Players who will shape 2020 NFL season: We may not have seen the true ceiling of Patrick Mahomes

I like to think of every NFL season as a separate story within the larger book of the league’s history. Not every paragraph from each story is etched into our memory. Years later, we don’t recall every detail from an NFL season. However, just like any good story, there are pivotal characters and plot points that stick with us throughout the years. A certain set of players and coaches will help carry the story of the 2020 NFL season. In this series, we’ll look at one of those key characters, starting with a quarterback who is clearly the face of the league right now. 

Patrick Mahomes is already well on his way to becoming an all-time great. It’s not a hot take. For as long as he remains in the league, Mahomes will be a central figure in the story of every season. 

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The Kansas City quarterback followed up his breakout 2018 MVP season with a Super Bowl title. Frankly, unless you’re a 49ers fan, you should be grateful for the result of the big game from February. As a collective of NFL fans, Mahomes getting his first Super Bowl win out of the way so early is a huge gift. 

Now we don’t have to spend years having some stupid conversation questioning whether Mahomes is really that good because he hasn’t “won the big one” yet.

Despite all we've seen from Patrick Mahomes so far in his career, the best may still be yet to come. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Despite all we've seen from Patrick Mahomes so far in his career, the best may still be yet to come. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

It’s like when Peyton Manning was in the league. For so many years we had to put up with narrative peddlers poking holes in his case as an elite quarterback and/or one of the best of all time simply because he didn’t have a ring yet. Well, he eventually got not one, but two. And now that his career is over, no one cares how long it took him to win his first Super Bowl. When he goes into the Hall of Fame with his accolades laid out, it’ll just say two-time Super Bowl winner. His late arrival won’t be mentioned, no matter how often it was a talking point during his time as an active player.

With Mahomes, it’s beautiful. We get to skip all of that useless dialogue. Not only is he the best active pure thrower of the football in the game today, but he might also be the best to ever do it when all is said and done. Mahomes writes checks on a weekly basis with his arm most quarterbacks can only dream of cashing. Appreciating that gets to be our focus, not his resume. He’ll just keep beefing the latter up as time goes on.

With that being said, Patrick Mahomes’ character arc for this coming NFL season will revolve around whether he can continue to add layers to his already prodigious skillset. 

There is still more to fear from Patrick Mahomes

The 2018 season made clear Mahomes’ outrageous ability as a passer. The first-year starter threw an absurd 50 touchdowns and led the league in adjusted yards per attempt. He stacked ridiculous throw on top of ridiculous throw all the way to an AFC Championship game berth for a No. 1 seed Kansas City squad. Despite missing some time with an injury midway through last year, not much changed. Mahomes remains the most uniquely dangerous passer in the game. Yet, the star quarterback did unveil another frightening part of his game as the year wore on. 

Many times during his excellent 2018 campaign, I often found myself thinking, “Man, he’s leaving a ton of hidden yards on the field.” That sounds ridiculous for a player who was outright dominant and putting up such gaudy numbers. But it’s just a reminder of how rare of a player we’re talking about here. At least a couple times a game, Mahomes would find himself outside the pocket and would rifle the ball downfield on a low-percentage throw, miss the target, and suffer a negative play. I kept thinking to myself, “It’s insane how good he’s going to be when he realizes he’s so athletic, he can just pick up an easy five to 10 yards by just scrambling here, rather than throwing when it’s not there.”

In 2019, I got my answer. In 2019, he started to take off.

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The first sign of it came in Week 4, a win over the Lions. Mahomes took off running six times in total. His longest run went for 25 yards on a third-down play to keep the drive moving in the first quarter. He moved the chains again in the fourth quarter with a seven-yard scamper. That was just a minor taste. Sadly, he got hurt just a few weeks later in Denver. We didn’t get to see the next step of the evolution ... at least for a while. 

While we’re here, it’s worth revisiting that Patrick Mahomes made an actual miracle comeback from that dislocated knee cap. He was able to come back because he’s just not made like a normal human. When people like me refer to him as “QB Deity” or “alien,” this is part of the reason why it’s deserved. 

It makes sense that while recovering from that injury while playing, Mahomes took it easy as a runner. Sure, there were some solid lines of 20-plus yards and/or a touchdown here or there. However, it wasn’t until the playoffs that he truly unleashed this dynamic. 

Mahomes took off 24 times over three postseason games for 135 yards and two touchdowns. It was a major factor in moving the chains. He picked up 11 first downs between the Divisional Round, AFC Championship and Super Bowl. For context, he picked up 15 first downs over his 14 regular-season starts last year, 19 during the 2018 regular season and just two the previous postseason. 

Adding this dimension to his game should terrify the rest of the league. It’s not as if Mahomes wasn’t already a pristine improvisational artist but if he’s now going to answer with “I’ll run” when presented with these moments of debate, it’s scary to think how much better he and the rest of this Kansas City offense can get going forward. 

Even from a raw fantasy football perspective, this development is huge. While 135 yards and a pair of touchdowns over three games doesn’t sound like much, it amounts to an extra 8.5 points per game. You’re not necessarily going to tack that onto his 2019 per game total and just start flying but having stretches like that within his range of outcomes only increases the upside of this uniquely gifted passer. Despite Lamar Jackson’s historic fantasy run in 2019, Mahomes could easily overtake him as QB1 in 2020 if he strings this together through the course of an entire season.

At first blush, you might think that adding a few more quarterback rushing attempts in place of passes might be bad news for some of the notable pass-catchers in this offense. On the other hand, hacking off some of the low-percentage throws he was taking on those third downs and subbing in needed scrambles that actually help move the chains could serve to make this offense more efficient. Keeping drives alive and moving closer to the end zone is of far more importance than the fringes of their passing volume. This can still be good news for Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, and the rest. 

The fact that there is more greatness for Patrick Mahomes to unlock is quite wild. Given all that he’s done in such a short amount of time, it’s tempting to just accept what we already have. And yet, he’s shown us that there is a greater ceiling ready for him to access. He’s the proof; that’s all we need. 

Mahomes beginning to marry his historic abilities as a passer with timely, chain-moving rush attempts over 16 games and a postseason run will be a major plot point in the story of the 2020 NFL season. He’s already the face of the league.

Now, he’ll just attempt to further chisel his legacy.  

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