The alert flashed across the bottom of the TV screen, notification of a trade that would alter the course of the 2017 NFL Draft. Four months after capturing a second consecutive AFC West Division title, the Chiefs had moved up 17 spots, sacrificing a pair of first-round picks and one third-round selection.
A few minutes after 8 p.m. on that late-April 2017 night, Kansas City was on the clock.
The compensation suggested infatuation with a quarterback, a successor to Alex Smith, though in the weeks and days approaching the draft, the Chiefs had successfully concealed the target’s identity. North Carolina passer Mitchell Trubisky was already off the board to the Chicago Bears, leaving the Chiefs two apparent options at No. 10.
Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes.
Months earlier at Clemson, Watson marched down the field on a national championship stage for the game-winning drive against almighty Alabama. Mahomes seemingly carried more risk, the product of an “air raid” offense at Texas Tech. His film showed flashes of otherworldly arm talent. But he finished just 13-16 as a college starter.
At 8:19 p.m., the NFL commissioner walked to the podium.
“Wooooow,” NFL host Rich Eisen reacted to Roger Goodell’s announcement. “It is Patrick Mahomes II, not Deshaun Watson.”
Over the ensuing hours and days, draft analysts expressed varying degrees of shock. Some were quite harsh. How could the Chiefs not be swayed by what Watson had done against the best of the best in college football?
Grading the draft, USA Today wrote, “Calling Mahomes a project is a major understatement. He’s nowhere near ready to play in the NFL, and honestly, he may never be.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Patrick Mahomes gets picked over Deshaun Watson? Really?” an ESPN pundit wrote.
A story on another site ignored the debate between Mahomes and Watson altogether. The article’s title: “Nathan Peterman will become the best quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft when it’s all said and done.”
Chiefs settle on Mahomes
Mahomes and Watson — set to meet for the first time Sunday when the Texans face Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium — traveled remarkably similar national tours in the days leading up to the draft, like a main act and the show-opener.
They visited Kansas City. They visited Houston within a couple of days of each other.
A year earlier, the two had become friends while competing at a quarterback camp in California. They stayed in touch occasionally. As they spoke throughout this process, they bonded over a simple commonality:
They had little idea where they would end up.
“I feel like a lot of coaches like me, but especially (Houston) Coach (Bill) O’Brien,” Mahomes told the Houston Chronicle after his pre-draft workout there. “I think my personality and how real I am, those are things beyond what I can do on the field that he likes. It seemed like the way I was answering questions, I think he knew that I knew what was going on. You can tell when coaches have a confidence in you.”
But with their draft-night trade, the Chiefs secured the right to make the decision. Well, only after nine other teams passed on the two QBs.
Months earlier, Brett Veach, the Chiefs’ general manager but then the team’s direct of player personnel, spotted Mahomes on film. He showed it to everyone in the building. He’d found the franchise’s future, he thought.
“When Brett gets something like that,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid told The Star earlier this year, “He’s going to let you know.”
As the Chiefs sent representatives to various college games, John Dorsey, the team’s general manager in 2017, wanted to watch Mahomes in person. He drove north to Iowa State on a Saturday afternoon. Saw one of the quarterback’s worst games, when the Cyclones clobbered Texas Tech 66-10.
Mahomes didn’t one throw great ball, Dorsey said. But he liked his competitiveness. Mahomes had played through an injury, despite the game long having been out of reach.
As mock drafts put Mahomes and Watson all over the board — some even grading them out of the first round — the Chiefs became enamored with both. Ultimately, however, the film helped drive the decision. Mahomes put some things on tape — with a notably less talented cast, to be blunt — the Chiefs’ football brass had not seen. As Watson was leading Clemson to a national championship, Mahomes was throwing from arm angles NFL quarterbacks were incapable of attempting.
Remember that pass against Louisiana Tech? Mahomes ran to his left and flicked a pass sidearm — almost submarine — that landed 50 yards downfield. On the money.
OK, this guy is special, Dorsey thought.
The Chiefs invited Mahomes, Watson and others to their facility, putting all of them through a series of football acuity exams that spanned several hours. Tested their ability to retain football jargon. To regurgitate play calls. Afterward, Dorsey asked every coach in the room to rank the quarterbacks’ performances.
They all had Mahomes at No. 1.
As the story goes, at one point during his pre-draft meeting with Mahomes, Reid gave Veach a literal thumbs up.
Mahomes it is.
If they could get him. The front office began gathering intel on who else might be interested in their guy. Later, then-Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said he was prepared to draft Mahomes at No. 13. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told NOLA.com he was eyeing him as Drew Brees’ successor. New Orleans owned the 11th pick.
The timing of the Chiefs’ trade wasn’t coincidental. Five days earlier, Dorsey began forming the framework of the deal with Buffalo for the 10th overall pick. Some in the room that night begged Dorsey to make the move earlier, worried Mahomes would be gone.
But he was still on the board. As was Watson.
“Listen, Deshaun Watson is a great kid,” Dorsey said after the selection. “He’s the senior who battled for the title last year (and) won the title this year. That’s very special. But at the end of the day, we had Mahomes rated above Watson. That’s how we saw it.”
The debate — Mahomes or Watson — might just shadow the duo for the next 15 years. It’s far too soon to settle that argument, as each is only 24 years old. (They were born three days apart.)
Yes, Mahomes won the NFL Most Valuable Player award in his first season as a starter, putting up numbers few before him have achieved in a year’s time. He led the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game. There isn’t exactly regret inside the walls at 1 Arrowhead Drive.
Watson has been brilliant in his own right. Threw for five touchdowns last week. Threw for five touchdowns as a rookie against the Chiefs, when Alex Smith was still Kansas City’s starter.
“It’s 1A, (and) 1B in my opinion,” said Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, who played with Watson in Houston last season.
On Sunday, when they meet at Arrowhead Stadium, Watson and Mahomes won’t share the field for a single snap. But telecasts will compare statistics; radio shows will discuss who outplayed whom; the wins and losses will slide next to their career records.
This will be their show.
“We’ve stayed in touch a little bit,” Mahomes said. “He’s a great player, and he’s been a great player for a long time. He’s had success at every level he’s played, and it will be a great challenge for us as a team to go up against a team of that caliber.”
Asked this week if he notices distinct differences between the way he and Mahomes play, Watson replied, “No, not really, honestly.”
People talk about them in similar fashion, beyond the obvious of their ability to extend plays and make atypical throws. Mathieu says they have similar competitive makeup, each ignoring the scoreboard and just playing.
Earlier this week, Texans coach Bill O’Brien gushed about Watson’s “tremendous memory,” his ability to correct mistakes. Mahomes’ retention is part of what prompted the thumbs-up from Reid before he had ever taken an NFL snap.
To think of it now: So few mock drafts placed either in the top five. None of the prominent, highly-respected mocks had them going first or second overall.
And certainly none had two teams trading up in the draft — sacrificing future picks — just to land them.
“I know that we were extremely happy and thrilled to be able to draft Deshaun Watson,” O’Brien said. “And I’m sure that the Chiefs were happy to draft Patrick.”