It’s hard to think of a single player in the modern era of the NFL that has had such an instant, sweeping and lasting impact as Patrick Mahomes. In the space of four short years, he has changed the entire tenor and tone of the league: conservatism is out; risk is in.
Make no mistake about it, though Thursday night’s first round of the NFL draft was all about crowning the league’s new batch of stars, it also served as confirmation of the Mahomesification of the league.
Whether they admit it or not in the immediate aftermath, Mahomes was baked into the decision-making process of every front-office executive on Thursday night: Either they’re chasing a Mahomes-lite, or they trying to find a way to keep up with the real deal.
He has changed both the way quarterback prospects are viewed and how teams go about deploying their precious draft resources.
The league is now in an arms race, everybody vying to build an offense that can keep up with the Chiefs’ year-to-year juggernaut. It is all offense, all the time, building a sustainable offense being more stable year-to-year than building a great defense (find a great quarterback, and you have a stable offense). Thursday night represented the first time in league history that opening seven picks of the draft all went on one side of the ball. Twelve of the first 15 picks went on the offensive side of the ball. It was only the third time in league history that quarterbacks were selected with the first three picks: Trevor Lawrence to Jacksonville, Zach Wilson to the Jets, and Trey Lance, after months of umming and ahhing between three prospects, to the Niners.
It didn’t stop there. The Bears jumped up to No 11 overall to add the electric quarterback Justin Fields from Ohio State. Philadelphia moved up to grab the Heisman trophy-winning wide receiver Devonta Smith. The Bengals and Dolphins looked to reunite their young quarterbacks (Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa) with their former college teammates, wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle. The Falcons made Kyle Pitts the highest ever selected tight end, all in the name of chasing mismatches. Across the league, decision-makers took giant swings in the name of scoring points.
But it’s not just the players that were selected, it’s their style, particularly the quarterbacks. As recently as 2017, teams were passing on Mahomes due to his off-script stylings. How could you corral such an unorthodox player, such a scheme breaker, into a traditional, rhythm-based, sophisticated, professional set-up? The answer: you didn’t need to.
Rhythm passers are now out – of sorts. This is the era of pace and space, of quarterbacks who can create off-script. And while being able to create outside of structure has always been a bonus – the tap-dancing stylings of Russell Wilson baked into a traditional system – it is now the trait that teams are prioritizing above all others. This is the league of Mahomes and Josh Allen and Justin Herbert, of Lamar Jackson, Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. Only Tom Brady continues to succeed with the hit-the-back-foot-get-the-ball-out method that used to be the foundation of the league … and Tom Brady is not normal.
Any decent offensive mind can build a solid, timing-based system at the NFL level, the theory goes. Being able to get the ball out on-time and rhythm is a prerequisite for any quarterback. That’s the easy stuff. It’s when the play breaks down that a quarterback truly takes over. It’s within those moments, within that chaos, that the great quarterbacks differentiate themselves from the average ones.
High-variance quarterbacks used to be viewed with cynicism. The league’s evaluators looked at what could go wrong, focusing on the floor. They wanted certainty. Now, they’re looking at the upside. Quarterbacks bust all the time, best to go down with the one who has the potential to be an offense unto himself rather than the one who relies on all the pieces fitting around him.
The 49ers were willing to overlook Trey Lance’s lack of experience in order to bet on his ceiling. With the third pick, after trading away a bunch of future draft picks, taking Alabama’s Mac Jones would have been the safe selection. Jones is a classic dropback passer who profiles the same as a bunch of quarterbacks that have found success in the Kyle Shanahan system, and he led his team to a national title playing in the biggest, baddest conference of them all. But the Niners didn’t want to play it safe, they wanted to shoot for the jackpot; Shanahan is done handcuffing himself to quarterbacks who struggle once the play breaks down.
Teams are not hanging around anymore, either. You either have the proverbial franchise quarterback or you’re looking for one, and if that means chucking more darts at the dartboard, so be it. Four quarterbacks that were drafted by teams in the first round since 2017 are no longer with their original teams: Mitch Trubisky, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold and Dwayne Haskins.
Add to that: The Eagles ejected on the Carson Wentz experience in the hopes Jalen Hurts could bring some more dynamism to their offense. The Rams punted on the so-so-ness of Jared Goff in the hopes that Matthew Stafford will prove just enough of an upgrade to get them back to the Super Bowl, and paid a hefty price to do so. The Niners are done with Jimmy Garoppolo just two years after he took them to within a half of the championship; the 49ers saw first-hand the difference between a quarterback who can create out of structure and one who cannot.
Sitting in quarterback purgatory for years on years, tying yourself to a mediocre quarterback in the name of continuity, has become a thing of the past (with apologies to Minnesota fans). Having a quarterback that is fine is no longer good enough; if he’s just fine, teams will be on the hunt for an upgrade, regardless of the cost and regardless of whether it ultimately winds up setting them back.
The Jets are betting on Zach Wilson to bring the kind of oomph to New York that Darnold could never deliver. Ditto for Fields in Chicago. There was a sense of atonement about the Bears jumping up to land the sliding Fields. They were the team most synonymous with passing on Mahomes in 2017, deciding instead to put their hopes in Mitch Trubisky. Oops. Now, with a talented, ageing core and a pair of decision-makers on borrowed time, they took their shot, jumping up to land a quarterback with as much potential as any in the draft.
They were big swings. And yet the biggest swing of all could still be ahead. Hovering over every selection last night was the future of Aaron Rodgers. The reigning MVP has reportedly told the Packers that he is unhappy and wants out, a year after the team selected his future replacement.
Every quarterback-needy team in the league will be monitoring the Rodgers situation. Indeed, the Niners sniffed around a draft-day trade; they were ready and willing to punt on their Lance plans if Green Bay was open to a quick deal. “When the MVP of your league might be available … yeah, we inquired,” John Lynch, the Niners GM said last night. “It was a quick end to the conversation. It wasn’t happening.
The Broncos are circling. Of all the teams stuck in a one-foot-in, one-foot-out quarterback situation, they passed on upgrading their offense in the first-round. They didn’t try to find a replacement for Drew Lock, nor did they try to find him a new toy to play with or someone to protect him. The Packers have publicly stated that they’re unwilling to deal Rodgers. But if the quarterback is able to force his way out of Green Bay, the Broncos will be the next in line to punt on a recent draftee in order to microwave success.
Perfect should not be the enemy of good. But average should not stop a team from shooting to be great. Patrick Mahomes’ on-field legacy is still yet to be written. But his off-field legacy is already complete. He helped turn a conservative league into the league of ‘why the bleep not?’ Taking big swings on off-bear quarterbacks used to get GMs and head coaches fired. But in the Mahomes era, passing on an exciting, improvisational quarterback is more likely to sit on an evaluator’s epitaph than any player they wind up taking.
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