24 Hours ... With Patrick Mahomes
In a draft that lacks a surefire franchise quarterback, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes has a chance to emerge as 2017’s prize passer. We went behind the scenes with the QB as he prepared for the audition of his life: his pro day
The MMQB spent 24 hours with quarterback prospect Patrick Mahomes as he prepares for his pro day.
The MMQB continues a series of inside-inside, multimedia football stories for the 2017 season with a view into the life of top quarterback prospect Patrick Mahomes in advance of the most important audition of his career: Texas Tech’s pro day. In the series, we’ll spend a full day with an important person in the football world. We’ll have players, coaches and other figures integral to how the game is played and consumed. Give us feedback—and ideas for future 24 Hours subjects—at email@example.com.
The lead-up to a prospect’s pro day audition is stressful enough. But for Mahomes, just 21 years old and one of the most intriguing players in the 2017 draft class, there’s even more pressure. This draft class of quarterbacks does not include a surefire franchise player; each of top prospects must take full advantage of this on-campus test and use it as a statement that he should be the top passer chosen on April 27. With a sturdy frame (6' 3", 225 pounds), pro athlete pedigree (his father, Pat Mahomes, pitched in the majors for 11 seasons), big arm and natural charisma, Mahomes is a legitimate first-round candidate. Says one AFC personnel man: “No doubt he has all the traits you’re looking for. He may be a project, but you can see him having tremendous upside, perhaps more than any of the guys in his class.”
On March 31, representatives from 28 teams traveled to Lubbock, Texas, to watch Mahomes perform a 68-throw script. The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan followed Mahomes for a 24-hour period before his pro day, a peek into the preparations of a top quarterback prospect.
* * *
Wednesday, March 29
Mahomes stands alone on the Texas Tech practice field, clad in gray cleats, black Lululemon sweat pants and a long-sleeve, navy blue shirt from his stint as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy. In the plains of Northwest Texas—85 percent sky, 15 percent grassland, as locals say—spring is usually warm, dry and windy. The wind is here, but it’s also 40 degrees with a steady mist as Mahomes begins seven minutes of dynamic stretching: a jog to the 20-yard line, knee hugs and striders.
Mahomes spent the last hour with an NFL quarterback coach. So much of the NFL draft process is cloak and dagger; the coach asks not to be identified, even though his presence could mean little more than due diligence. He’ll be granted anonymity, though others aren’t as lucky. A week earlier, details of Mahomes working out for the Saints leaked after Sean Payton was spotted in downtown Lubbock (it didn’t help that he posed for a handful of photos).
Since the combine, Mahomes has scheduled a total of 18 private workouts or official visits from teams. Today’s interview began “in the classroom”—draft parlance for testing a player’s X’s and O’s acumen. The coach calls up Texas Tech footage and asks Mahomes to walk him through the play call, his protections and rationalize his decisions. The coach then draws three plays from his NFL playbook and asks Mahomes to recite them back.
* * *
The NFL quarterback coach joins Mahomes on the field. He’s not going to put Mahomes through a full workout, but he does want to see him throw. Because the coach is here solo, he asks the Texas Tech video department to film the session. There is one camera at field level and another on a crane. The coach gives instructions to the cameramen: “If you could get the angle mostly of him, but also the target, that would be great.” Within an hour, the footage will be emailed directly to that team’s headquarters for the rest of the organization to analyze.
* * *
“Hey, can somebody get Jared?” Mahomes shouts. Jared Kaster is a former Texas Tech center who overlapped with Mahomes for two seasons. Now he’s an offensive quality control coach at Texas Tech, but he’ll snap balls to Mahomes for this session and at the pro day. One of the biggest unknowns with Mahomes, and most college quarterbacks who played almost exclusively from the shotgun (more than 95 percent of the time for Mahomes), is his ability to take snaps from under center.
Even though it’s his non-throwing hand, the injury is significant: When taking snaps under center, the left hand stabilizes the ball. He had a cast for a month and didn’t get the screws out until mid-January. He couldn’t throw the football much during that span. Texas Tech scheduled its pro day as late as possible just in case Mahomes needed the extra time to heal. “In the end, though, we probably didn’t have to push it back,” says Mahomes, in his thick Texas drawl, as he shows off a gnarly five-inch scar stretching from his wrist to knuckles. “My wrist healed much faster than I thought, and once [I got the screws out] I felt like I could throw just fine. Maybe it put me behind a little bit, but I’m 100 percent now.”
* * *
The NFL quarterback coach stands next to Mahomes during the session. He consults a white, 5.5-by-8.5-inch notebook and calls out the type of throw he’d like Mahomes to make. Throw after throw.
“Yes sir,’’ Mahomes says after each request.
For his pro day, Mahomes’ arsenal is limited: two wideouts, a running back, a fullback and a converted tight end (who is a former linebacker). One scout in attendance says he’d be shocked if any of the players are more than undrafted free agents. So Mahomes’ agents have flown in a professional route-runner. Kenny Bell is a 37-years-old from Los Angeles, a vegetarian who presses his own cashew milk, a wiry 5' 9" former Hofstra wideout, and a man who has absorbed 75,000 hits over his career—though none in an NFL game. Bell graduated college in 2002 and when his NFL career didn’t take off, he pivoted. For the last decade, he’s been employed by EA Sports, using his body for motion capture for Madden video games. He has also worked as a stunt double on “Friday Night Lights,” “The Comeback,” and Nike commercials. But for $250 and accommodations, he’s a wideout for Mahomes this week. Bell won’t run full routes (to save his legs for pro day) but he will shag balls during this 25-throw session.
* * *
The Red Raiders are in the middle of spring ball, and Mahomes’ former teammates are scurrying around the football building. One of them, freshman defensive lineman Tyler Carr, comes outside to watch Mahomes. An early enrollee, Carr arrived on campus nine weeks ago. He stands in awe of the workout. “This is so cool,” he mutters to himself. A few teammates come out to join him.
“Who’s out there?” one asks.
“It’s Patrick, working out for the [actual name of anonymous NFL team]!” Carr announces, his voice full of earnest giddiness.
* * *
Mahomes walks inside and immediately shimmies off his sweatpants (he’s wearing shorts underneath). “Man it got hot out there,” he says.
Mahomes says goodbye to the quarterback coach—“I appreciate you taking the time, sir,” he says—then stands in the lobby of the football building. He’s fixated on a television airing the Texas Tech baseball game. The Red Raiders are the No. 3 team in the country and Mahomes was on the roster until his sophomore season. His father (Pat Mahomes Sr.) and godfather (LaTroy Hawkins) pitched in the major leagues for a combined 32 seasons. Mahomes clocked a 95-mph fastball in high school but chose to pursue football more seriously in college. “My dad played football in high school, he was all-state, but he never really loved it,” Mahomes says. “But for me, I didn’t know what love was until I discovered football.” Though he juggled both sports as a freshman, when Mahomes got the chance to compete for the starting quarterback job he pressed pause on baseball. “It was the first time I ever quit anything in my life,” he says. “And just being a competitor, I can’t explain how hard that was.”
* * *
Kingsbury comes by. “I watched you a little out there,” he says. “You were really slinging it.”
“I was throwing it good today, real good,” Mahomes says.
Kingsbury begins walking away. “Hey,” Mahomes shouts after him. “You have meetings?”
“Yeah,” Kingsbury says. “But I got you later.”
Mahomes looks at himself in the reflection of a glass display in the lobby. “Hey,” he says, to two nearby staffers. “How’s my hair? Should I get a haircut?” He pats down on his curly locks. He stares at his reflection for a good 30 seconds then tells Bell, “O.K., let’s go get something to eat.”
* * *
Mahomes and Bell arrive at one of the quarterback’s favorite haunts, the Aspen Creek Grill. In the past 71 minutes, Mahomes has been interrupted three times for selfies. He downs most of his Pow Wow shrimp appetizer, steak tacos and three refills of ice water. (Mahomes says he’s not really concerned about his weight. It’s usual for prospects to put on a few pounds between their combine weigh-in and pro day, but Mahomes has fluctuated only a pound or two since February). During lulls in the conversation, Mahomes’ gaze moves to a TV airing SportsCenter, or he takes out his phone and checks his Snapchat. Mahomes often acts like a typical 21-year-old. He is most animated when he shares stories about days of relative anonymity: “Oh, this is one of my favorites,” he says, eyes widening. “As a freshman, the athletes came to campus early, like the summer before fall semester. We’d crash campus orientations and play dodgeball, and crush kids there, or basketball. In one game I was playing with one of the Tech basketball players, Zach Smith. He’s like 6' 8". I was on this fast break, and I put an alley-oop off the glass. This kid had some glasses on—he might have played basketball in high school or something but he wasn’t that good—and jumped to catch it, and Zach Smith caught it on top of this dude’s head! Then dunked on him so hard, it broke his glasses! They wouldn’t let us go to freshman orientations after that.”
Most of Mahomes vices, now banned as he protects his body for the NFL, are equally G-rated.
“Parking is so hard on campus, I used to rollerblade to class,” he says, wistfully.
When the waitress, who at least feigned ignorance when she first came to the table, brings over the check, she only addresses Mahomes: “It was reaallly nice to meet you.”
“Yeah you too,” Mahomes mumbles, taken aback by her sudden enthusiasm.
* * *
Mahomes is still on the lease for his off-campus house, but he’s staying at a hotel this week. It’s easier that way; his former roommates still live at the house and there’s always commotion. Technically, this is a business trip.
In the hotel lobby, Chris Cabott, one of Mahomes’ agents, pulls out his laptop. In addition to handling his football contract, Cabott and his partner, longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, are also overseeing Mahomes’ marketing. Mahomes yawns and rests his head on the table. “I’m sleepy,” he says.
“We’ll make sure you get a full night of sleep tonight,” Cabott says. (Bell is here as well. He’ll shadow Mahomes as long as they are together, in an effort to forge chemistry).
The agent pulls up a contract on his computer and Mahomes scoots next to the screen. Cabott explains a few lines regarding a deal for signing memorabilia: “This deal would take you through April 2019, so essentially it would take you through your rookie year, your second year. You’d have to do four signings a year. All of this….”
Mahomes interrupts. “Would I get that for every item I do sign?”
“Yeah every item you do sign,” Cabbott says. “I mean, it’s already very generous. That’s double what most people have. I mean, like starting NFL quarterbacks that’s double what they have. It’s a killer deal. I’m trying to get a signing bonus on top of this, because I love you.”
Mahomes smirks. “It’s a good time to be Patrick Mahomes,” Cabbott continues. “O.K. for this, if you go to one of these five markets, this would be the number you’d look at. If you win offensive rookie of the year, if you get to the Super Bowl, you could get up to this number…”
The important business discussion goes largely unnoticed in the lobby of the extended stay hotel; a family of four checks in a few feet away and is being instructed that breakfast will be from 6:30 to 9:30, and Wifi is free.
* * *
Mahomes’ phone rings. “Unknown Number.” He picks up. It’s an NFL quarterbacks coach for a team that hasn’t shown much interest during the draft process. The conversation lasts two minutes. From Mahomes’ end, this is what it sounds like. “Hello… Yes sir. How are you doing? … I’m good to talk to you right now … Yes sir … It’s on Friday, sir … [slight chuckle] … Yes sir … Exactly. Just trying to get it perfect for the pro day … Everyone else will run and do all of that by 9, hopefully by 11 … Yes sir … I’ve been in Lubbock the last week … Yes sir … I feel like I’ve been getting better every day … Yes sir … Yes sir … O.K., thank you.” When Mahomes hangs up, it feels like a pretty pointless call. A tedious aspect about draft process: You always have to be on. Mahomes will get at least three of these calls a week. Sometimes a coach or personnel man wants to talk for an hour, other times it’s as mundane as this call. “It’s kind of weird because my phone is always ringing with area codes around the country, but I feel like they’re just testing me to see how I react,” Mahomes says. “Do I pick up? What am I doing? What’s my mood like? Am I willing to talk football with them?”
* * *
Mahomes has decided he does, indeed, want a haircut. Earlier in the day, he sent a text to make it happen. His barber, Fabian, said he’d stay after close if Mahomes wanted to come in. The barbershop, Garza’s, is an institution, especially for Red Raider athletes. It’s no frills; red walls, white tile floor, a vending machine that looks like it was installed in 1975, and solid $11 haircuts. Mahomes hops in the chair and doesn’t give instructions, just the usual. When it’s Bell’s turn (and then Cabott’s) Mahomes takes a seat and cranes his head to the mounted television, airing NFL Network. The analysts give highlights of Miami’s pro day, featuring fellow quarterback Brad Kaaya, and Mahomes is half-interested.
* * *
On TV, NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, the draft expert of draft experts, is previewing Texas Tech’s pro day. Mahomes perks up. Mayock: “He runs around like he thinks he’s Johnny Manziel.” To this, Mahomes chuckles like a little kid. “Come on,” he says. “That’s a funny line.”
Mayock finishes the segment saying, “Is he disciplined to play in a true NFL system?” Mahomes barely reacts. Fabian the barber takes offense: “We’ll show them!”
* * *
Mahomes drives back to his hotel. He plans on watching the Spurs-Warriors game. Tomorrow (the final day before his pro day) is going to be big, but not as big as it could have been: At one point, Mahomes had three dinners with three NFL teams scheduled. He had a hard time wrapping his head around the logistics. “I mean I’d have to eat at each one, right? Because I don’t want to be rude… I literally don’t think I could eat three meals in a row.” Plans change; two teams nixed dinners in favor of meetings or a later team visit; Mahomes is relieved to only have to eat once.
* * *
Just before midnight
The Warriors win 110-98, and Mahomes falls asleep right after the game—well, not before taunting a few of his friends who are Spurs fans on Snapchat.
* * *
Thursday, March 30
Mahomes’ alarm is set for 8:50 a.m. but before it can go off, he gets a call from Mike Sheppard. The longtime NFL assistant coach has been Mahomes’ quarterback tutor throughout the draft process. Sheppard arrived in Lubbock last night. The plan today is to make sure the quarterback is as comfortable as possible with the pro day. The 68-throw session was choreographed by Cabott, Kingsbury, Mahomes and Sheppard. They drew up a draft two weeks ago and have tweaked it just about every day since. He’ll do most of his work from the 40-yard line, eight throws in the end zone, then the finale: a Hail Mary.
“That’s definitely not something you’d typically see at a pro day,” says Sheppard who, by virtue of coaching in the NFL for 20 years, has a hard time estimating how many pro days he’s attended. (He settles on an over/under of 100.) “But Patrick has such unique arm talent, we wanted to show it off.” Initially, Kingsbury suggested Mahomes stand at the 50-yard line, throw the ball onto the double T emblems on the hill about 20 yards from the far end zone, then walk off the field in silence. Mic drop. The group settled on something a bit more conservative: 78 yards, against the wind.
The reason evaluators will come to see Mahomes in person is that it’s hard to gauge velocity on film. Meanwhile the two things college spread quarterbacks must prove to NFL teams is that they can handle the verbiage of an NFL system, and the footwork required working under center. While the verbiage is assessed in classroom sessions, the script is carefully designed to demonstrate how well Mahomes is mastering the footwork of the three-, five- and seven-step drops he’ll need to do in an NFL offense, while still making all of the “wow” throws he completed at Texas Tech. Evaluators say that Mahomes’ arm strength is so impressive, and he has a knack for escaping pressure, he sometimes relied on pure talent over mechanics in college. “Here’s why he gets the gunslinger label,” says an NFL evaluator. “He’ll see the check down, but he’ll be from the right hashmark and decide to just haul it 50 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown… because he can. You can’t get away with that stuff in the NFL though.”
Mastering the three-, five- and seven-step drops are imperative. At first, Sheppard says, Mahomes took a slight extra step in his left step because he was used to the shotgun. The quarterback whacked that habit in about two weeks. The biggest issue, Sheppard explains, is rhythm throws—separating the drop from the throw. Sometimes Mahomes is so focused on the new drops, he’s not driving the ball as well as he can. While Mahomes was used to getting the ball and just going, now he has to make decisions while he gets the ball, and because of that, motor skills tend to slow down.
* * *
Mahomes and Sheppard meet at a diner. The quarterback puts in his order—apple juice and water, bacon, scrambled eggs, toast and fruit—then gets quizzed by his coach. “How did it go yesterday?” Sheppard asks.
“Pretty good,” Mahomes says. “We were in the classroom for like an hour, hour-and-a-half. He [the anonymous NFL coach] drew up three plays for me and I did pretty well with that.”
“Did he ask you to call the plays?” Sheppard asks.
“Just one, and then he asked me to redraw them on the board.”
“Has anybody given you that 15-17 word huddle test we talked about yet?” Sheppard asks. (The other biggest jump for quarterbacks from a spread system is the ability to memorize and recite long play calls in the huddle.)
“No,” Mahomes says. “Well actually, one team did. The [anonymous team] asked me to do it when I met with them.”
In college, mostly all of Mahomes’ communication was non-verbal. Kingsbury would relay the play from the sideline with a bevy of hand signals, and Mahomes would signal them to his receivers. He would tell his running back the play, and then his line the play. In the NFL, Mahomes will get the play from his helmet speaker and then transfer it to his team. Mahomes can become defensive when this subject is broached. “It’s people assuming I’m not capable of doing it because I haven’t done it before,” he says. “That’s underestimating how smart I am or how much I love this game and am willing to learn.”
* * *
Just as Mahomes bites into his first piece of toast, a woman taps him on the shoulder. “Would you mind taking a photo with my daughter?” she asks.
Mahomes nods as he finishes chewing and stands up and smiles for a photo.
He’s pretty quiet at breakfast. In 24 hours, he’ll be warming up for his throwing session. It feels like those around him are wondering if he might show signs of nerves, but he never flinches. He scrolls through Twitter and sees that, 400 miles away, Myles Garrett just re-ran his 40 at the Texas A&M pro day. Mahomes watches the video on his phone. “That kid is just a freak,” he says.
* * *
The waitress comes by to announce that the bill has already been taken care of—by the woman who asked Mahomes to take a photo with her daughter. Just then the woman emerges and hands Mahomes a gift card to the restaurant. “I … I just wanted to give you this,” she stammers, then walks out before Mahomes has a chance to say thank you.
“Well, now that I’m not a college athlete anymore I guess I can accept this,” he says, stuffing the card in his pocket.
* * *
Sheppard and Mahomes enter Jones AT&T Stadium. It’s 75 degrees and sunny, with a slight breeze. Sheppard knows there’s always a wind factor in this stadium. In 1989 (six years before Mahomes was born) Sheppard was the head coach at New Mexico and his team played here. “I’ve been wondering how the wind will be tomorrow,” Sheppard says. “But I know he’ll have to make throws with the wind and against it tomorrow, because that’s what the NFL guys want to see.”
* * *
Mahomes, again, is wearing Lululemon sweatpants (now gray) and a t-shirt. He carries a jug of water. Sheppard doesn’t want Mahomes to throw today at all, to preserve his arm. He’ll barely even touch a football. This is a walk-through to work out all the kinks. Gathered on the field are the six targets Mahomes will be throwing to tomorrow, including Bell.
Before they begin, Mahomes and Sheppard go over the script. “O.K., there’s two changes in the formation on the third segment,” Mahomes says, referring to throws Nos. 36 and 37 on the script. “I think these two need to switch. If you were in that formation, you wouldn’t fake going this way, come out naked right, you know what I mean?”
The script is supposed to highlight that Mahomes can make all of the throws an NFL quarterback is asked to make. These are plays where he will need to be on the move.
“Alright, let’s go over this,” Cabott says, pulling out his laptop and kneeling in a corner of the sideline where shadows protect the glare. “Come into my office.”
Cabott, Mahomes and Sheppard all kneel over the laptop.
Mahomes: “I’m going this [right] way first. The comeback, I’m faking this way, naked left… I’m just going to switch these two.”
Sheppard: “O.K., that actually makes sense.”
Mahomes: “I think in my head, I thought of it that way.”
Sheppard: “Well, here’s what I’m asking. Before we were talking, you were going to throw the overs on both of the nakeds.”
Mahomes: “Yeah, I’m throwing two different nakeds but this is the other one right here.” [He points to play No. 42].
Sheppard: “So you got two overs? And you want to throw one of the comebacks?”
Mahomes: “Yeah. Let me think. If I’m throwing the comeback to the left, then I’m going to fake right. That’s what I want to do.”
And so it is decided. Play No. 36 will be a fake right, naked left comeback route. Play No. 37 will be a fake right, naked left over route and thrown to the tight end. In this order, it’s more accurate to what NFL teams would do. (Later, Mayock—who attends the pro day—will compliment Mahomes on the 20-yard comeback. “A lot of quarterbacks don’t like to make those throws because they’re arm throws,” he says. “I thought they were outstanding.”)
Cabott will make the changes on the master document and update all of the scripts. But now, it’s time to “throw.”
* * *
“Alright gentlemen,” Sheppard announces to the group. “The goal of today is to be as comfortable as possible. We have the field as long as we want. We don’t have anywhere to be. So we can stay as long as we need to get it right.”
“Let’s see what this looks like!” Mahomes says.
After play No. 30, a five-step drop and corner route, Sheppard yells: “Good timing, Patrick!” Later, he’ll yell “good throw!” It seems comical with no ball in sight.
* * *
Mahomes is hands-on with the receivers. He’ll stop on several occasions to give instructions. “Hey Kenny,” he says. “A little less pace on that one. Don’t be as fast. Remember, I’m play action so give me a little bit of time.”
“You got it,” Bell says.
When it comes time for the Hail Mary, Sheppard sticks his finger up to survey the wind.
“Hail Mary with the wind, for sure,” Mahomes says.
They run through the script one more time.
* * *
Mahomes walks back into the football building. Kingsbury is the hallway. “How’d it go out there?” the coach asks.
“Good,” Mahomes says. “We got better, cleaned everything up. I feel good about it. Real good about it.”
“I’m excited,” Kingsbury said.
“No drops today,” Mahomes deadpans.
* * *
Once again, Cabott, Mahomes and Sheppard huddle over the laptop—this time at a high-top table overlooking the weight room—and fine-tune their last minute changes. Mahomes will then go back to the offices and get the new printouts and have them laminated.
“I think we’re good,” Mahomes says when he returns. “Everything is set.”
Mahomes has claimed, on several occasions, that he’s not nervous about his pro day. It might be a function of his upbringing. The two most important male figures in his life were professional athletes; Mahomes has been to every MLB stadium, he’s taken batting practice with Alex Rodriguez and fielded groundballs with Derek Jeter; he’s grown up in locker rooms and is unfazed by big moments. Or perhaps draft season fatigue prevents nerves from revealing themselves.
* * *
Mahomes has a meeting with an NFL head coach at 3 p.m. and at first, he wants to go to his hotel and shower beforehand. He changes his mind, and decides he will get something to eat. And then he changes his mind again. He will just wait here at the football facility until the coach arrives.
“Actually, I think I’m just going to lie on the couch here,” he says. “Rest up.”
* * *
Mahomes welcomes the NFL head coach to Texas Tech. They walk into a private room together.
* * *
Mahomes impressed with his 68-throw script. Seahawks GM John Schneider and 49ers GM John Lynch were in attendance, as was Giants coach Ben McAdoo, making his lone appearance at a pro day this year. Mahomes overthrew four balls, but a scout in attendance said his command and timing on several throws—especially on deep, outbreaking routes—“showed me he has made great improvements. The footwork isn’t perfect, but he’s getting there.” In reviewing the tape that night, Cabott and Mahomes see some room for improvement. He was so focused on the footwork, he wasn’t driving the ball as well as he could on some throws.
But there was one he perfected. Even though NFL evaluators were given a copy of the script beforehand, there was awed silence as Mahomes stepped back for his final throw, the Hail Mary. There was no route-runner, but he hauled spiral perfectly into the end zone. Said the scout in attendance: “There’s that swagger, which has always made him the most intriguing prospect.”
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