Sammy Watkins, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid’s Identity

****This article was written in the style of the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue 2018. Mahomes did not have enough attempts to be included in the book. But any quarterback with at least 200 attempts did.****

DeSean Jackson swapped Washington for Tampa Bay 12 months ago. Jackson could have been the most impactful free agent of the offseason. He could have completely changed the identity of his new team’s offense with his presence alone. But he landed with the wrong team. He landed in the wrong scheme. The Buccaneers signed Jackson to put him in Dirk Koetter’s vertical offense. A vertical offense for the best deep threat in football sounds like a good fit, but that wasn’t the case. To get the most out of Jackson he has to run routes deep downfield often, but the offense as a whole should be leveraging their other routes off of his threat. The offense should pull the defense apart, horizontally and vertically like it did in Washington to maximize the space the opposition has to cover on every snap.

Jameis Winston threw 32.5 percent of his passes into the intermediate (11-20 yards past the line of scrimmage) level of the coverage. No other quarterback threw more than 30 percent. Only Marcus Mariota reached 29 percent and he barely did. The trade-off for that was every quarterback in the league threw into the 1-10 yard range more often and 32 of 36 qualifying quarterbacks threw to the line of scrimmage more often. Jackson was in an offense where the defense expected you to throw deep all the time, so they set up to best counter those throws. When they did, the offense wasn’t able to take advantage with shorter throws that could create YAC in the available space. The indirect benefits of having Jackson on the field were quelled.

Sammy Watkins didn’t make the same mistake. Watkins entered free agency this year and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Although his career numbers don’t reflect it, Watkins is one of the best receivers in football and one of the best deep threats in football. He played with a great deep passer in Buffalo when Tyrod Taylor was his quarterback, but Watkins was often hurt and playing in a scheme that only got creative when designing running plays. Last year he was in a great scheme, a scheme that maximized his indirect impact as he regularly played a key role away from the ball in Sean McVay’s oft-celebrated play designs. Watkins finished the season with only 39 receptions for 593 yards and eight touchdowns. He didn’t flourish statistically, but he was open all season long. Watkins swapped a great deep passer in a bad scheme in Buffalo for an awful deep passer (Goff was accurate on literally two deep throws to Watkins last year) in a great scheme in Los Angeles. He was wide open all the time in both situations.

Andy Reid is arguably the best offensive mind in the NFL right now. He understands the layered impact of players and he understands how to maximize skill sets of individuals as part of an overall offensive identity. He stretches defenses horizontally and vertically while creating easy reads for his quarterback. For years he maximized Alex Smith’s output by minimizing his role in the offense. He understood that Smith was more of an athlete than a quarterback so he incorporated that into his offense. Last year, Smith had the best season of his career and not coincidentally he did so in a short-and-shot play offense.

A short-and-shot play offense is a scheme that emphasizes throwing to the line of scrimmage and further than 20 yards downfield. You don’t ask the quarterback to throw into the thick of the coverage. Instead you attempt to dictate where the defense goes with misdirection or option plays so the quarterback throws into wider windows downfield or has easier throws underneath.

37.8 percent of Smith’s attempts last year were either to the line of scrimmage or further than 20 yards downfield. Nobody in the league relied more on those types of throws.

For Watkins, this is a completely new style of offense. It’s actually quite similar to the one he played in at Clemson where he caught plenty of screens and YAC-specific plays as a complement to his ability to get open deep. Albert Wilson, the receiver Watkins is replacing in Kansas City, led the league in screen percentage last year. 23.5 percent of his receptions were screens. Tyreek Hill was seventh in the league at 20.4 percent, while Travis Kelce had the highest screen percentage of all tight ends ranking 10th in the league with a 15.1 percent screen rate. Not only will Watkins see a large number of opportunities to create after the catch on screens, he’ll do so in an offense where the defense can’t anticipate who is going to be the receiver and who is going to be the blocker. The Chiefs can throw screens to any area of the field with any kind of design because of the diversity of their skill position players and Reid’s willingness to call those plays over and over again. Compare that to Buffalo where Watkins was the only threat and Rex Ryan simply didn’t use wide receiver screens.

It’s going to be very difficult for defenses to align before the snap without giving up a mismatch to the Chiefs offense. Watkins is a true number one receiver. He’ll beat any cornerback who is left in single coverage against him. But if you tip your coverage to his side of the field then Hill gets more space to sprint away from the coverage on deep routes. If you keep both safeties back on every snap you are creating more space for Kelce to work the middle of the field or for Kareem Hunt to run the ball against less-aggressive run fronts.

Reid’s understanding of congruency between his players and each one’s fit in his preferred scheme has set up an offense that will make the quarterback’s role far easier than that of his peers. Patrick Mahomes will only need to be adequate to put up big numbers.

Mahomes wasn’t included in this year’s quarterback catalogue because he only played in one game as a rookie. He is the exception over recent years as a development prospect who actually did get to sit and develop for a season. When he did play, he was plugged into the Reid system with seven of his 34 qualifying attempts being screen passes and 10 of the remaining 27 coming after a play fake. His numbers don’t mean much, or anything really, because of the tiny sample.

Reid is hoping that Mahomes will get more out of his offense that Smith managed to. He wasn’t a consistent player in college. He was often woefully inaccurate as a passer because of his awful footwork. For all of Smith’s faults, he was a very accurate thrower of the ball and a particularly accurate deep thrower. He ranked third in the league on deep throws last year, hitting 51.7 percent of his passes that travelled further than 20 yards downfield.

The knock on Smith has always been that he struggles to execute his offense consistently and that he isn’t a technically sound quarterback.

Smith needed to be set up for success. He was reliant on misdirection plays and screens because he couldn’t consistently execute straight dropbacks to pick the coverage apart on downfield reads. Mahomes’ college tape suggests that he falls into that same style of quarterback, but Reid hopes to develop him into a more rounded passer while fixing his footwork and reaping the rewards with a more aggressive decision maker than his previous starter.

In his debut against Denver, Mahomes was largely the same player from Texas Tech.

On his very first play of the game, Mahomes opened in shotgun and Reid called a misdirection play to get him moving outside of the pocket. He had a fullback wide open for an easy dump-off and first down as his first read. Instead of taking that throw, Mahomes held the ball, turned inside and released a more difficult pass while being hit by the defender he was supposed to be reading. He immediately broke the design of the play to create an incompletion over an easy first down. He followed it up by missing a wide open receiver over the middle on second down.

But neither of those plays are the one in these images. This is the play he made on third down.

Although it’s not the foundation of his offense, Reid is willing to get aggressive vertically when he’s behind the down-and-distance. It’s Third-and-10, so he spreads the field with five receivers and the Broncos react by keeping two safeties back. Reid occupies each deep third with a receiver running vertically outside the numbers on each side of the field and his tight end running down the middle of the field. He’s stretching the safeties as wide as he can, creating a situation where Mahomes has clarity in his read.

Travis Kelce isn’t on the field. Mahomes instead hits Demetrius Harris in behind the linebacker who couldn’t run with him. The deep safety was concerned with the receiver to his left, so he’s late reacting to Mahomes’ throw. It’s an excellent throw but the mindset is more reflective of what Reid is looking for.

Alex Smith made plays like this, he just made them too infrequently. Smith would use the defender in front of him as an excuse to bail out of the pocket, destroying the design of the play, or he’d avoid throwing into the tighter window. Mahomes shows off a high release, impressive velocity and decisive action to convert this third down.

The question with Mahomes isn’t if he’ll continually attempt this type of throw, it’s if he can execute the simpler plays while also showing off more consistency throwing deep. While that third down throw was impressive, it doesn’t erase the mistakes on first and second down. It was also the only deep throw he hit in that game.

Mahomes had two interceptable passes in this game. One was caught. The other came late in the fourth quarter and wasn’t caught, but it showcased the biggest concerns with Mahomes. A widespread issue with quarterbacks in the NFL is that they let their eyes lead their feet. That means when they look at a receiver, they can’t stay in one spot. They move towards the receiver as they’re deciding whether to release the ball or not.

When you are working within the confines of an NFL pocket, those small movements are problematic. On this play, Mahomes catches the snap and looks to his curl route on the left. The cornerback is sitting on the route so Mahomes hesitates for a moment too long. He ultimately decides not to throw the ball, a good decision because it would likely have been intercepted, but he has allowed his feet to pull himself out of the center of the pocket.

His movement is so significant that he actually forces the defensive front to move sideways as they are being well blocked.

Because his feet are unsettled, Mahomes doesn’t simply bring his eyes back to the backside of the play where he has a tight end running in behind the safety. If he had done that, he could have attempted to lay the ball out in front of the tight end for a potential touchdown. Instead, he turns around to face his own endzone, runs a half circle and begins sprinting towards the opposite sideline.

Mahomes does bring his eyes back up. He’s destroyed the design of the play by taking away the timing of the route combinations against the coverage. His tight end is now downfield but the defender has had time to turn and the space to throw into has been taken away.

Big-armed quarterbacks have the ability to catch up to their receivers when they break the timing of the play. On this occasion, Mahomes can complete his half circle then settle in the middle of the field before unleashing a fast ball towards the back of the endzone. His tight end would have an opportunity for an uncontested catch in that scenario. Instead, Mahomes never settles and throws the ball off his back foot.

It limps through the air, arriving too slowly and far too shallow. By the time the ball arrives it clearly favors the defensive back who has positioning underneath the tight end.

Having a huge arm is valuable but only if you can refine the velocity you can create. Mahomes didn’t show off that ability in college and there were no signs of fixed footwork when he made his debut in the NFL as a rookie. Maybe it’s unreasonable to think he could have shown better footwork so soon after being drafted but the best part of six months shouldn’t be considered a short period. Generally the concern with footwork isn’t that you can’t fix it for the short term, it’s that it regresses back to what it originally was over the long term.

His other interceptable pass, the one that was actually caught, came late in the first quarter when the Broncos blitzed. The pass protection held up but Mahomes didn’t square to his receiver and was unbalanced as he released the ball. He was targeting a receiver breaking across the field down the left seam. The receiver had a step on the defender covering him but the ball sailed far over his head, into the waiting arms of the deep safety.

Alex Smith wasn’t an efficient quarterback for most of his career in Kansas City. He didn’t turn the ball over but he did that at the expense of the overall output of the offense. Mahomes is going to turn it over. Reid just hopes that he makes enough big plays that Smith wouldn’t to make it a net positive. 12 months ago, when the Chiefs drafted Mahomes, it was a lot easier to improve on Smith’s efficiency. But he was a better decision maker in 2017. Maybe it took the drafting of another quarterback to force him into that mindset so the Chiefs couldn’t win either way, but regardless it means that there is a higher bar for Mahomes to clear than originally anticipated.

2017 has the potential to be a career-defining season for Andy Reid. He has completely revamped a roster that once relied on its defense to win games so that now the offense is the identity of the team. Since Reid is a great offensive mind, it’s no surprise that this type of roster is better-equipped to be a contender than the previous incarnation. Everything about this offense suggests it should be one of the best in the league and potentially the very best unit in the league. Except for the quarterback, The quarterback is an unknown.

Those may be hard sentences to comprehend when put together, but that’s the beauty of Reid’s offense and the quality of his skill position players. They didn’t need great quarterback play to be effective with Alex Smith and, for slightly different reasons now, they won’t need great quarterback play to be a great offense with Patrick Mahomes.

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