Fantasy football is won and lost by players who wildly outperform—or underperform—expectations. Roll the dice on the right player, and you’ll cruise through your league (hello there, Todd Gurley owners!). But put too much stock in a guy who busts, and it’ll be a long wait until next year’s draft (Isaiah Crowell owners: I’m sorry). Welcome to Fantasy Wild Cards, where we’ll examine the players with the biggest boom-or-bust prospects for the upcoming season. Will these players make your fantasy season, or break it?
If you’ve been paying attention to the Chiefs’ training camp, you’ve heard about Patrick Mahomes’s interception problem. He’s thrown seven picks in just six practices, including one that came as the result of Mahomes calling the wrong play in the huddle.
It’s just about the worst start Mahomes could have had in camp, especially since he’s taking over for Alex Smith, who tied for the lowest interception rate in the league last year. And yet, Mahomes’s camp hiccups have not slowed his hype train, and the Chiefs appear unconcerned about their sophomore passer’s inaccuracies. Asked about the picks last week, coach Andy Reid had a positive spin on the issue:
Here is the happenin' Andy Reid quote on Mahomes' training camp interceptions.— Tom Martin (@TomKCTV5) August 2, 2018
"If you don't have the intestinal fortitude to go test it, you're gonna be one of these quarterbacks that checks it down every time... and that's not what it's all about." pic.twitter.com/sJTtkdM3JT
Heading into the season, Mahomes is one of the most fascinating players in the league, because he’s taking over for one of the most talent-rich offenses in football—but he’s completely untested. The Chiefs shipped off a reliable starter in January because they assumed they wouldn’t miss a beat under their young passer, so the pressure is on for Mahomes. While Chiefs fans are busy asking whether he can take their team to the next level, let’s ask a question of wider importance: Can he be a reliable option for your fantasy team?
Mahomes is a late fantasy flier, currently being taken in the late 10th round in 12-team, non-PPR-league mock drafts. He’s the 15th QB off the board, meaning he’s being drafted almost exclusively as a backup passer. But of all the quarterbacks being taken around that spot—Ben Roethlisberger, Jared Goff, Marcus Mariota, et al.—Mahomes has the highest potential. So much so that it may be tempting to wait and wait and wait to draft a quarterback, and take two in the later rounds—Mahomes and another one of those guys—and see if the Chiefs’ young passer turns into a winning lottery ticket.
Last year, the Chiefs offense lit up the NFL. They finished fifth in total yards, sixth in points, and fourth in DVOA. Much of that was because of Kareem Hunt and the team’s rushing attack, which tied for the league lead in yards per attempt, but the passing game saw a huge jump as well, as Alex Smith broke his own mold and began chucking the ball deep.
Previously, Smith had been one of the NFL’s most conservative passers and rarely a fantasy factor, but he recorded the best season of his career last year, finishing as the no. 4 passer in fantasy points per game. The hope is that Mahomes, who ran an aggressive, Air Raid scheme at Texas Tech, can pick up where Smith left off—or, if everything breaks right, be even better than that.
The Chiefs offense is set up to help Mahomes right away. Kansas City returns virtually all of its offensive playmakers—Hunt, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce—for 2018, and it added Sammy Watkins this offseason as well. Watkins mostly played a decoy role in L.A. last year, but he’s a big, physical target that could pair perfectly with the speedy Hill.
Hearing from multiple folks around the league who are intrigued by what the Chiefs are building on offense with Pat, Kareem, Kelce, Ty and Sammy. "So nasty," one person said.— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) March 13, 2018
The Chiefs’ offensive line will be mostly intact, too, with Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz returning to the tackle spots. From a personnel standpoint, Mahomes couldn’t be much better set up to thrive in 2018.
If there is a factor that may hold Mahomes back this year, it’s Reid’s offensive philosophy. In each of the past four seasons, the Chiefs have ranked in the bottom five of the league in situation-neutral pace—i.e., the time it takes to get a snap off—which could limit the number of times Mahomes touches the ball. Reid hasn’t used any of the usual coach clichés to say that he’ll “take it slow” with Mahomes, but Reid’s offense just is slow—full stop. And while the Chiefs found success airing it out last season, that was due to efficiency, not volume—they finished 17th in the NFL in overall pass attempts, after ranking 25th, 29th, 28th, and tied for 20th in the previous years of Reid’s tenure.
But Mahomes’s fantasy value goes beyond his ability to throw the ball. He’s an adept runner as well, and that skill could be what makes him a viable fantasy starter. In two years as the full-time starter at Texas Tech, Mahomes ran for more than 700 yards and 22 touchdowns. He’ll be the most mobile quarterback Reid has coached since Donovan McNabb before McNabb’s ACL tear in 2006. From 2000 through 2006, McNabb averaged 420 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns per 16 games. That works out to 66 additional fantasy points (4.125 per game), which may not sound like an earth-shattering number, but was roughly the difference between Cam Newton (the no. 2 QB) and Drew Brees (no. 9) last season.
No one should expect Mahomes to come out and immediately start playing like McNabb, but his ability to pick up points on the ground is mouthwatering. Just look at this play from last year’s preseason:
Mahomes was ruled down just short of the end zone, but the potential for rushing scores is clearly there.
Also working to boost Mahomes’s fantasy production is the Kansas City defense. The Chiefs had the 30th-ranked defense by DVOA last year, a large dropoff from their 14th-ranked finish the previous season. And while they’ll get safety Eric Berry back from an Achilles injury, and they added an excellent nickel corner in Kendall Fuller this offseason, they also lost Marcus Peters and Derrick Johnson, making it likely this unit will spend much of the year treading water. A poor defensive showing could mean that Kansas City’s offense will be tasked with keeping the team in games, giving Mahomes plenty of opportunities to sling the ball all over the field.
Last season, Reid turned the NFL’s most notorious checkdown artist into a top fantasy option, and this year he has a chance to make Mahomes the leader of what could be a high-powered attack. Mahomes’s potential is sky high, yet he’s currently sitting on the fantasy football clearance rack—there are currently four DST units going above Mahomes in mock drafts. In the 10th round, it will be difficult to find many players with such an obvious path to immediate stardom as Mahomes. Why not go with the guy who could be the NFL’s next superstar quarterback?