Patrick Mahomes' tape in the lead-up to the 2017 NFL draft was scary. It was littered with off-balance passes, sidearm deliveries, leaning throws, backward drifts and lots of improvisation. His footwork was frantic; he didn't consistently step through to his target; and he looked more like shortstop hurling a baseball across the diamond on the move than a potential first-round franchise quarterback.
You can typically tell when a ball is going to be a completion just by watching what happens before it leaves the quarterback's hand. And so much of Mahomes' tape from his Texas Tech days featured the mechanics you'd usually see on an incompletion. But here's the thing: He was still consistently completing these passes. I've been scouting quarterbacks for the NFL draft since 1999, and I've never seen such tremendous results on a consistent basis for a quarterback with such messy mechanics. And I can confidently say I've never had a more difficult QB evaluation than Mahomes' 2017 scouting report because of that vast difference.
Mahomes' evaluation, and his greatness in spite of the mechanics, still carries significance for me today. Why? Because it fundamentally changed the way I scout quarterbacks for the draft.
If you've been watching the NFL for the past four years -- or if you just happened to tune in Sunday night for the Kansas City Chiefs' wild overtime win versus the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round of the playoffs -- you know not much has changed with Mahomes. He is among the league's best quarterbacks despite the fact we rarely see him throw with the kind of mechanics traditionally thought to bring pro success. He makes incredible throws that just don't seem possible, and he does it all the time. Mahomes has proved to me that the result is ultimately what matters, regardless of whether the prototypical quarterback mechanics are there.
Mahomes' 2017 tape
Until Mahomes came along, I'd say about 90% of what I was looking for on a QB's tape was what happened before the ball left his hand, and I was pretty rigid on that. Proper footwork in the pocket. Clean drops from center. Stepping to and through the target. Driving hips and following through. Typically an over-the-top delivery. Successful NFL quarterbacks were the ones who threw from a solid base, married their eyes to their feet and pulled the trigger on throws with a clean release. Everything was about that process, and it was drilled home by coaches, scouts, QB evaluators and, well, the best quarterbacks in the league. The top-graded QBs were all pocket passers with excellent mechanics.
I distinctly remember starting Mahomes' final evaluation and watching three games on tape right before the combine. His tape was unlike anything I had ever seen. He'd take the snap and immediately drift backward for no particular reason and sling sidearm and off balance. And you'd cringe until you saw the throw connect for a perfectly placed vertical shot.
Todd McShay, Mel Kiper Jr. and Phil Savage evaluate the pros and cons of former Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes II's game.
Regarding accuracy, I wrote in my pre-draft scouting report: "[Mahomes] shows excellent touch, trajectory and ball placement on vertical throws. One of the best deep-ball passers in this class. He completes a bunch of throws from ... off-balance launch points. But he also misses entirely on too many open targets because his mechanics are all over the place. Rarely throws from a balanced base, steps to his target and transfers his weight from back to front."
In terms of arm strength and release, my report read, "He can snap his wrist and deliver the deep out on a rope (and can do the same 50-plus yards downfield). Fits the ball into some ridiculously tight windows. Delivery and release point are all over the place, which can be both good and bad. He's very comfortable throwing off-platform and from different arm angles, but he can also get unnecessarily sloppy with his mechanics. His natural delivery is over-the-top, but he frequently throws sidearm (and occasionally even mixes in a submarine-style throw)."
And finally, looking at his pocket presence: "He extends a lot of plays with his feet, and he thrives after the initial play breaks down. ... He shows a natural feel for sensing pressure, but his pocket discipline is poor at this point. He frequently bails too early and has a strong tendency to drift (even when there's no pressure). He needs to be more consistent climbing the pocket versus perimeter pressure."
You'll notice there are a lot of "buts" in there. And that's what the evaluation was: a lot of weighing poor mechanics from a traditional standpoint with unbelievable results. In his 2016 season at Texas Tech, Mahomes threw for north of 5,000 yards, completed 65.7% of his throws, tossed 41 touchdown passes and was intercepted 10 times -- and he added another 12 rushing scores. He also had an 82.5 Total QBR and led college football in expected points added.
Early on in the process, I had a second- or third-round grade on Mahomes. I didn't think he was ready, and I couldn't push the flawed mechanics aside. But I came around slowly as I started focusing more and more on the results of the throws rather than the throws themselves. It was a foreign premise, but Mahomes was different. Ultimately, he earned an 85 grade and closed at No. 44 on my board (QB3 behind Mitchell Trubisky and Deshaun Watson). And yes, most of the industry also had its concerns about Mahomes, but the Chiefs ultimately liked what they saw enough to trade up to No. 10 in the draft and take him as their future starter.
That, of course, was another big part of it: Mahomes went to the right spot. You can't count on that happening, but it worked out ideally for him -- and Kansas City. My scouting report went into that too, stating, "It would be in his best interest to sit and learn as a rookie while making a sizeable transition from an offense [at Texas Tech] that features a small playbook, limited playcalling verbiage and minimal pre-snap responsibility for the QB." I remember talking to Mahomes during the preseason of his rookie year about my evaluation of him, and he recognized how perfectly things fell together. He had the chance to learn behind coach Andy Reid and veteran QB Alex Smith for a year, and it paid off.
How have things changed?
Mahomes has gone on to four seasons of elite-tier QB play after sitting out that rookie year. He won MVP in 2018 after throwing for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdown passes. He then won Super Bowl MVP for the champion Chiefs after the 2019 campaign and led Kansas City back to the Super Bowl (a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) last season.
And finally, he threw for 4,839 yards and 37 touchdown passes this season, even though we all wondered whether the NFL had figured him out at midseason. Kansas City started 3-4, and Mahomes wasn't able to hit the downfield shots with as much ease against defensive coverages that kept two safeties high. No problem. Mahomes adapted, finishing in the top five in Total QBR for a fourth straight year and leading the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game (and they might not stop there).
The continued success and the ability to hit those nonstandard throws on a consistent basis made me reconsider how I evaluate the position, and my scouting mentality absolutely shifted. Yes, I still look for the tried-and-true footwork and delivery that typically leads to success at the next level, and that's still the biggest thing. But I also know that can't and shouldn't be all of it. Mahomes was an eye-opener in that respect.
In fact, what was seen as a potential problem in his scouting report is actually now his strength. Yes, Mahomes still has poor pocket discipline. He still drifts, weaves and bails out. And he still at times throws off balance, leaning away and from different arm slots. But he can do so many amazing things while facing irregular situations and with his body contorted. Which way he is leaning or what his arm angle is doesn't matter. Mahomes has the unique ability to still place the ball where it needs to go, despite the mess. So many others can't do that, and Mahomes does things better in chaos than anyone else in the NFL.
And so, I've tweaked the way I scout QBs in the years since, looking at the final result of a throw a little bit more than I had in the past. Footwork, pocket presence and a tidy throwing motion all matter a great deal, but a quarterback's ability to find success even when the process isn't right is extremely important.
Who has followed -- and who fits the bill in 2022?
It didn't take long for another quarterback to come along with similar traits. The Arizona Cardinals' Kyler Murray was from a similar college system (Oklahoma) and had that same baseball background. He similarly moved around behind the line of scrimmage, threw off balance and from different arm angles, and didn't always set his feet. In his 2019 scouting report, I wrote, "He displays natural touch and timing as a passer, throwing accurately from a variety of different arm angles. He really excels at off-balance throws, but he gets into trouble when he falls off of throws, typically when the pocket is collapsing."
Murray finished with a 90 grade for me in 2019 (five points higher than Mahomes had been in 2017) and was my top-ranked QB in the class at No. 9 overall. His game had a lot of improv and wasn't always pretty, but like Mahomes, he had results. Murray was the No. 1 pick that year, and he has since been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL when healthy.
Then there was Jordan Love in 2020, who wound up the Green Bay Packers' selection at No. 26 after a trade up the board. I had a 90 grade on him, and he was No. 20 in my final rankings. That was higher than most had him, and I'm not sure I would have been as high on him before Mahomes' draft year. Love's report read, "Inconsistent footwork leads to some missed throws. That said, he has a very high ceiling and flashes outstanding potential on tape. He creates and throws off platform as well as anyone in this class. He can drop his arm angle and adjust his release point to avoid pressure. And he has the arm strength to throw into tight windows." It remains to be seen what Love can do at the pro level, but lessons from Mahomes' evaluation played a part in how I looked at Love's game when he came out of Utah State.
Most recently, Zach Wilson's tape from BYU shared traits with that of Mahomes, though maybe not on the same scale as Murray and even Love did. Wilson's evaluation stated, "One of his best traits is his ability to extend plays. He has the instincts and agility to create after the initial play breaks down, and he also does a very good job of adjusting his arm angles to generate throwing windows. His ability to throw receivers open also stands out, as Wilson shows above-average touch against zone looks." Wilson was the No. 2 pick for the New York Jets in 2021, and he was my No. 4 prospect.
As far as the 2022 class goes, no one really fits the mold. I have extensively studied the top seven guys -- Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh), Matt Corral (Ole Miss), Malik Willis (Liberty), Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati), Sam Howell (UNC), Carson Strong (Nevada) and Bailey Zappe (Western Kentucky) -- and I don't even see a neighborhood comparison. Howell has some similar traits; he throws off balance with good trajectory and has the arm strength to deliver the ball downfield despite not a lot of weight transfer, but he lacks Mahomes' anticipation. Willis is maybe a little bit closer to what we're talking about here -- his off-platform throws have some "wow" factor -- but the results haven't always been there (albeit with a lesser supporting cast at Liberty).
Mahomes is ultimately in a class of his own, and quarterbacks like him don't come around often. But he is a reminder that they can come along -- and that the position has changed so much in the past decade. He creates magic in the pocket, feeling and eluding pressure with outstanding short-area agility, locating a receiver while keeping his eyes downfield then delivering the ball with the right trajectory and velocity regardless of the arm angle. His unique trait is the ability to stay under control when it breaks down around him and place the ball perfectly, regardless of what position he is in. It's remarkable.
This Sunday, he will try to punch his third ticket to the Super Bowl in four seasons, and hopefully we'll get to see some more incredible throws from him in the AFC Championship Game against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals. They likely won't be textbook dropbacks and over-the-top passes, and I'm sure we will see plenty of technically imperfect throws. But I'm also sure he will hit his mark more often than not and will make some throws most NFL quarterbacks can't.
Most of the time poor mechanics mean red flags. But the scouting lesson is they don't always mean that.