As we all know, the NFL is a copycat league. When a team experiences great success, other teams in the league will try to implement the same teambuilding strategy and will try to adopt the schemes and principles of the best teams (and usually experience significantly less success). We saw this with the Seahawks dominant Cover 3 defense that led to Seahawks defensive staffers getting hired all over the league, and for the past 20 years we have seen many a team hire Patriots staffers and executives to come and implement the “Patriot Way”. Much of the talk centered around the NFL draft the past couple of years has been about “finding the next Patrick Mahomes”. It seems teams have adjusted their strategies and are starting to pass up players such as Mac Jones who would traditionally be viewed as NFL-ready quarterback, and are favoring someone like Trey Lance who they think has the untapped potential to break the league. Some of the guys who are viewed as “projects” have actually turned out to be more NFL-ready than experienced college starters. All rookie QB’s struggle at understanding the NFL game at first but young players with exceptional speed and arm talent can make plays in and out of structure based on their talent alone. Take it from Mahomes himself who said he didn’t even learn how to read defenses until about halfway through his third NFL season. (https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2879589-chiefs-qb-patrick-mahomes-says-he-didnt-learn-to-read-defenses-until-last-year) This past draft saw 5 QB’s go in the top 15 picks and all 5 will immediately compete to be the starter, with a couple of them being named the starter at the same time their names were announced by the commissioner. I think it’s more likely than not that Trey Lance succeeds right away based on his physical gifts, while Mac Jones will lag behind because he cannot excel until he can understand and exploit an NFL defense.
Mahomes’ development with the Chiefs has been nothing short of remarkable, but there is a plot point in his development that is constantly skipped over. After being selected with the 10th overall pick, Mahomes redshirted his entire rookie season, starting only the final game of the season and finishing the year with 35 pass attempts. After the departure of incumbent Alex Smith in the following offseason, Mahomes attained the starting gig and had the greatest season by a first-year starting quarterback in the history of the NFL throwing 50 touchdowns and winning the MVP. Did Mahomes get drastically better in his redshirt season? Or was he simply that good all along because he is Patrick freaking Mahomes?
Why were the Chiefs able to take this path with Mahomes? The Chiefs had the luxury of already having Alex Smith, who wasn’t quite a Super Bowl QB but was good enough to get you a home playoff game whenever the supporting cast around him was good. In Mahomes’ rookie season Smith had one of the best seasons of his career and was good enough to make it through the season without the threat of getting benched for Mahomes. The way the NFL works right now there are 2 main reasons for a first-year quarterback to be sitting; either they are sitting behind a pro bowl caliber QB, or they themselves just aren’t that good. The Chiefs bridged the gap between the 2 and sat Mahomes behind a solid but not quite pro bowl quarterback that they knew wasn’t going to lead them to a super bowl. In turn, they turned the team over the following year to a version of Mahomes who was ready to lead them to a super bowl.
The Chiefs record and Alex Smith’s level of play weren’t much different from what Ryan Fitzpatrick did in Miami last year but the Dolphins handled the situation completely differently. The pressure was applied by the Dolphins front office for Tua to come in and play as a rookie despite the teams’ success with Fitzpatrick at QB. This put the Dolphins in an awkward position where they were a playoff team with Fitzpatrick and not quite a playoff team with Tua, this led to a bizarre juggling act of the quarterbacks that after it all settled probably left both of them worse off. From 2017-2020 11 Quarterbacks were selected in the top 10 of the draft and all of them except for Mahomes played in at least 10 games as a rookie. Many coaching staffs and organizations are eager to get their quarterbacks on the field as soon as possible, and they usually don’t have a better option. But it could be worth it, in the long run, to give your quarterback a gap year to adjust to the speed of the NFL.
Is it just mere coincidence that the best quarterback of this generation sat as a rookie?: As previously pointed out there just aren’t many data points on top 10 picks sitting outside of Mahomes (who is probably a complete outlier) so this is difficult to judge. Mahomes likely would’ve come in and been a star whenever he played, but the differences in his between week 17 of his rookie year and week 1 of his sophomore season are palpable. There’s not a long history of first-round quarterbacks sitting as rookies but among them are 2 of the greatest the sport has ever seen (Rodgers and Mahomes). In such a copycat league it will be interesting to see if any teams implement the Chiefs redshirt strategy during their development of the “next Patrick Mahomes”.