Patrick Mahomes and the Allure of Upside
This is the time of year when you hear about what a player can be taught. You can’t teach speed, but you can teach route running. You can’t teach size, but you can teach hand placement. You can’t teach arm strength, but you can teach footwork.
Coaches themselves often drive these points home. It’s the kind of confidence that comes from making it to the top positions in your profession. The best coaches continue to develop all players they draft once they become professionals. The best coaches also understand that they can only change so much.
Players generally don’t change that much. You can teach a receiver to run better routes but it’s a rare exception when a guy goes from running mechanical routes and relying on screen passes to a receiver who perfectly times his breaks and deceives defenders with subtle movements. Developing a receiver is a lot easier than developing a quarterback. Even if a receiver isn’t good enough to start he’ll still have a chance to get on the field during the regular season. Unless a quarterback is good enough to start, he’s not getting any real development snaps.
Sure he’ll play in the preseason and carry out roles in practice, but that’s not the same as being in actual games.
The absence of a development league means coaches have limited opportunity to develop quarterbacks. Most quarterbacks arrive in the league and don’t make any notable changes. The quarterbacks who do generally play from the start of their rookie seasons and slowly refine the edges of a skill set that is already at an NFL standard. Numerically, it’s a player who is 80 percent positive when he is drafted growing by a percent or two every season.
During the draft teams talk themselves into taking players who are less than 50 percent positive and convince themselves if they make one or two changes it will have a knock-on effect to turn the prospect into a star. It’s why the Jaguars are entering year four with a quarterback who can’t throw the ball, feel pressure in the pocket or read a defense. They keep telling themselves if he fixes his throwing motion it’ll all come together.
(Bortles’ throwing motion is a disaster. It doesn’t just need to be fixed, it needs to be completely rebuilt and that’s not going to happen at this stage)
That brings us to Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes is a Texas Tech product who will turn 22 early during his rookie season. He has some gaudy college numbers including a 41-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his final season. Those numbers came in one of those offenses that has produced a litany of prospects with big numbers who went on to fail spectacularly in the NFL. That isn’t warding off the first-round talk, especially not after he threw the ball 78 yards at his pro day.
That arm strength and his ability to extend plays as a passer is what is making Mahomes appealing to NFL teams.
His best plays all come when he breaks the pocket into the right flat. Mahomes keeps his eyes up and aggressively seeks out opportunities to throw back infield, across his body and against the grain of his momentum. Because of his arm strength he can easily make plays that your average NFL quarterback wouldn’t even attempt. In the above plays you can see how Mahomes’ eyes don’t stray towards the sideline and how easily the ball sails out of his hand.
If we stick with the numerical representation, more than 70 percent of what Mahomes does when he breaks the pocket to the right is good. He could play 10 years in the league and never improve in that area and he would still be better than most NFL starters at that specific thing.
That’s the only area of his performance where that is the case.
Being able to throw the ball 78 yards is a really cool party trick. It doesn’t actually offer much value on the field. There is value in Mahomes’ ability to create huge velocity on his passes. When he has control of his placement and throws with timing, defenders have no chance of breaking on the ball because of how fast it flies through the air. This is valuable for pushing the ball downfield but more so for hitting tight windows on short and intermediate routes to sustain drives.
Mahomes doesn’t possess the type of accuracy or timing that is required to consistently move the offense throwing into tight windows. His arm strength as a selling point is framed in the context of pushing the ball downfield.
Like Bortles, Mahomes’ footwork doesn’t need to be tweaked or refined, it needs to be revamped. He regularly got clean pockets to work from in college but ruined them by releasing the ball with both feet in the air and his momentum moving backwards. This reared itself most often when he was throwing to push the ball downfield. The above throw against TCU is an example of this.
Mahomes’ pass floats and falls short, into the defender’s hands, because his feet don’t settle. Even if his feet did settle and he gave himself a chance to throw an accurate pass, he would have needed a perfect throw to beat the coverage. His receiver had run into double coverage with a cornerback underneath and a safety allowing that cornerback to be aggressive by taking away routes to the other side of the field.
Having a strong arm on this play didn’t help the quarterback. The ball didn’t move with velocity or arc itself over a defender. It floated high into the air and was essentially put up for grabs.
A huge percentage of Mahomes’ deep passes float because of his footwork. He is often aimlessly heaving the ball into the air for defenders and receivers alike to react to it. He turns open receivers into 50-50 balls, flat out misses receivers running in behind the defense and doesn’t show any consistency with his ball placement against tight coverage.
There are two plays in the above gif. Both come in the third quarter of a game that Texas Tech aren’t chasing. Both come on first-and-10. Mahomes aimlessly heaves the ball downfield on both occasions, giving the defender waiting for it a better chance at the ball than the receiver he was trying to find.
Because of his inability to maintain his balance and distribute his weight with his feet while releasing the ball, Mahomes isn’t a touch passer.
On this play against West Virginia, you see the systemic issues he has as a passer. The defense sends a cornerback blitz off the edge that isn’t picked. up. It wasn’t a well-timed blitz so Mahomes has plenty of time to establish his foundation and deliver the ball with confidence. Instead his feet flutter, he moves off his spot slightly before releasing the ball with his feet coming off the ground and his body moving backwards.
This play required touch because his intended receiver had positioning in behind his defender without creating separation. Mahomes had loads of space to throw the ball into, but his pass floated aimlessly away from its intended target.
Fixing Mahomes’ footwork from a clean pocket when releasing the ball is a big challenge. There are a few examples of NFL teams fixing quarterbacks in this way during the offseason, there aren’t examples of quarterbacks who didn’t revert to their instinctual preference after the first few weeks of the regular season. Even if you fix that problem, it won’t make Mahomes a viable NFL passer. He still has other footwork issues that threaten to be fatal.
When Marcus Mariota was a prospect he was criticized for the type of system he played in. One of the biggest criticisms was that he didn’t play in tight pockets. What Mariota did do was make the most out of the pockets he was given, showing off patience and an ability to set and reset his feet while keeping his eyes downfield. Mahomes will show some patience but he doesn’t reset his feet and his eyes drop too often.
Interestingly, Mahomes has shown off an ability to manipulate defenders in coverage with his eyes. That’s an advanced trait that you don’t expect to see from college quarterbacks. There are also plays where he will make an obvious post-snap read from one side of the field to the other. For the majority of his snaps, when his eyes move his feet move. That’s a major problem.
Take the play above against TCU. Mahomes gets to the top of his drop but after initially settling he becomes frenetic. When his eyes move his feet move, he breaks away from a throwing stance, running rather than sliding sideways or shifting his weight forward. Everything becomes loose so he can’t look downfield and ultimately runs himself out of a clean pocket and into a sack.
Running himself into sacks and pressure on plays where they didn’t exist was a recurring theme.
On each of the four plays above Mahomes runs himself out of a clean pocket, ruining the good work of his offensive line and covering his receivers for the defense. On one of the four plays he actually escapes into the flat and gets a throw away but it was his most egregious decision to leave the pocket. When you leave the pocket like that you cut the field in half and make it easier for defenders to be aggressive with their decision making.
You also force yourself into tougher throws because you have to navigate moving targets while you yourself are moving.
Having such frenetic feet doesn’t only lead to more sacks and more forced throws against pressure, it also disrupts the timing of the passing game and creates wasted motion in the pocket. You deliver the ball from uncomfortable platforms unnecessarily, impairing mechanics that are already problematic.
It’s plays such as the one above that make the Johnny Manziel comparison hard to argue. Manziel wasn’t as wild with his misses or as erratic with his ball placement on simpler throws that became completions. He did have that same frenetic footwork and rash decision making. Mahomes’ wild misses highlight his inaccuracy but it’s that inability to stay settled between the tackles and set, reset his feet to deliver the ball that throws the whole passing game off.
Crafting an efficient or even an effective passing game when you are working with a quarterback who can’t consistently execute simple plays is impossible. Like Jared Goff and Brock Osweiler last year, Mahomes doesn’t do the routine often enough to create a base that he can build the spectacular on.
So let’s say Mahomes lands with a great coach. The exception who can fix all of his footwork issues. He starts to deliver the ball with a foundation beneath him and stops wasting motion before releasing the ball. The next thing that needs to be corrected is his decision making.
Mahomes has to see his receivers open before releasing the ball. He doesn’t throw receivers open or throw with anticipation.
In the above play against West Virginia, Mahomes recognizes the slot corner blitz but is slow to get the ball out. The gif freezes at the point that Mahomes begins to release the ball, when you can see that the receiver is already out of his break. The ball should already be in the air so the receiver has a chance to catch it and turn upfield unopposed. If the timing of the play was right, he would have had a relatively easy first down to beat the blitz.
Waiting to release the ball gave the defensive back time to close on the receiver. Mahomes’ pass flies wildly out of bounds but even if it had been accurate the defender would have been in position to stop the drive on third-and-7.
That kind of slow decision making with an accurate throw in the NFL is more likely to be undercut for a pick six than caught for a first down.
The difference between being an effective college quarterback and being a legitimate NFL prospect can’t be stressed enough at this time of the year. Mahomes’ offense put up big numbers with him at the helm but that didn’t mean he was executing at an NFL-level or showing off NFL-level traits. The Oklahoma game was the quintessential example of this. Mahomes threw for five touchdowns, one interception and 734 yards on 88 attempts. He also added 85 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns while his offense scored 59 points.
In that specific game, his tape was that of an undraftable quarterback.
He missed wide open receivers in behind the defense on at least three occasions, he was constantly showing off the frenetic footwork that made the passing game disjointed before missing open throws that should have been made. Mahomes was fortunate not to have a couple of bad interceptions before he threw his lone interception late in quarter two.
That interception came when he was way too late releasing the ball down the right sideline. The Texas Tech offense had used screens and screens where Mahomes pump faked before releasing to an open receiver downfield throughout the game. On this specific play Mahomes was confused initially before throwing the ball way too late down the right sideline.
By moving into the right flat and staring down the receiver to that side of the field he led the safety to the ball. Underthrowing it just made it easy for the defender.
Mahomes made some impressive out-of-structure plays including some long passes that converted plays where the offense was well behind the down-and-distance. Those were the exceptions. His actual interception might not have ranked in his 10 worst plays from the first half alone.
The question then becomes: what is the upside? What is the value of a strong-armed passer who can’t throw deep or take advantage of the velocity he creates on shorter throws. The inevitable comparisons to Colin Kaepernick or Tyrod Taylor will be used but both Taylor and Kaepernick show off more discipline with their feet and better accuracy. Both are better decision makers who break down coverages faster too.
You have to have a vision with a quarterback that you draft. Drafting Mahomes means drafting someone who needs years of work that history tells us won’t work. It apparently also means investing a first-round pick.