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  • It only took a few plays against the Chargers for the Chiefs QB to show off what he’d learned in his season as a backup—and how there’s still plenty of room for positive growth. Also, five players to watch after an eventful Week 1, a few names to follow in college football on Saturday and answering your questions.
By Albert Breer
September 14, 2018

No NFL player worth his eye black wants to sit—not for a game, and definitely not for a whole season. But that was Patrick Mahomes’s reality last fall, as the 10th overall pick in the 2017 draft was relegated to the bench because his Chiefs were contending behind accomplished veteran Alex Smith. And now, with Smith in Washington and Mahomes entrenched as his replacement, it didn’t take long for the Kansas City QB to see the upside of waiting. 

In fact, it took all of five offensive snaps to get there.

The call was a run-pass option. Mahomes read Chargers linebacker Denzel Perryman coming down in run support and saw safety Derwin James chase Sammy Watkins into the flat, so he flipped the ball to Tyreek Hill coming on a slant. In the moment, the idea was to take the easy money there for him.

“I made the right read and got the ball into his hands,” Mahomes said on Thursday, from the Chiefs facility. “Just stuff like that, where you don’t have to make the amazing play, you can just make the right read, put the ball into your playmaker’s hands and score big touchdowns that way. I definitely benefited from having that year to learn to not try to take the big shot at every single play.”

Mahomes is right. He didn’t take a shot there. But the result hit the Chargers like a hollow point bullet—Hill caught the ball in stride, streaking to Mahomes’s left side and taking advantage of a Los Angeles defense influenced to the right by the play’s run action. Fifty-eight yards later, it was 14–3 Chiefs. And the 22-year-old’s time at the helm of Andy Reid’s offense was, quite literally, off and running.

That was just one play exemplifying how far he’s come. By the time the sun-soaked afternoon in L.A. was over, the Chiefs had 38 points on the scoreboard and Mahomes had completed 15 of 27 attempts for 256 yards, four touchdowns and a 127.5 rating, which amounts to a lot of proof that Reid and the Chiefs did right by their young gunslinger last year.

“Just in preparation, the mental side of the game, I definitely benefited,” Mahomes said. “Being able to watch how teams made adjustments, and then how we made adjustments to the defense, how we’d figure out what blitzes they were bringing, how to protect them, it definitely helped me in the game [against the Chargers]. It’s knowing how to operate the huddle, and then being able to go out there and execute the game plan how it’s supposed to be run.”

In this week’s GamePlan, we’ll get to your mail, and give you some players to watch on both the NFL and college levels as you get ready for your football weekend.

But we’re going to start with Mahomes, his execution of that particular gameplan and what it says about him and where the Chiefs are going. And as the quarterback himself intimated, there were plenty of fireworks set off on Sunday that would have created issues in 2017.

“I may have made some of them, making the throws and all that,” he said. “But there are parts now where I’m so much further ahead mentally that I’m more comfortable in the pocket, I don’t have to worry about, ‘Am I protected?’ Or if I’m hot. I know those things. … Being able to throw the ball to the right spots and trusting my o-line, it’s definitely something I’ve gained as I’ve had that last year to learn.”

In talking to a few people in the Chiefs building, I was able to cherry pick three throws from the win to present to Mahomes for explanation.

First quarter, 6:50 left, second-and-four, ball at the Kansas City 42-yard line. Mahomes pass complete to Hill for a 58-yard touchdown.

We started detailing this RPO, featuring what Mahomes called a “slant-and-flat concept,” above. An interesting detail, to me, was how Mahomes dropped his arm angle to get the ball around a defender: “It was more trying to get the ball out fast, and then get it into the window it needed to be in. We’d worked on it, and Tyreek made that catch at practice.”

This play presented two levels of growth for Mahomes: First, the speed with which he read Perryman and James, and second, making a throw from a weird angle. Mahomes has& always been able to throw from weird angles, so he’s had to learn to pick his spots when to uncork this unique talent of his. Those inside the organization talk about how he makes throws in practice that look like trick shots. On this Hill touchdown, the quarterback found the place to fire one off.

“It definitely started with baseball,” Mahomes, the son of a former major league pitcher, said. “In baseball, you have to throw it sidearm sometimes. I played shortstop my entire life, you have to throw it with your body not in the right position and still be accurate to get people out. That’s definitely where it started. And then I got to college with Coach [Kliff] Kingsbury and the other quarterback, Nic Shimonek, we used to always mess around with the sidearm stuff, throwing from different platforms.

“That was a big thing Coach Kingsbury harped on. I loved it and got really good at it.” And his rising knowledge and feel for when to tap into it only makes it more lethal.

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Third quarter, 2:54 left, third-and-13, ball at Kansas City 11-yard line. Mahomes pass complete for 34 yards to Hill.

The Chiefs have emphasized that their skill players should play to the whistle with Mahomes back there, because he’s so adept at keeping plays alive and going off script. And this play was an example of that, to a point. Mahomes broke the pocket, scrambled right and flattened out near the line of scrimmage to buy time on the play. There was a playground element to it, but there was also design.

“Tyreek was the alert, he wasn’t the primary guy on that route, I believe it was Sammy,” Mahomes said. “And I kind of scrambled out to the right, trying to buy time for those guys to get open. I was about to fire it to Sammy, and they kind of closed in on him, and I saw Tyreek flatten his route out at the top, so I just shot it downfield. I mean, he made a great catch. I underthrew it a little bit, and he made a great catch.”

That part’s not all that complicated. Hill was wide open because Mahomes bought time. Mahomes was able to get him the ball because of he has a big arm and can throw on the run, of course, but also because he knew where his guys would be. Which led to …

Third quarter, 55 seconds left, first-and-10, ball at Los Angeles 36-yard line. Mahomes pass complete for 36 yards to Anthony Sherman.

As opposed to the scramble play five snaps earlier, this touchdown was to the book, reflecting how Mahomes saw things correctly, relying on his preparation.

“It was a play we repped all week,” he said. “The funny thing was, it wasn’t designed for Sherm. Sherm was supposed to be kind of the decoy guy that holds the corner. I was expecting to have to fire it in to the tight end, [Travis] Kelce. We’d gone into practice all week with the scout team, just naturally they’d wound up covering Kelce, so I’d fired it Sherm twice already for touchdowns.

“And of course we get to the game, and they did the same exact thing. They doubled Kelce, and it left Sherm one on one on the edge, and he had a step, so I put it out there and he made a great catch, and he stayed inbounds and scored a touchdown.”

This isn’t to say this was a perfect game for Mahomes. He was quick to bring up the one play he wanted back afterwards—a third-and-10 in the fourth quarter as the Chiefs were trying to put the game away.

“I’d actually protected it the right way,” he explained. “And I had no reason for it, but I thought I was hot and so I scrambled out of the pocket too fast. If I’d stayed in the pocket, I would’ve been able to hit Sammy for the first down in the fourth quarter, and keep the chains moving, keep the defense off the field.”

So there’s still plenty of room for growth. And based on how much he’s already experienced in just 16 months time, a ton of room for optimism going forward too.


WEEKEND WATCH LIST

Saints DE Marcus Davenport: Call this a hunch. The Browns will have their hands full with Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins, and I think the physically freakish Davenport could have some opportunities singled up on fellow rookie Desmond Harrison, the Browns’ new left tackle.

Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick: Tampa’s brass believed their offense—with the addition of Ryan Jensen, and promise of sophomore skill guys O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin, and staying power of DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans—was ready to make a leap coming into 2018. Those guys probably didn’t think it’d be Fitzpatrick piloting the breakout. But that’s where we are, and a big day against the reigning Super Bowl champs would make more real the possibility that Jameis Winston won’t get his job back in Week 4.

Seahawks RT Germain Ifedi: Seattle coach Pete Carroll defended Ifedi this week, saying he was a victim of some circumstance against Denver. But the fact was, when he was left alone out there, Von Miller lit him up. The Seahawks can’t allow the Bears to get Khalil Mack into those kinds of one-on-ones this week.

Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey: Ramsey’s comments on Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski have been reheated all week, and you can bet Gronkowski will have a little edge if and when Jacksonville’s coaches deploy their All-Pro corner on him. Ramsey was on Gronk some in the AFC title game (the Jags mixed it up), and Gronk was held to a single catch before suffering a concussion. Gronkowski doesn’t see corners all that much—Buffalo and Denver were two teams matched him on them a little last year.

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: Don’t need to get too detailed here—obviously whether he plays, and his condition if he does, will be a major factor. And it’s no stretch to think the Vikings trip to Lambeau could determine who’s going on the road for a wild card game in January, and who gets a bye and a home game the next week.


TWO FOR SATURDAY

Ole Miss WR A.J. Brown (vs. Alabama, ESPN, 7 p.m. ET): The Rebels may have America’s best receiver group, and Brown is its crown jewel. The 6' 1", 230-pound junior hasn’t disappointed through two games, catching 15 balls for 251 yards and three touchdowns. “Big, strong, physical,” said one AFC scouting director of Brown. “He’s a running back after the catch, and he’ll be one of the top receivers taken in this draft if he comes out.” Teams will always look at an SEC player’s tape against Alabama first, and in this case watching Brown vs. Tide CB Saivion Smith will be interesting.

Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham (vs. LSU, CBS, 3:30 p.m. ET): We know that Stidham throws a great ball, but questions concern the offense he plays in, and just how high his ceiling is. There’s opportunity for him in getting to go up against elite defenses, which is just what LSU brings, with a pair of potential Top 15 picks (CB Greedy Williams, LB Devin White) fronting the group. Stidham acquitted himself well against a solid Washington unit two weeks ago (26-36, 273 yards, TD). Doing it again against the Tigers wouldn’t hurt his cause with NFL folks.

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MAIL TIME!

From Mike (@mogrodnik10): When do you think Le’Veon Bell will return to the Steelers?

If I had to set an over/under, and this is a guess, I’d put it at Oct. 1. At that point, he’ll have lost over $3.4 million in salary, and be six weeks out from having to report just to qualify for free agency. In between, another $6 million or so will be at stake. Remember, Bell’s made about $16 million in his five NFL seasons, so what he’d throw away would account for a significant percentage of his career earnings.

Also I’m just not so sure there’s this pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow for him. All it takes is one team, but Bell has some injury history, is one strike away from a long suspension and just had his teammates turn on him, which—fair or not—other teams are absolutely taking into account in assessing him as an option in 2019. He’s also 27 years old, and five-plus seasons of mileage on his odometer.

Bell is a great, great player, right there with Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Joe Mixon and Saquon Barkley in fitting the 2018 prototype, a 230-pound, three-down back. His problem is it’s too easy to find a suitable replacement at the position (Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara were third-rounders last year, as was … James Conner). Which is why, usually, if a big-time back is gonna get paid, it’s by his own team.

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From Jaker Mayfield (@jacoblingruen13): Baker Mayfield starts this year?

Whether or not Mayfield starts will ride almost completely on the Browns’ ability to stay in contention. If they are in the hunt until December, there’d likely be no reason to make a quarterback change. If they’re out of it? Two things happen. One, there’s external pressure to play Mayfield. Two, the coaches would be fighting for their jobs, and that would create a motive to put him in.

And I’m not pulling this out of thin air. Between 2008 and ’17, that’s 10 draft classes, 27 quarterbacks went in the first round, and only two were true redshirts, making no meaningful starts. One was Jake Locker in 2011, and the other was Mahomes last year. The commonality? The two were on teams that contended into December.

So Mayfield plays if the wheels come off. Same goes Josh Rosen in Arizona and, potentially, Lamar Jackson in Baltimore.

From Coaster’s Corner (@coasters_corner): Is George Kittle this year’s Zach Ertz?

I’m not ruling this out. We saw in Week 1 that the Niners still have a little ways to go. GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan got six-year deals in January 2017 is because the York family knew this was a massive rebuild. And a five-game winning streak to finish Year 1 didn’t change that, not completely at least.

It was there in what was around Jimmy Garoppolo, too. Jerick McKinnon’s hurt, Pierre Garcon is 32—there’s plenty of opportunity for younger guys, which means Kittle and Dante Pettis are going to get their chances. And while Pettis is bound to have growing pains as a rookie, the Niners believe that Kittle is a potential cornerstone piece for Shanahan’s offensive vision.

On the high end, the hope is he can be the versatile type of piece Jordan Reed was for Washington when Shanahan was Redskins OC.

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From James Cunningham (@cunninghamjames): Give some love to the men in the trenches: Best OL week one, Best DL, most surprising (good and bad)?

I’m not going to pretend that I watched every single snap of the All-22 from every single game and broke down all the line play. But I can give you a couple names that stood out to me, nonetheless.

On offense, I’ll peg Colts rookie Quenton Nelson as the best in Week 1, just because we saw a little bit of what made up a lot of his Notre Dame tape—the kind of domination that might normally be reserved for the squared circle of the WWE. And as for biggest surprise, let’s go with Patriots left tackle Trent Brown, who sure looks like a suitable—and affordable—replacement for Nate Solder.

Over on defense, if we don’t consider on-ball linebackers Von Miller, TJ Watt and Khalil Mack d-linemen, then let’s go with Myles Garrett, who was dominant after a dominant preseason. Mack and Miller saw spikes in their sack numbers in Year 2, and it looks like Garrett could be in for the same.  And as for a surprise, Niners’ 2016 first-rounder DeForest Buckner would be my guy, even in a loss.

From Michael Anthony Stokes (@Sh—StokesSays): Matt Ryan overrated? Yes or hell yes?

I still like Ryan as a back half of the Top-10 quarterback, but I’ll concede that I’m a little concerned about how he played against the Eagles. More than one evaluator has brought up to me how it looked like the Falcons quarterback lacked velocity, and one actually pointed out to me that it was noticeable in warmups too.

This, of course, could be anything. Ryan could have been sore. Maybe there was an injury we didn’t know about. All I know is that I’ll be keeping an eye on that going forward, because I know other teams will be. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s something.

From Grail Sports (@grail_sports): I believe Derek Carr and Oakland will be O.K. … Agree?

I think Carr will be fine. Last year, those around him said he lost the urgency he operated with under strong-willed coordinator Bill Musgrave in 2016, and that he needed someone who’d coach him hard like Jon Gruden has. And outside of the turnovers (yeah, I know … “how was the play otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln?”), Carr wasn’t horrible against the Rams. So I do think there’s hope there.

As for the rest of the team, it’s been clear to me for a while that Gruden isn’t wild about the roster, and I believe that he’ll continue to churn it through the season. This will be a largely a transitional season for the franchise because of that. Given the excitement over Gruden’s arrival, I get where that’s disappointing.

I also understand that this is a team that’s just 20 months or so removed from a 12–4 season, so it’s fair to argue with Gruden assessment of the state of the team. But he’s the one with the hammer, and so I don’t think the change here is close to finished.

From CB Shouldn’t Tweet (@CB_ReadinTweets): What do you think Jalen Ramsey would say about you?

High motor, competitive, some off-field flags. Let’s wrap it up here—see you guys on Sunday morning, bright and early.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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