With seconds left in the first half of the Kansas City Chiefs’ preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons last Friday, new starting QB Patrick Mahomes showed once again why KC felt comfortable dropping longtime starter Alex Smith in favor of the talented 22-year-old they took 10th overall in 2017.
Just how impressive was that bomb from Mahomes to Tyreek Hill? As Yahoo’s Michael David Smith noted, Mahomes’s pass traveled further through the air — 68.6 yards, according to the NFL’s NextGen Stats — than any touchdown pass did during the entire 2017 NFL season.18 So there’s no questioning Mahomes’s arm. And perhaps more importantly, he’ll be surrounded by plenty of supporting talent that will help him ease into his new role — maybe more of this talent than any other quarterback this decade. But does this ideal situation mean Mahomes is destined to make KC fans forget about Smith — and cure the Chiefs’ chronic postseason problems?
Certainly, Mahomes will demonstrate a very different style of play than Smith did. During Smith’s seasons at the helm in Kansas City (2013-17), only Tom Brady had a lower interception percentage,19 and nobody topped Smith on the percentage of passes he threw that ended up at or behind the line of scrimmage. Although Smith did begin to stretch the field more as a deep passer over his time in KC, he was mostly defined as an extremely accurate short-range passer who kept the Chiefs’ offense on schedule and didn’t make mistakes. Mahomes, by contrast, carries the “gunslinger” label for a reason: In the his one full start last season, 40 percent of his passes traveled at least 10 yards downfield, which would have ranked fourth in the league if he’d played enough to qualify. Mahomes also throws plenty of interceptions: In addition to the one he tossed during his lone NFL start (thereby increasing KC’s total picks thrown by quarterbacks by 20 percent), he also threw 25 in his final two seasons at Texas Tech,20 and struggled with turnovers during training camp as well.
Fortunately, Mahomes will have an incredible arsenal of weapons to choose from when he’s running Andy Reid’s offense this year. At running back, KC boasts a pair of prolific rushers from the past few seasons in Kareem Hunt — who ran for 1,327 yards as a rookie in 2017 — and Spencer Ware, who missed all of 2017 with injury but notched 921 yards on the ground in 2016. Mahomes will also be throwing to wideouts Hill (1,183 receiving yards in 2017) and newcomer Sammy Watkins, who battled injuries in recent years but had 1,047 yards through the air in 2015. Finally, Mahomes can also go to Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce, who has racked up at least 1,000 receiving yards in each of the past two seasons — and is widely considered one of the best two TEs in the league, along with Rob Gronkowski.
In other words, there’s a reason ESPN’s Bill Barnwell ranked Kansas City’s non-QB skill players as the best offensive arsenal in the league heading into the season. And in fact, if we zoom out beyond 2018 and look at NFL history, few first-time starters have ever been surrounded by a better group of skill-position talent than Mahomes will have at his disposal this season.
To measure this, I went back to the 1970 NFL-AFL merger and tracked each team’s top two running backs and top three receivers (whether wide receivers or tight ends) for each season using Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value metric, which assigns each player a numerical value roughly corresponding to his statistical productivity that year.21 For those core groups of primary offensive skill players, I added up a weighted sum of their AV over the previous three seasons,22 to get a sense for how productive the group had been in the handful of seasons leading up to the one in question. Finally, I filtered for teams whose quarterback was in his first season as an NFL primary QB,23 to look for situations comparable to the one Mahomes currently finds himself in.
After tallying up all the skill-position AV, here are the top supporting casts a new starter has gotten to play with since the merger:
|New QB||Yr||Tm||Skill Players||Wtd. A.V.|
|Rivers||2006||SD||Tomlinson • Turner • Gates • Parker • McCardell||291|
|White||1980||DAL||Dorsett • Newhouse • Hill • Pearson • DuPree||264|
|Batch||1998||DET||Sanders • Vardell • Morton • Moore • Crowell||258|
|Hogeboom||1984||DAL||Dorsett • Springs • Hill • Cosbie • Renfro||240|
|Leinart||2006||ARI||James • Arrington • Boldin • Fitzgerald • Johnson||235|
|Roethlisberger||2004||PIT||Staley • Bettis • Ward • Burress • Randle El||235|
|Rypien||1989||WAS||Byner • Riggs • Monk • Sanders • Clark||235|
|King||2000||TAM||Dunn • Alstott • Johnson • Green • Moore||234|
|Campbell||2007||WAS||Portis • Betts • Cooley • Moss • Randle El||231|
|Culpepper||2000||MIN||Smith • Kleinsasser • Moss • Carter • Davis||226|
|Phipps||1972||CLE||Kelly • Scott • Pitts • Morin • Hooker||226|
|Mahomes||2018||KC||Hunt • Ware • Kelce • Watkins • Hill||221|
|Cassel||2008||NE||Faulk • Morris • Welker • Moss • Gaffney||220|
|Gannon||1990||MIN||Walker • Fenney • Carter • Jones • Jordan||220|
|Staubach||1971||DAL||Garrison • Thomas • Hayes • Alworth • Ditka||211|
|Manning||2005||NYG||Barber • Finn • Burress • Shockey • Toomer||210|
|Stabler||1973||OAK||Hubbard • Smith • Siani • Biletnikoff • Moore||209|
|Woodley||1980||MIA||Nathan • Williams • Moore • Harris • Cefalo||208|
|Ponder||2011||MIN||Peterson • Gerhart • Harvin • Shiancoe • Jenkins||204|
|Leftwich||2003||JAX||Taylor • Edwards • Smith • Edwards • Brady||204|
|George||1990||IND||Bentley • Dickerson • Hester • Brooks • Morgan||203|
|Fitzpatrick||2008||CIN||Benson • Perry • H’mandzadeh • Johnson • Kelly||202|
|Evans||1980||CHI||Payton • Harper • Scott • Watts • Baschnagel||197|
|Sanchez||2009||NYJ||Jones • Greene • Cotchery • Keller • Edwards||188|
|Hipple||1981||DET||Sims • Bussey • Scott • Thompson • Hill||185|
Although Kansas City’s talented group isn’t quite the most gifted core that a young QB has ever had to work with, it is close — ranking 12th-best since 1970 and the best this decade. In terms of what it might mean for the Chiefs, the rest of the teams on this list ended up posting an average of 8.9 wins per 16 games — just a tick below the average of 9.0 wins posted under their old QB — with the new QB generating exactly the same value (10.5 AV) as his predecessor had done in the role the year before. So if history is any indicator, Chiefs fans may not feel much of a drop-off from Smith to Mahomes, despite the latter’s inexperience.
The only real concern around KC’s offense (which scored the sixth-most points of any team last year) might be the state of the team’s offensive line, which ranked among the middle of the pack in pass protection last year and has been up-and-down during the preseason thus far. But even there, Mahomes is in comparatively good hands. If we run the same exercise as above, but for Kansas City’s O-line instead of its skill players, Mahomes’s blocking support ranks 15th among first-time primary QBs since 1970. It’s not exactly the road-grading machine that Dak Prescott had in front of him when he broke in as Cowboys starter in 2016, but the KC line isn’t without talent — including 2017 second-team All-Pro Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle and former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher on the left side.
All told, you’d have to go back to Tampa Bay Bucs QB Shaun King in 2000 to find a first-time primary signal-caller who got more support from both his skill-position teammates and his offensive line than Mahomes figures to get this season. And while King was little more than a stopgap starter for Tampa, Mahomes is lined up to be the Chiefs’ answer under center for the long haul. With ample talent around Mahomes to help smooth away any rough patches, don’t be surprised if his career as KC’s quarterback gets off to a fast start. And it had better — because if it doesn’t, neither Reid nor his young starter will have many places to lay the blame.