ST. JOSEPH (TNS) — The most talented third-string quarterback in professional football is both critically important to this team’s future and perhaps the most vaguely discussed player by the men in charge.
Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ first quarterback selected in the first round in a generation, is so far everything we expected:
The best player on the field for some flashes, and the most out of place in others.
The Chiefs’ task, then, is both delicate and imperative, and on so many levels. They must allow Mahomes to be his best, but somehow shave off his worst.
Mahomes is 21, graduated from high school three years ago, and has never been asked to do what the Chiefs will demand: occasionally play it safe, to let his arm and instincts guide him in certain moments but his coaches’ voices and an adjusted risk-reward calculus guide him in others.
A little more than a week into camp, Mahomes has made a few throws no other Chiefs quarterback could, and a few that no other Chiefs quarterback would.
He has ripped through two-minute drives and he has thrown the ball to defenders. He has placed deep fades perfectly into his receivers’ hands, and he’s had to re-huddle because he messed up the play call.
“They’re competing right now,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said when asked about Mahomes and current No. 2 quarterback Tyler Bray. “Obviously Tyler’s been here, and knows it a little bit better. But they’re competing. … Now, we’ve still got another six good loads coming at them with install, so they have to stay sharp with it.”
Keeping pace with Reid’s intricate system is Mahomes’ biggest challenge, and something the Chiefs need to decide how to approach.
Alex Smith is having a strong camp and remains the unquestioned starter, but even in a league that’s hyperprotective of quarterbacks, teams normally expect to play at least two. Last year, Smith missed one full game and part of another after his head bounced off the steel turf in Indianapolis.
The No. 2 quarterback is important even beyond that obvious point, too. Practice snaps have never been at more of a premium in the NFL, and the No. 3 quarterback gets none.
If the plan is for Mahomes to take over next season — they traded up 17 spots to get him, and can save $17 million in salary cap space by cutting Smith after this season, so that should be the plan — then they need to help him prepare every way possible.
That means they may be faced with a bizarre and critical decision. If Bray remains ahead of Mahomes at the end of the preseason, do they cut off the younger and more talented Mahomes from reps that could help him close the gap?
In other words, do they take the chance that Smith will make all 16 starts, or at least long enough for Mahomes to pass Bray sometime during the season?
What is the breaking point between planning for now or the future? And can Mahomes get close enough that the Chiefs prioritize bringing out his best sooner than later?
“You gotta be a tough son of a gun to play that position,” Reid said. “You got a lot on your shoulders, you have a lot of people relying on your abilities there. But as a coach, we’re there to teach and make sure they understand the urgency level. It’s a different urgency level here than it is at the college level. You get up here now, there’s a massive amount of pressure, and how you handle that is important.”
Training camp is a rotten place to make definitive judgments. Some drills are tilted toward the offense, others to the defense, tackling is rare, and both sides are far more familiar with the other than they will be in the regular season.
Mahomes, by virtue of his wild talent and natural affinity toward big plays, will shine brighter in these situations than Smith and the big-armed Bray.
The most important stuff for Mahomes will likely take place away from these practices, and in the classroom, and with his teammates and coaches.
“You take it all and put it in the bowl,” Reid said. “We still have to finish this up. Being able to sustain as we’re cranking the plays at them, staying mentally tough and disciplined and all the things that need to be done there. Then you add the the games in there, are you doing the same thing with those? Then you can come up with a decent evaluation.”
The Chiefs are doing the right things so far. Mahomes should start camp as the No. 3 quarterback. This is Bray’s fifth training camp, and Mahomes’ first. Reid is loyal and conservative, so Mahomes will have to earn his way up the depth chart.
But it’s also in the Chiefs’ best interest to push Mahomes up the depth chart. They’ve invested too much, and Mahomes’ talent is too great. His ascension to backup as a rookie, and starter in 2018 is what’s best for both sides.
They’ll have to work together to do it, and the upshot is the Chiefs’ most interesting backup quarterback competition in decades.
Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star and can be contacted at: 816-234-4365, @mellinger