Throughout the build-up to the 2017 NFL draft, many scouts and pundits pegged this year’s quarterback class as a three-man affair between Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, and DeShone Kizer. With a series of strong workouts — and a glut of other options on the free agent landscape — a big-armed fourth candidate has emerged from the Big 12.
Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes has had a meteoric rise through the pre-draft process, working his way from a third day option to potential first-round pick. The Browns, Texans, Chiefs, and Cardinals have all been linked to the Red Raider quarterback. As mock drafts scramble to keep up, he’s been projected to go anywhere from Arizona’s No. 13 pick to the Chargers at No. 38.
After a two-day visit with Houston, it seems unlikely he’ll slip past the 25th pick, where SB Nation’s Dan Kadar has him landing in his latest mock draft.
Keep hearing the same about Cardinals and Chiefs. Mahomes is a hot property. https://t.co/1PLsdmJ1Uo— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 17, 2017
So what’s been the biggest factor behind his rise to the top tier of quarterbacks and a ranking ahead of Notre Dame’s once highly regarded Kizer?
Why is Patrick Mahomes suddenly a first-round talent?
Mahomes, the son of former MLB pitcher Patrick Mahomes, has always been an intriguing athlete. He turned down a spot in the MLB Draft to honor his commitment to the Red Raiders’ football team; his recent rise has proven that to be the right decision. He earned a starting role as a true freshman in 2014 when then-incumbent starter Davis Webb — a fellow likely draftee in this spring — went down with injury.
He took the reins from there, putting up prolific aerial numbers in an offense known for them and forcing Webb’s transfer to Cal. Over his next two seasons, he threw for more than 9,700 yards and 77 touchdowns while completing nearly 65 percent of his passes. That was enough to put him in the draft discussion, but not enough to vault him to the upper tier of a weak crop of quarterbacks.
Fortunately, Mahomes was built to excel in pre-draft workouts. His biggest strength is the anti-aircraft gun disguised as his right arm. While he tested out in the top half of his group at the 2017 Draft Combine when it came to agility drills, his best performances came in passing exercises.
Mahomes showcased improved accuracy and power when throwing downfield, unleashing the strength to consistently hit receivers near the sideline — a trait he flashed throughout his college career. He even wrapped up his pro day at Tech by launching a football into the troposphere, where it landed some 78 yards downfield. Even though he wasn’t flawless, the consensus after his workout was that he belongs in the NFL.
He’s also benefited from a scant free agent class. The biggest quarterback signing of 2017 to date has been Mike Glennon’s three-year pact with the Bears. After Tony Romo’s retirement, the best available option for a passer-needy team is either Colin Kaepernick or Jay Cutler. Neither one is a franchise cornerstone.
Mahomes might be.
However, Mahomes is anything but a sure thing
With his strong mechanics, powerful arm, and gaudy college numbers, it’s no surprise Mahomes has emerged as an early round pick in the 2017 draft. Once he gets to the big leagues, he’ll still have a lot to prove.
A dodgy defense helped the nation’s No. 1 passing offense (by nearly 100 yards!) drop to a 5-7 season last fall. Mahomes’ big numbers in the midst of a losing season, combined with his freewheeling, improvising tactics in the pocket have earned him a label many quarterbacks have struggled to shed: gunslinger.
While his willingness to throw into traffic and engage in high-risk, high-reward plays downfield stood up against Big 12 defenses, those risks will only grow against the elite athletes in NFL secondaries. He’ll have to learn quickly what he can and can’t do once he’s facing off against pros. Concerns about his accuracy, despite a high completion rate in 2016, also persist among scouts and executives.
He will also have to fight off the stigma of being a Texas Tech quarterback. The Red Raiders have been host to some prolific passing offenses in the past two decades. Slingers like Graham Harrell, Kliff Kingsbury, and Seth Doege all compiled multiple 4,000-yard passing seasons during their stays in Lubbock. Together, they combined to throw six passes in the NFL.
Air Raid quarterbacks — the system in which Mahomes cut his teeth at Tech — have traditionally struggled in the NFL. Prospects like Tim Couch, Kevin Kolb, John Beck, Max Hall, and Brandon Weeden have tried to translate impressive college stats to the next level with limited success. There are several theories why these quarterbacks fail — it’s a simplistic offensive system that creates a difficult transition to more complicated NFL play calling, for one — and Mahomes will have to be a special kind of player to break that streak of futility.
Drafting Mahomes will be a calculated risk
Mahomes has risen to the top of an underwhelming crop of quarterbacks. His NCAA numbers and physical talent suggest he’s No. 2 to only Deshaun Watson, but history pegs him as a backup at best.
A deeper look at his skill set shows he’s somewhere in between. His arm strength gives him the ability to make the throws that can beat even the tightest coverage. He’s more mobile than his predecessors, and he’s shown he can buy enough time in the pocket to extend plays, then make throws on the run to frustrate defenses.
His experience with Texas Tech, however, shows he’ll squander sure thing short gains to attempt big shots downfield. He can force throws that turn the frustration back on his own coaching staff. He can be skittish and undisciplined in the pocket, turning plays that rely on timing into free-for-alls with a lower chance of success. All these traits could sink his professional prospects.
But quarterbacks with the arm strength to make plays few passers can will always have a place in the NFL’s hype cannon. Sometimes that works out well (Aaron Rodgers), other times it’s a wash (Cutler), but history shows playmakers like Mahomes have a home in the first round.