though, and how early he plays will likely be dependent on how quickly he can do that.
The Chiefs run endless variations of the same general concept: a receiver runs a quick timing-based route and is replaced in the flats by a different receiver. This can be curl/flat, slant/flat, bubble/slant, and so on. The idea is to force the defense to either play the timing route that is 6-10 yards past the line of scrimmage or clamp down on the route in the flats. The quarterback first looks to the timing route, then checks down to the shorter route if he has to.
Here is an example of a curl/swing combo with a tight end running a ‘spot’ route inside of the curl/swing combo. The lone split receiver on the left side of the formation runs a ten-yard curl route and the running back replaces his spot on the line of scrimmage with a ‘swing’ route. On this play, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roll to a Cover-3 look at the snap. The safety dropping down to the 30-yard line is responsible for the curl/flat area in this coverage. The quarterback throws the curl if the safety immediately darts toward the flat, or he throws to the ‘swing’ route if the safety hangs around near the curl.
The additional route inside of the curl/swing combo catches the safety’s attention. The safety flocks toward the tight end and leaves the flats area uncontested. Smith is able to identify that the safety is well out of position to make an immediate play on the running back, so he checks it down to the back and lets him scurry off for a first down.
Twin routes were also a key component to the Chiefs passing attack. Double slants, double outs, double whatever. That is something Mahomes won’t need much adjusting to. Texas Tech often asked Mahomes to throw those types of concepts. Mahomes showed proficiency with those concepts, both in terms of decision making and in terms of accuracy. It helps that Mahomes has a lightning-quick throwing motion and a rocket arm that gives him an extra split-second cushion when throwing quick passes. A split-second can be make or break on any NFL throw, but especially on quick throws where the windows are small by design.
The last, yet most important, key component to hit on regarding Kansas City’s offense is the way they use tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce is one of the best tight ends in the NFL and provides the Chiefs with a matchup nightmare who can be moved all over. Whether it be as an in-line tight end or split out wide, Kelce can make plays against anyone. The Chiefs like to split Kelce out wide and run passing concepts away from him, leaving Kelce to his own devices on 1-on-1 isolation routes. When the man running the isolation route can run a 4.61 40-yard dash at 6’5″, 247 pounds, the defender loses almost every time.
Of course, the Chiefs won’t be able to do exactly what they did when Smith was the quarterback. It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs integrate some of what Mahomes did in college into their game planning. The Chiefs already have a few read-option and run-pass options (RPOs) installed in their offense, but it’s likely we’ll see more of them when Mahomes gets his chance. That is no indictment of Mahomes, either. Plenty of young quarterbacks as of late have been helped along with RPOs, Marcus Mariota being the most recent.
Likewise, how often the Chiefs go into an ’empty’ formation (QB alone in the backfield) will be worth monitoring. Mahomes is coming from an Air Raid offense that ran out of ’empty’ quite a bit, but the Chiefs already integrate ’empty’ sets regularly into their offense. ‘Empty’ formations generally mean it’s tougher to hide extra protection and decisions have to happen faster. With Smith’s quick decision making in the short game, it made sense for the Chiefs to spread defenses out and let Smith pick the best matchup. Mahomes will be entering the NFL with a fair amount of experience playing in an ’empty’ formation, so the Chiefs won’t have to pull or scale back their use of ’empty’ formations when Mahomes hits the scene.
Look for the Chiefs to move more toward run-pass options, four verticals, and play-action from the shotgun once Mahomes takes over. His skill set and aggressive nature are best served when throwing down the field or being able to leverage his athleticism as a weapon, both as a designed runner and as a scrambler on deep drops. That is not to say the Chiefs will abandon their roots. In fact, Reid will still base the offense around easy yardage, like he always had, but the aggressive play calls and creative intermediate/deep concepts will be more in the mix than they were when Smith was the quarterback.
Talent is not an issue for the Chiefs. The aforementioned Travis Kelce is the star of the offense and is one of the best at what he does. The mix-and-match versatility that he provides, as well as his propensity for explosive plays, make him the focal point of the offense. Everything is designed to work around Kelce and make him as useful as possible. Complementary to Kelce are wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Tyreek Hill. Maclin is the “X” receiver for Kansas City, while Hill is more of a gadget player who can be anything from a split-end receiver to a running back in the backfield. Between the three of them, the Chiefs offense has loads of potential for big plays.
Wide receivers Chris Conley and Albert Wilson also play valuable roles in Kansas City. As often as the Chiefs roll out in three or four receiver sets, it’s not uncommon to see one of or both of these players on the field. Neither are superstars, but many teams around the league would be pleased to have them as their WR3, and the Chiefs get to have them as their WR4 and WR5. The Chiefs are gluttonous when it comes to wide receivers.
The Chiefs have endless variety and depth at primarily pass catching positions. No passing game is complete without an offensive line, though, and that is where the Chiefs look thin. Eric Fisher has developed into a functional left tackle and Mitchell Schwartz is one of the better right tackles in the league, but the interior of the offensive line is shaky. The Chiefs appear to be confident in what they have on the inside, seeing as they did not draft any replacements or possible contenders for starting spots. The volume of quick passing in Kansas City’s offense helps negate the impact of the offensive line, but Mahomes will require more deep passing concepts in order to be maximized, and the offensive line will show its true colors. The Chiefs can make do with what they have, but they would be wise to try to add talent up front to keep Mahomes protected.
Running backs in Kansas City are all-around weapons. Reid’s propensity for going into four-wide and ’empty’ looks often makes the running back a receiving option by default, even if just as a check-down option. Long time Chiefs star running back Jamaal Charles took his talents elsewhere this off-season. Charles struggled to stay healthy as of late and the Chiefs already know that they can get the production they need out of lesser, cheaper running backs. Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West are the Chiefs’ top two running backs right now. Ware is an aggressive downhill runner who can be a passing weapon in the flats, while West is more of a finesse runner who works well in space. New draftee Kareem Hunt will be in the mix, too, and he will be able to replicate Ware if he needs rest or gets injured. Ware is good depth right now and a nice starting option down the line.
Mahomes having the help he needs will not be a concern in Kansas City. The roster is solid as is and the Chiefs have done well to reload when it comes time to do so. The Chiefs may not have an elite offensive roster, but Kelce and Hill alone make for a playmaking duo that few quarterbacks in the league have the luxury of playing with. Mahomes won’t be entering a situation where he has to be the sole reason for the offense’s success, like he was subjected to at Texas Tech.
The Player Himself
In a quarterback class that was divisive all around, Mahomes was the trickiest and most divisive of them all. Mahomes plays with a loose, backyard style that almost feels like he is playing a different sport. He has an effortless throwing motion that can launch the ball 60+ yards down the field, regardless of throwing platform. At 6’2″, 225 pounds, Mahomes has a thick frame that is complimented by quick-twitch athleticism and a strong lower body, both of which allow him to be a wizard in and around the pocket as he dances around pass rushers. Mahomes has a ways to go to be the type of player Ben Roethlisberger is, but many of their mannerisms in the pocket, their athletic skill set, and their ease of throwing power are similar.
While Mahomes’ loose style of play is what makes him exciting, it’s also what makes him a troubling projection to the NFL. Many of the league’s best quarterbacks, from Aaron Rodgers to Russell Wilson to Tony Romo, like to scramble outside of the pocket and allow receivers to work free down the field. It works well for them because of their feel for pressure, downfield vision, and accuracy on the move. However, they wouldn’t be able to get away with that style of play without being hyper-efficient as traditional pocket passers. Rodgers, Wilson, and Romo are (or were, in Romo’s case) highly efficient passers who could make the easy throws almost automatically. They blend simplicity with chaos in a way few have ever been able to do.
The debate to be had about Mahomes’ style of play is whether it was a product of his environment in Texas Tech’s poorly supported Air Raid offense or a product of himself. The answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. Texas Tech’s Air Raid system called for a lot of five-man protection and left Mahomes to his own devices. With as bad as Texas Tech’s offensive line was, it was rare for Mahomes to get a clean pocket if he planned on holding the ball beyond his initial read. The receiver talent at Texas Tech was middling, at best, too. There wasn’t a big bodied threat that Mahomes could rely on in tough spots and none of the smaller, quicker receivers were more than passable college players. In many ways, Mahomes himself was the Texas Tech offense and he had to be the one to make things happen.
There is an element of traditional passing and adequate efficiency to Mahomes, but he likes to break the play and see what he can do on the fly. He breeds chaos and often thrives in it. Even in spots where the offensive line held up, Mahomes would want to bail out of the pocket and turn the play into a scramble drill. It worked out for him enough times in college, but NFL pass rushers will be faster and NFL secondaries will be less forgiving than BIG 12 Conference defenses. It’s plausible Mahomes adjusts quickly to the speed of the NFL and maintains his play style, but he will almost certainly have to tone down his bravado and free spirited play.
In order to make his brand of football work in the NFL, Mahomes will need to be a highly efficient player who can force defenses to respect the more traditional parts of quarterback. If Mahomes can’t develop that part of his game, his off-kilter plays won’t have nearly the same value. Mahomes proved to be an efficient quick game passer at Texas Tech, and many of the concepts he threw are similar to what the Chiefs do on offense. Doubles outs, ‘spacing’ concepts, double slants, smoke routes, you name it; Kliff Kingsbury added plenty of NFL concepts to his Air Raid offense and Mahomes showed the ability to execute those concepts. The Chiefs offense is a perfect fit for transitioning Mahomes from what he did at Texas Tech to what he will do in the NFL.
Mahomes’ quick throwing motion, powerful arm, and confident decision making give him the baseline skill set to be a good short game passer in the NFL. As soon as Mahomes decides where he wants to go, the ball is out in an instant. He wastes no time in second guessing his decision or loading up his throwing motion. His arm and confidence gives him a split-second of cushion in the short game that many other quarterbacks do not have the luxury of. Building on and refining this aspect of his game will be Mahomes’ make-or-break factor, especially in an offense like Kansas City’s.
Of course, Mahomes’ chaotic nature should not be neutered. He will need to be an efficient all-around passer in order to bring value to his chaos, but Mahomes’ wild plays are an integral part of his game and can provide explosive plays on a moment’s notice. Mahomes has the type of skill set and confidence to emotionally defeat defenses.
Some of what Mahomes does appears to be chaotic, but it can be optics more than anything, at times. What Mahomes did here was not much different than traditionally sliding up in the pocket to make a throw. Mahomes didn’t need to take this pass rusher out of the play the way he did, but Mahomes felt comfortable with taking him out of the play, stepping up in the pocket, and rifling a pass over the middle of the field. So long as the job gets done, it doesn’t much matter how it looks, and sometimes that is the case with Mahomes.
In the same vein, Mahomes’ mechanical issues are more optics than functionally problematic. That is not to say Mahomes doesn’t need to work on his mechanics, but rather than overhaul his mechanics, Mahomes simply needs to control himself. Mahomes has the ability to throw with flawless mechanics; the footwork, the shoulders, and the throwing motion all flow together beautifully. However, Mahomes too often loses interest in throwing with mechanics and uses just his arm to make the throw. It’s not something that shows up consistently in certain situations or as a reaction to something. It’s random, which lends to the idea that Mahomes is unnecessarily rushing himself rather than actually doing something wrong. Derek Carr had a similar dilemma coming out of Fresno State.
Mahomes mirrors Carr in more ways than one, though. Obviously the arm, athletic ability, and mechanical inconsistencies are there, but both also had fantastic capabilities in the red zone. The red zone naturally closes windows and often forces quarterbacks to play it safe, rather than attacking tighter windows near the boundary or in the back of the end zone. Some quarterbacks can transcend the confines of the red zone, though.
Elite quarterbacks have the arm and touch to be able to test the toughest parts of the red zone. Throwing from the left hash to the top right corner of the end zone is a hell of a throw. The timing, velocity, and touch required to fit that window creates for an extremely difficult throw. Granted, Mahomes’ decision making in the red zone can be a little careless, but if he can reign in his erratic decisions, throws like this one will become more valuable.
There are many “ifs” in Mahomes’ projection to the NFL. He has every tool that a coach could want out of a quarterback prospect, but his process is frantic and his consistency is worrisome. Few quarterbacks walk into the league with his style of play and succeed. Most top quarterbacks begin as efficient, standard pocket quarterbacks and develop into scramblers and playmakers, rather than begin as playmakers that need to develop into traditional, standard pocket passers. Mahomes’ NFL projection is opposite of the norm.
Mahomes has shown flashes of pocket passing and traditional quarterback, but both due to his own issues and due to Texas Tech’s Air Raid system, Mahomes was not able to display those skills as often as one would hope to see. Even for Mahomes’ biggest supporters, it was understood he was a lofty projection to the NFL and would need the right coaching staff to adapt to him.
In that sense, Mahomes couldn’t have found a better home. The Chiefs are a consistently well-run organization with one of the most consistent and brilliant offensive-minded head coaches in the NFL. With Smith the presumptive starter, Mahomes will have a year to hone the traditional aspects of quarterback play in an NFL environment. When Mahomes finally hits the field, it will be a hell of a lot different than the reps he got in practice, but his time on the bench will be valuable in digesting how to make his game work in the NFL.
The Chiefs will be fine without Mahomes in year one. They are a playoff team with or without him. Ultimately, Mahomes’ aggressive, backyard style will be a direct contrast to what Smith is, but it might be exactly what Kansas City needs to take the next step. The Chiefs need someone to ignite their offense. Mahomes can be the spark.