…And on the seventh day, Patrick Mahomes rested. That’s how the legend goes, right?
As grateful as I am to have my 12th round pick (and preseason breakout prediction) carrying my fantasy team to the playoffs, I am still hesitant to crown Mahomes as the greatest quarterback since, well, ever. Something about his performance makes me uneasy, and it’s not just the excessive handfuls of potato chips I poured into my mouth during the recent Monday Night showdown versus the Rams. So I did a deep dive into his statistics to try to calm my nerves.
A recent ESPN+ article named the Kansas City trio of Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Kareem Hunt among the top five best NFL players under 25 years of age. Add the number one fantasy tight end (standard scoring) in Travis Kelce, and the Chiefs have four of the deadliest offensive weapons in the entire league, let alone on one team.
According to NFL Matchup on ESPN, Kansas City’s receivers lead the league in average yards after the catch. The team’s 7.1 YAC per reception is 0.3 yards higher the second place team (San Francisco) and is buoyed by Hunt’s 344 yards after the catch (12.74 average) and Kelce’s 437 yards on 66 receptions (6.62), per the Airyards database. Tyreek Hill has “only” contributed 360 YAC on 61 catches, a 5.9-yard average, good for the 20th most in the NFL. The offense is predicated on speed, and I’m not trying to take away from Mahomes’ greatness by claiming his receivers do all of the work. Quite the opposite.
Show Me the Money
My contention is that when the Chiefs inevitably have to pay all of their playmakers, what will happen to Mahomes’ numbers? Currently, the fearsome foursome is on the books for just over $15 million total this season, due to the QB-RB-WR trio all on their rookie contracts. That number jumps to over $16 million for 2019, and then Hill’s rookie contract is up (because he wasn’t a first-round pick, the team has no fifth-year option to exercise and maintain him for a reasonable price).
Hill is, arguably, the most dangerous player in the league. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “he’s so fast, he makes fast people look not fast,” I could buy a ticket to watch him play in person. Consequently, he’ll command a massive contract when he hits free agency, on par with some of the top money handed out to receivers in recent years. Will he be offered an Odell Beckham-esque five year, $95 million deal? Perhaps.
The year after a team (probably the Chiefs) dishes out big dough to Hill, it’s payday for Hunt and (gasp), Mahomes. Hunt’s deal will likely fall in line with recent contracts signed by other big-name running backs (Todd Gurley’s four-year, $57.5 million contract comes to mind). Now, Mahomes can (and will most likely) be reserved with his fifth-year option, but that still won’t be cheap. According to Chiefs Wire of USA Today, Mahomes’ option will likely cost somewhere north of $25 million. That’s expensive, but still a relative bargain in today’s era of handing out $18 million per year to Case Keenum and $28 million to Kirk Cousins. In 2022, however, cap specialists in Kansas City will have to seriously crunch numbers to get a cap-friendly deal if Mahomes keeps up his torrid output.
If all of those deals get signed, then, adding in Kelce’s 2020 numbers, the Chiefs will have about $69 million tied up in just four players (assuming an average yearly salary spread out evenly, but that’s a big assumption). For reference, Kansas City pays its entire offense $72,300,522 for the 2018 season. Yes, the cap will rise, but $69 million is still an obscene amount of money to retain only four players. Am I a cap expert? No, I’m not. But keeping all of these weapons at market value doesn’t seem feasible.
Defenses and Data
If you’re anything like me (and you’re probably not), you could spend hours poring over NFL Next Gen Stats and finding the most bizarre data with which you can annoy your friends. For example, did you know that New Orleans’ Marcus Williams has the fastest sack this season, at just 1.54 seconds? Second on that list is KC defensive tackle Chris Jones (1.95 seconds), which serves as a pretty good segue back into my article. I looked through Patrick Mahomes’ aggressiveness versus defensive rank against the pass to see if he tried to force the ball into tighter coverage when going against good secondaries.
Right, okay, that doesn’t look like much, but let me explain. That red line (red for the Chiefs, of course, and you can thank me later) shows the best fit linear regression for the relationship between the data (With only eleven points, it’s not a great – or even super reliable – estimate, but it will do for the purposes of my article). NFL Next Gen Stats defines aggressiveness as a pass “where there is a defender within 1 yard or less of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion.” So, and this is probably intuitive, a higher percentage means the quarterback was forcing more throws.
What am I looking at?
The graph shows that against high ranked pass defenses, such as Jacksonville (3rd) and Pittsburgh (7th), Mahomes did not force a ton of passes, hovering at about 11% aggressiveness for each game. He forced nearly 18% of his passes into tight windows against the 4th ranked Arizona secondary, however. The rest of the data follows a relatively linear negative trend, except for his two games against the 18th ranked “No Fly Zone” from Denver. In his Week 4 comeback victory, Mahomes was aggressive on 20% of his passes, and during the Week 8 30-23 win, he threw 17.6% of his passes into tight windows. The data as is has a correlation of -0.484 (not great, but still a reasonably linear trend), but if you remove the points from the Broncos games, it jumps to -0.711. That is a substantial correlation.
Mahomes forcing more passes against better secondaries isn’t a crazy revelation. But I was curious as to why he forced so many more passes against the Broncos, of all teams. For him to be aggressive on 20% of his throws during the Week 4 comeback makes sense because he was trying to will his team to victory by slingshotting the pigskin into tight windows. So, I decided to compare his aggressiveness percentage against the Chiefs’ margin of victory to see if Mahomes routinely put the team on his back.
Again, not super surprising. A negative linear trend (albeit with a lower correlation of -0.23) implies that Mahomes forced fewer passes if Kansas City was winning by a greater spread. But the most curious data points are those two all the way on the left of the graph. Those points come from the Chiefs’ losses against the Patriots (43-40) and Rams (54-51).
Is Showtime Ready for Prime Time?
The Patriots and Rams games also happened to be the biggest games of Mahomes’ young career so far: a prime time match-up against possibly the best quarterback-coach tandem of all time and a Monday night, mega-hyped shootout versus a similarly potent offense. The New England and Los Angeles secondaries aren’t great by any means, ranking 25th and 20th through 11 weeks, respectively, but I am confused why Mahomes wasn’t more aggressive in games he knew he had to be extra competitive to win. Was it the gameplan? Perhaps, but I’m not a film specialist, so I have to rely on my numbers (and we all know the numbers never lie).
Furthermore, in these two games, Mahomes committed seven of his 17 season turnovers. Could these peculiar performances be a reflection of early-career jitters? I would expect a man who puts ketchup on everything to be unflappable, but I’ll give him a pass if he’s just working through nerves.
The only thing that keeps me from writing off these outliers as anxiety is that Mahomes has made some odd plays in these big matches. His pick-six against Los Angeles is a bizarre, flat-footed mallard that he tossed up for Samson Ebukam to snag. He doesn’t tend to force passes in these games, and yet he throws that? Something doesn’t add up.
The leading narrative this season is that Patrick Mahomes is Superman, capable of defeating opponents with a single pass. It certainly looks that way. According to Player Profiler, Mahomes has 29 “money throws” through the first 11 weeks of 2018, ranking third in the league. A “money throw” is defined as “a pass requiring exceptional skill or athleticism as well as critical throws executed in clutch moments.” There is no question that Mahomes has incredible athletic ability and arm strength, but it seems, at moments, he relies too much on his raw talent (see: the Ebukam interception) and not enough on reading defenses or finding the appropriate receiver. That’s understandable. To be honest, if I could fling the ball 60 yards downfield to Tyreek Hill on a go route, when would I ever not?
Obviously, Mahomes is young, and his jitters and bad decisions can be coached out of him, given time. Nevertheless, with experience comes better decision making, and Mahomes may not heave deep bombs whenever he has the slightest temptation in future games. Don’t get me wrong; I fully expect Patrick Mahomes to remain in the upper echelon of quarterbacks for the foreseeable future. However, I would be hard pressed to expect the dominant force we have all fallen head-over-heels in love with this year going forward. Don’t trade the farm for him in dynasty fantasy football and especially don’t draft him in the first couple rounds in a redraft league. Temper your expectations. Even Superman has his kryptonite.