USA TODAY Sports’ Tom Pelissero examines the 5 quarterback prospects that have the best chance of being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
USA TODAY Sports
TYLER, Texas — Looking back, Patrick Mahomes doesn’t know how he managed to play as a true freshman at Texas Tech.
He didn’t grow up in passing camps like so many other quarterbacks. He’d been the full-time varsity starter for less than two seasons in high school. He’d never studied film before college. When he took his first snaps in 2014 for the Red Raiders, Mahomes was, by his own admission, “not going through the progressions and just running around and throwing the ball.”
Three years later, Mahomes — the rocket-armed, playmaking son of former Major League Baseball pitcher Pat Mahomes and a onetime top baseball prospect himself — is still relatively new to the game of football. And that makes him a fitting headliner in a QB class that, with hours remaining before the NFL draft begins Thursday night, is as muddled as any in recent memory.
In the eyes of coaches and scouts, drafting Mahomes is the ultimate boom-or-bust proposition.
“You can understand that, just because I haven’t done it,” Mahomes told USA TODAY Sports recently over breakfast with his parents and girlfriend. “But a lot of guys haven’t really done anything, in this class especially. We’re all pretty much spread (offense) quarterbacks. No one really knows what anyone’s going to do. So for me, it’s trying to get to that ceiling. Try to get there and try to be one of the best, not worry about where the floor is. Always go up.”
There is no Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston or even Carson Wentz among this year’s quarterback prospects — i.e., first-round talents who developed in pro-style offenses during college. Nobody available projects as an immediate starter. Yet it wouldn’t be a surprise to see up to five QBs taken in Round 1: North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, Mahomes, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and maybe Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and/or California’s Davis Webb.
Though the likes of last year’s No. 1 pick, Jared Goff, plainly haven’t been ready, NFL teams can’t dismiss the possibility that spread quarterbacks can succeed, and sometimes succeed quickly. Webb’s former coordinator at Cal, Jake Spavital, says “95% of college football is that way” now, and the estimate might be low. Many offenses communicate plays through signals, run few plays under center, simplify reads, and try to win with speed and tempo. Every young QB has a learning curve, and smart coaches — whether working with a guy coming from a spread (Cam Newton), pro style (Russell Wilson) or somewhere in between (Dak Prescott) — find ways to adapt.
“I understand that it’s a different game, and it translates differently,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “But I watch a lot of the NFL offenses these days — the ones that are really successful — and there’s a lot of people in shotgun, a lot of spreading people out, a lot of plays being made out of rhythm and not on schedule. So all the arguments you hear about (Mahomes) not being able to adjust, I’m not buying it.”
What makes Mahomes unique even in a group like this is how raw he is — and how gifted.
He grew up around his dad’s teams, shagging fly balls during batting practice, taking grounders next to Derek Jeter and signing autographs in his personalized New York Mets jersey at age 5 during the 2000 World Series between the Mets and the New York Yankees. In high school, Mahomes was throwing 96 mph. But he wanted to play football and told MLB teams it would cost $2.5 million to get him to change his mind.
At Texas Tech, Mahomes played both sports until 2016, when Kingsbury told him that if he wanted to be serious about going into the draft, he needed to commit more time in the film room. So Mahomes quit baseball and crammed.
“Last year, I’m seeing what the defense is doing, changing the play, putting us in the best play possible,” Mahomes said. “It really helped out a ton of just knowing where I want to go instead of making something happen off the snap of the ball.”
Still, Mahomes’ rarest talent is, in the words of his former Texas Tech teammate, Webb: “He can escape and move around and throw a 50-yard bomb, looking the other way, left-handed. He can just do some (incredible) stuff sandlot-wise. It’s like playing in elementary school — there’s that one kid that can just do it. That’s him, but he’s 21.”
Mahomes’ mechanics and footwork are inconsistent, but NFL scouts and coaches are intrigued by tape that shows him completing throws to every area of the field from seemingly every body position and arm slot — a skill he attributes to his days as a shortstop. He credits Kingsbury with drilling him daily on ball placement, training his elite arm to lead receivers to open areas.
“People say I’m a thrower, not a passer,” said Mahomes, who finished his college career with 11,252 passing yards and 93 touchdown passes, plus 22 rushing TDs. “I feel like I have really, really, really good touch with all my throws. I don’t just kill people.”
Mahomes has been scrutinized as much as any other quarterback by NFL teams — 15 of which brought him in for a private workout and/or visit. (The Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and the New York Jets did both.) Those who have spoken with Mahomes say there’s a lot he doesn’t know but nothing in his makeup to suggest he can’t figure it out. His recall is excellent.
“He was the Big 12 scholar athlete of the year, so evidently he’s smart,” Mahomes’ father said. “He picks up stuff quick.”
Some NFL coaches are fundamentally opposed to drafting anyone from an “Air Raid”-type offense, a term Kingsbury says is misused as it pertains to Texas Tech. Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, among others, has been publicly dismissive of Mahomes as a legitimate prospect.
But somebody’s going to bet on these QBs, with the top five probably all gone by early in the second round. History suggests the group will produce some busts. So if you’re taking a shot at developing any of these guys, one line of thinking goes, why not the guy with the talent to create the biggest boom?
“He’s still learning to play the position. That’s the exciting part,” Kingsbury said of Mahomes. “Football is something that he did as kind of a hobby, and this past season was his first football offseason — first time he ever really dedicated himself to the sport.
“The improvement I saw was astronomical, so I’m assuming it continues going that way.”
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero
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