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What we’re watching for in Patrick Mahomes first start

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It’s a good time to be a Chiefs fan. Kansas City has wrapped up the AFC West for the second year in a row (unbelievably, this is the first time that’s ever happened). The offense and defense both look solid at the same time for the first time all season. Justin Houston is actually healthy headed into the playoffs. Life is good.

And to top it off, we get to watch first-round pick and quarterback of the future Patrick Mahomes in Sunday’s “throwaway” game against the Broncos (who are out of contention and a mess, which is just fun to say, isn’t it?). What a time to be alive.

Obviously, the playoffs loom and we’ll be on to games that matter shortly. But for now, I thought this would be a good time to talk about quarterbacks and some ways to try and gauge their level of play.

Many people look at yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt, INTs, and QB rating, then call it a day. That is a huge, huge mistake when trying to gauge a quarterback’s individual play. All of those stats can be skewed wildly one way or another by teammates’ success or failure. For example, Alex Smith played quite well against the Broncos earlier this year, but drops and a few other things outside his control killed his stat line. On the flip side, QBs can get credited for a 50-yard TD off a throw that should’ve been picked but was tipped to a receiver.

The vastly superior way to try and gauge a quarterback is simple: watch him play. I’m not expert in quarterbacks, or football, or really anything (now that I think about it, it’s quite depressing), but I HAVE spent a great deal of my life breaking down quarterback play over the last few years. While many of you won’t have all-22 film to watch, there are some simple things to watch for (and even chart!) while you watch Mahomes on Sunday. I thought I’d give you a few things to examine to perhaps aid your viewing experience, because I love you and crave your approval.

What follows is a list of things to look for Sunday, with a few suggestions of how you might chart the snaps (if you’re sick like me and into that kind of thing). If you pay attention to these things, I think you can walk away with a decent idea of Mahomes as an individual player (for one game, a very small sample size).

Pocket Presence

This is the ability of a quarterback to effectively navigate the pocket, or the area that his offensive linemen create to try and provide a clear space for the quarterback to throw. However, pocket presence isn’t just limited to the pocket. It’s how a QB operates behind the line of scrimmage, period, including outside the pocket if/when said pocket breaks down. I consider this one of the most important aspects of QB play. As yourself these questions...

Does the quarterback appear calm and have his eyes up, surveying the field... or does it look like he is watching the rush (and therefore not his receivers)?

Does the quarterback stay in one place at the top of his drop (the end of his 3, 5, or 7 steps back into the pocket) when there’s no pressure, or does he move around unnecessarily (changing angles for his blockers and making their lives tougher) in the face of “phantom pressure?”

When there is nominal pressure, does the QB simply step away from it with his eyes still up, or does he pull the ball down and run away?

When the quarterback is FORCED by real pressure to move around the pocket, does he appear to naturally “see” where to move, or does he move right into more pressure?

That’s a lot of stuff to ask yourself at one time, but here’s the summary: does the quarterback help the line, is he reliant on the line, or does he make the line’s job harder? That’s the difference between a quarterback with good pocket presence, average pocket presence, and poor pocket presence.

You want this...

Not this...

Keep an eye on that, as it’ll be huge for Mahomes moving forward.

Accuracy

This can be tough to gauge without all-22, as you can’t see the receivers prior to the ball arriving. But something you can watch for even with Mahomes playing with second string guys is how accurate he is.

Don’t gauge the play just on whether the pass was completed. Where was the ball placement? Did he put it where he the receiver could easily make the catch and maximize YAC, or did he force a tough catch? Did the receiver catch it on the run or did he have to stop? Those are the differences between acceptable and good throws, and over time they make a big difference.

This, along with pocket presence are 2 of my “big 3” for a quarterback. If a guy has good pocket presence and can throw accurately, there’s a place for him in the NFL.

Command of the huddle and presnap action

Some of this is going to be impossible to really gauge over a television, but see how quickly/efficiently Mahomes is able to get in/out of the huddle and get guys lined up properly. That’s basic stuff, but important.

After that, see how often Mahomes makes protection calls or audibles. Is he pointing out stuff for the OL to see (other than just calling out the “Mike” linebacker) with regards to blitzes? Did he change a route or a play at the line? Once the ball was snap, did he seem comfortable with his presnap read?

Some of this, again, is impossible to see. But we’ve seen enough of Alex (a very good presnap quarterback) to know what things SHOULD look like presnap.

Going through reads post-snap

This is the 3rd thing in my QB “big 3.” Yes, that’s right, arm strength isn’t on there. Arm strength is a lot elite breakaway speed in a RB: it’s very nice to have and can certainly raise the ceiling of a player, but it’s not close to the most important trait to have for a good player.

The ability to go through reads post-snap is something that not even many NFL quarterbacks do well consistently, including Alex Smith. It’s a tough, tough thing to do, going from one covered receiver to the next, all the while feeling the timer in your head warning you that a very large man is about to violate your existence if you don’t get rid of the ball QUICKLY.

Too many quarterbacks go through their first read or two and then bail, trying to scramble for yards. Others simply can’t get through reads fast enough and get hit before they can find the open man. There are maybe a dozen quarterbacks in the league that consistently do a good job going through their reads across the entire field. It’s a rare trait, because it requires both very fast processing speed AND a cool head. It’s closely tied to pocket presence, but isn’t exactly the same.

So watch Mahomes and ask yourself: can I see him going from one read to the next, and how quickly is he doing it? That, combined with pocket presence and accuracy, is going to determine how far Mahomes goes in the NFL, no matter how great an arm he has.

One thing I’ve said consistently since Mahomes was drafted was that we know he can make plays almost no other NFL quarterback can make. Now we need to see him make the plays other NFL quarterbacks CAN make. Pocket presence, accuracy, presnap command, and post-snap reads. Those are the things I’ll be watching for, and I think you would do well to watch for them also.