Sorting the Preseason Pile: Patrick Mahomes might force Chiefs hand in 2017
Plus Christian McCaffrey is the truth and the possibility of Blake Bortles being out in Jacksonville
The much-lamented quarterback class of 2017 is looking pretty good all of a sudden. Mitchell Trubisky is pushing the Bears decision-making process as much as John Fox can be pushed, Deshaun Watson is going to make Bill O'Brien at least think about his Week 1 status and, most interestingly, Patrick Mahomes has found himself in a perfect situation and is turning heads early.
Do you love Mahomes and consider him the most upside-riddled quarterback of this draft class? Congratulations! You are not actually a special snowflake. Everyone does. Mahomes has a cannon. It's unfair for Alex Smith, a genuinely nice human being who is an average-to-above average quarterback, that he finds himself once again squaring off against a young physical marvel on the depth chart. The good news for Smith is he looks really good this preseason.
The bad news is so does Mahomes. Before we get to that, though, how much pressure can this guy actually put on Andy Reid? History tells us there is a good deal Mahomes could do to press Reid into playing him, even thoughand Mahomes is the backup.
Reid waited a while to hand the starting job to the the first quarterback he ever drafted, Donovan McNabb, after taking the Syracuse product No. 2 overall in 1999. And when he finally did, in Week 10, the Eagles were out of the playoff race, sitting at 2-7. After letting McNab take his lumps in a relief role, it was time to see what the highly-drafted rookie had to offer as a full-time starter. McNabb got a rough welcome to the NFL when he made his NFL debut against the Bucs in Week 2, getting sacked six times by the eventual NFC Central champions (remember that this Bucs team was the basis for the eventual Super Bowl championship defense). In a fun twist of fate, the guy McNabb replaced as the starter was Doug Pederson, who is the current Eagles coach and former offensive coordinator for Alex Smith.
Two years later, Reid selected A.J. Feeley in the fifth round of the 2001 NFL Draft. That's not notable for Feeley being a guy who might have taken playing time, but he is another quarterback in a long list of Reid protégés who ended up being traded for a high draft pick. The point being, when Andy Reid latches onto a quarterback in the draft, people take notice.
Reid went a long time between taking McNabb early and grabbing another quarterback. Again, notable. If Reid is spending high draft capital on a quarterback, there should be a belief he can win with said quarterback for a long time. He also probably thinks that quarterback is capable of winning and/or playing early. Patrick Mahomes was the 12th player drafted.
Kevin Kolb was the second quarterback taken by Reid with a high pick in his Eagles tenure. Kolb was taken out of Houston with a second-round pick in 2007 (the Eagles actually traded down out of the first round with the Cowboys who took Anthony Spencer). He didn't replace McNabb immediately, but Kolb is also a clear-cut historical marker in terms of Reid making sure he has quarterback insurance. McNabb was battling injuries during that stretch, coming off the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, and would be gone after 2009.
That year featured a storm of controversy, too, with Michael Vick and Kolb nipping on McNabb's heels for playing time. Ultimately it was McNabb's team, but with Vick and Kolb on the roster, there were plenty of people chirping to see the other options. The backup quarterback is always the most popular guy in town, and that's been the case for Andy Reid's teams in the past.
Vick and Kolb ran the team in 2010 after McNabb left and then Kolb was traded. The "Dream Team" of 2011 followed, but it wouldn't be long before a draft pick caused trouble on the roster again. Nick Foles, taken in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, was firmly entrenched in Reid-style controversy within his first year. Foles started six games for Reid in 2012 and that led to serious concern about who should start in 2013, when Foles went 8-2 as a starter under Chip Kelly.
Ultimately what you see from Reid is a history of high draft picks playing early. McNabb was under center three quarters of the way through the season in his rookie year. Kolb was held at bay, but McNabb aged better than Reid expected and it still ended in McNabb being dealt to the Redskins. The Michael Vick thing was a different animal. Er, situation. Foles played quickly, starting multiple games his first year.
Which brings us back to Mahomes, who has looked just absolutely tools-y this preseason. Mahomes, who played in Kliff Kingsbury's system at Texas Tech, is going to require some refinement. But he has everything you would want to see in a quarterback from a physical perspective. If you buy into Reid developing quarterbacks -- and why wouldn't you? -- Mahomes is a fascinating prospect. He has underrated speed and is strong enough too take hits and still make throws.
Mahomes is faster and stronger than just about everyone on the field. As a quarterback that is an undeniable advantage. He can shrug off blitzers but he can also deftly evade people coming at him on the rush. And if he needs to, Mahomes can whip a quick throw on short notice.
All that is well and good, but the downside of Mahomes is he's not harnessed right now either. He can be, and it's easy to see Reid figuring out how. Mahomes might be a stronger, slightly slower, more twitchy version of McNabb with a better arm.
Alex Smith is on notice, although he knew that coming into the preseason. The guess here, two weeks into the season, is that Smith won't lose his job as long as the Chiefs are winning. If Kansas City falters or the offense looks flat, don't be surprised to see Mahomes.
Reid's history makes it clear he is willing to run with a young talent he trusted in the draft. He believes in his quarterback development almost as much as he believes in his talent evaluation. Maybe more.
McCaffrey looks like the truth
That sound you hear is Christian McCaffrey's fantasy draft stock soaring through the roof. Watch his full collection of touches from Saturday afternoon's game in Tennessee and it's not hard to understand why.
All that's come out of Panthers training camp this offseason has been praise for McCaffrey, who by all accounts is "unstoppable" in one-on-one situations and looks deadly coming out of the backfield. Even noted running back curmudgeon and Pick Six podcast compatriot Pete Prisco praised the Stanford rookie after watching him in Nashville during practice.
McCaffrey's first preseason game was exciting, because it showed off exactly what the explosive runner and receiver is capable of from an athletic standpoint, butcalled to feature McCaffrey.
Not so against the Titans, a game that featured five touches for McCaffrey, in the Panthers offense.
First, when Carolina lined up in the red zone, in a singleback formation and let McCaffrey run. That's important because McCaffrey can't get the kid-glove treatment as a smaller back -- he needs to be a seamless part of Carolina's offense in order for the out-of-the-ordinary playcalls to be more effective.
Plus, he's a very good running back! Watch him burst through the defense, cut toward the sideline and turn on the afterburners.
Later in the game, the Panthers would use McCaffrey in the passing game, not only just putting him in space but putting him in the best space,by the Panthers offense throughout most of last season.
The 10-15 yards in front of the line of scrimmage might as well be called "The McCaffrey Zone" this year. He should live there, carving up defenses and giving Cam Newton easy completions that can turn into chunk plays.
Bad news: you are going to need to. I was chatting with CBS Sports fantasy expert extraordinaire Dave Richard yesterday about McCaffrey and we both have pretty similar projections for the running back: somewhere in the range of 50-60 catches with something north of 6.5 yards per catch, 175-200 carries as a runner and right around 4.5 yards per carry.
These projections might be conservative too. All you're asking from McCaffrey in this case is numbers similar to DeMarco Murray (51 catches, 7.1 yards per catch) and LeSean McCoy (50 receptions, 71. yards per catch) from last season. If the Panthers aren't using McCaffrey more often in the passing game than those two guys, something has gone wrong. It's not unreasonable to expect better yards per catch numbers from McCaffrey either; his shiftiness, size and explosion is closer to Darren Sproles (8.2 yards per catch) and Duke Johnson (9.7) than the first two guys.
A total of 190 carries at 4.5 yards per carry gives him 855 rushing yards, good for 85.5 fantasy points. Let's give him a total of 7 touchdowns (Dave's number), good for 42 fantasy points. Sixty receptions at 7 yards per carry is 420 receiving yards. In a half-point PPR league that's 72 more points. That's a total of 199.5 fantasy points, which would have made McCaffrey the No. 12 running back in 0.5 league.
In our recent mock draft for that very format, I had the No. 5 pick overall and declined to gamble and snagged the rookie at No. 29 overall (third round) after picking up Julio Jones and Doug Baldwin in the first two round. That's a high price to pay, but I think it's going to be the cost of landing McCaffrey moving forward based on his preseason production, especially in PPR formats.
Could the Jaguars get rid of Bortles entirely?
Two years ago it was widely believed Blake Bortles might take a leap into the echelon of near-elite quarterbacks. Granted, a lot of his statistics were accumulated in garbage time, but Bortles had the Jaguars poised on the precipice of not being terrible. It feels like an alternate universe but people were really excited about Bortles.
This was a real thing.
Then 2016 showed up and went full Lucy with the football on Duval County. Bortles regressed, the Jaguars offense looked and probably smelled worse than an actual, literal dumpster fire and the Jags ended up with yet another top-five pick.
There was a significant amount of pressure on Bortles coming into the 2017 season and he has responded ... poorly. You can see the panic in his throws -- his very first pass against the Buccaneers was a quick, easy out to the right side and it looked like a one-winged duck. This was another one of his passing attempts on the first drive.
Yes, that is Bortles on the ground. The pass was completed, actually, but he should not be trying to do that. Stay in your lane, Blake.
The only way to limit the exposure is to completely scheme around him and have Bortles do stuff like sprint out to the right and make a simple throw on the move. The Jaguars understand that, but it might not matter. That's not a viable strategy over the course of a full season.
Even when Bortles was given a clean pocket and a wide open look at his top receiver, Allen Robinson, he couldn't make the throw. On the Jaguars third series of the game, Bortles got as clean a pocket as you could hope for, had a streaking Robinson with about three yards of separation and almost hit the cornerback instead.
Jon Gruden pointed out on ESPN the same thing I've said repeatedly: this feels like a golfer who is just buried deep inside his own head, battling a cavalcade of demons who are cackling over his mechanics. With every throw Bortles get further away from the innate instincts that allowed him to become a top-five pick in the NFL Draft. He looks like a guy standing over the ball unable to think anything other than "Don't f--- this up, Blake." That's a bad place to be, man.
And it sounds like cutting Bortles, who is in the final year of his rookie contract, is actually on the table. At the very least, the Jags may try and wrap up Bortles in bubble wrap to avoid paying him $19 million next year. You see, Jacksonville picked up his fifth-year option, which is guaranteed for injury only.
If Bortles loses the starting job to Chad Henne -- and it's entirely possible Bortles did just that on Thursday night -- the Jags could bury him on the bench, keep him on the roster and have a backup ready in case something happens to Henne. But if Henne gets hurt and Bortles is forced into action and then Bortles gets hurt, Jacksonville could end up on the hook for his entire 2018 salary.
And the Jags are quite obviously not OK with what they're seeing out of the quarterback position.
"I told them what I'm looking for," Marrone said following the Week 2 performance. "I'm looking for someone who can lead this offense. I'm not happy with the performance. I'm not going to sit here and B.S. anyone. Everybody saw it out there."
This is a viable playoff-caliber defense. The offensive line needs work, but the receivers are capable. Leonard Fournette is a theoretical feature back. The only thing holding this team back is the quarterback and suddenly his place on the roster is not even guaranteed.
Here's where Lynch lost the Broncos starting job
You can't define a quarterback battle in a single play ... unless you can. For Paxton Lynch, the chance to be the Broncos starting quarterback in Week 1 of the regular season Demaryius Thomas waltzing across the middle of the field on a wide-open crossing route.. With the Broncos sitting on a 3rd-and-6 situation, Lynch failed to recognize
Thomas may as well have been invisible, because Lynch was essentially looking in the same direction as he targeted tight end Virgil Green, who is in double coverage near the sideline.
This is a rudimentary read that Lynch completely missed. And it's a microcosm of the battle between Lynch and Trevor Siemian in this preseason, with Lynch consistently looking over his head while playing. Siemian hasn't looked like someone is going to throw for 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns, but that's not what the Broncos want in a quarterback.
With a championship-caliber defense, the Broncos need someone who can efficiently operate the offense without making too many mistakes. The defense is too loaded with talent -- Von Miller is a perennial DPOY candidate and Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are the best corner combo in the league -- to drag an undeveloped quarterback along, hoping Lynch puts everything together before it's too late.
The formula with Siemian is simple: run the ball, let your playmakers make plays and give your defense a chance to win games.
The Bears have a (good) problem on their hands
Chicago signed Mike Glennon in free agency this offseason, giving them an interesting skill-position trio of Glennon, RB Jordan Howard and WR Cameron Meredith. No one's mistaking that group for the famous Cowboys Triplets, but it's at least a group that could do some damage.
With pressure firmly on Ryan Pace after an interesting draft strategy, one that involved trading away valuable future picks to move up a single spot and select another quarterback, the GM should be feeling good two games into the preseason.
Not only has No. 2 overall pick and quarterback of the future Mitchell Trubisky looked very impressive in two games. Through those pair of games -- admittedly against second-tier defensive competition -- Trubisky is 24-for-33 for 226 yards and two touchdowns, along with some strong rushes. He has been substantially better from a statistical standpoint than presumptive starting quarterback Mike Glennon.
This is a wholly unfair comparison because of the defenses the two quarterbacks faced. Glennon got the first team Broncos defense and the first team Cardinals defense. Those units should be in the top 10 in the NFL this year. Trubisky got to play against guys who might not be in the NFL in 2017.
But that won't matter to fans and media, both of whom are already gathering pitchforks to find out how Trubisky is behind both Glennon and Mark Sanchez on the depth chart. The gut feeling here is that Glennon has a guarantee to be the starter when the season begins. It's part of the way the team approached the offseason and it allows the Bears the freedom to bring Trubisky along slowly.
BUT. Have you looked at the Bears schedule? They open with the Falcons at home, the Buccaneers on the road, the Steelers at home, the Packers on the road, the Vikings at home, the Ravens on the road, the Panthers at home and the Saints on the road. And 0-8 start is on the table regardless of how well Glennon plays, assuming he gets to start.
If that's the case, or if the Bears are anywhere below .500 after that stretch, there is a good chance Trubisky gets the call after the Week 9 bye. That's when teams change quarterbacks and if the season looks lost, you go to the young guy. It's an impossible situation for Glennon right now, because fans are latching onto the high draft pick who looks sharp against backups.
There's another interesting rookie to watch as well in NC A&T running back Tarik Cohen. Drafted as a "change of pace" runner despite a pedigree of toting the rock for the Aggies as a full-time feature back, Cohen has flashed this preseason in a big way. He's been explosive in his cuts and looks like a viable combo back with Howard. Remember, Howard too was a late-round pickup who developed quickly as a rookie. He's a very good runner but he does not have some established history as the only guy who will see carries in Chicago -- at points last year there was talk about John Fox going away from him.
The larger point here is that Pace, who was roundly criticized (guilty as charge!) for his draft class, may have unearthed at least two nice players, with everything still very much TBD in terms of the class. And if he found a franchise quarterback in Trubisky, any of the draft-day sins will be forgiven.
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