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Comparing Trubisky, Mahomes and Watson — unfair, but tough not to do

September 22, 2018

Patrick Mahomes has three NFL starts. He’s the league’s next elite quarterback. Unless he isn’t?

Deshaun Watson was that guy … until he wasn’t. His two games this season have undercut all that talk. Or maybe he’s still that guy?

Mitch Trubisky was the quarterback the Chicago Bears made sure to move up to snag, prior to the Chiefs and Texans getting Mahomes and Watson, respectively. And now Trubisky is just an “average quarterback.” So one NFL player has said, anyway.

Yes, it all feels pretty ridiculous. Yet here we are, stacking and comparing the top three quarterbacks from the 2017 NFL draft like they’re nutritional information on cereal boxes.

This is no science experiment that any university would accept as academic proof. There are dozens or more variables involved here — and no control. Bears head coach Matt Nagy, when asked about comparing Mahomes (whom he coached last year) to Trubisky (whom he’s coaching this year), pointed out what he thinks can and cannot be admissible evidence for the argument.

“It’s easy to compare two people because they were drafted in the same draft, top 10, one ahead of the other,” Nagy said. “… You have one guy that has had plenty of time now to learn it, and when I say plenty of time, trust me, he’s learning this thing too.

“So [Mahomes has] just had an extra year to go through it. I don’t think that’s fair to Mitch to be put in that position, and so I know Mitch doesn’t put that on himself. We certainly don’t do that. Hopefully in the end both of them have great, long careers in this type of offense.”

But it is the weekly sports chatter — Mahomes is the flavor of the month, Watson was last year’s Johnny-come-lately, Trubisky yet to reach his peak — and the debate is not going away, even if it’s certain to change. They’ll be stacked and compared for years to come.

It’s understandable, and perhaps unavoidable, even if it’s not completely fair yet. So let’s take a look at the raw numbers of the three quarterbacks and how they’ve fared so far through parts of two NFL seasons:

Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

Career stats: 3 games (3-0 record as starter); 60-of-90 passing (66.7 percent), 866 yards, 10 TDs, 1 INT, 4 sacks; 17 rushes, 49 yards, 0 TDs

2018 stats: 2 games (2-0 record); 38-of-55 passing (69.1 percent), 582 yards 10 TDs, 0 INT, 2 sacks; 10 rushes, 39 yards, 0 TDs

The fewest starts of the trio, and the most excitement — for now, anyway. A lot of that has been justified because of the record-setting start Mahomes is on this season, with 10 TD passes the first two games, the highest in NFL history.

But let’s come down to earth on one aspect: Throw in Mahomes’ Week 17 debut last year, and that’s now three pretty uninspiring defenses he’s faced. The Broncos team he saw in the season finale had eight defensive players on IR by that game, plus a worn-down Von Miller.

Mahomes and the Chiefs also caught a Joey Bosa-less Chargers defense in Week 1, and that could be a good defense, but it was also starting three rookies. And the Steelers last week have just not been the same since the injury to Ryan Shazier last year.

Plus, as Nagy notes, he’s been steeped in this system for a year. And lest anyone forgets, the Chiefs’ playmaking talent — along with a darned-good offensive line —might be the best in the NFL. Mahomes has better big-play weapons than maybe any quarterback in football.

He’s been wildly impressive in a tiny sample size. Let’s see some more.

Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

Career stats: 9 games (3-5 record as starter); 165-of-270 passing (61.1 percent), 2,185 yards, 22 TDs, 10 INT, 26 sacks; 36 rushes, 269 yards, 2 TDs

2018 stats: 2 games (0-2 record); 39-of-66 passing (59.1 percent), 486 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INT, 7 sacks; 13 rushes, 84 yards

Watson’s yards per game, completion percentage and interception percentage (which is actually down in 2018) are pretty comparable from last year’s lightning start to this season’s two-game sample. Where the big dropoff has been is in yards per attempt (from 8.3 to 7.4) and TD percentage (from 9.3 to 4.5).

Now, that TD percentage from 2017 was a bit unsustainable — the league leader with enough attempts to qualify, Carson Wentz, was at 7.5, and the highest 16-game quarterback last season was Russell Wilson, at 6.1 percent. (And just for kicks, Mahomes is at nuclear 18.2 percent. The highest in the NFL’s modern era with at least 400 pass attempts in a season is Peyton Manning in 2004, at 9.9. He and Aaron Rodgers in 2011 are the only such QBs to finish a season over 9.0.)

The sacks also are up, and that has to be worrisome for the Texans with Watson about 10.5 months removed from a torn ACL. Houston didn’t ensure it would have a better pass-blocking offensive line, even with a host of changes up front this offseason. Also a problem: With a limited run game and a perpetually hurt Will Fuller, opponents can hone in on DeAndre Hopkins defensively.

Still, what Watson did a year ago cannot be ignored, and it’s shocking how much “falling back to earth” talk there has been through two games. Watson missed some throws against New England and made a costly error on the final play of the Week 2 loss. But it’s not as if his tape this year is showing some awful regression to justify such talk.

The Texans’ schedule lightens a bit, and even with two matchups left with the Jaguars and a late-season game at Philadelphia, it’s hard to find many defenses that you can say are capable of completely shutting him down. Expect clearer skies ahead.

Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears

Career stats: 14 games (5-9 record as starter); 244-of-399 passing (61.2 percent), 2,564 yards, 9 TDs, 9 INT, 37 sacks; 53 rushes, 304 yards, 3 TDs

2018 stats: 2 games (1-1 record); 48-of-69 passing (69.6 percent), 371 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INT, 6 sacks; 12 rushes, 56 yards, TD

Trubisky was thrown into the fire last season in Week 5 in a prime-time matchup against the Vikings, starting a 12-game rookie audition with little in the way of actual upside. The run game had its moments, but that was about it. The wide receivers were pretty terrible. The tight ends weren’t much better after Zach Miller went down. The offensive line was — at times — a sieve. And the outgoing coaching staff seldom asked Trubisky to test defenses vertically when it wasn’t third-and-10 or farther to go.

Of the 12 defenses Trubisky faced, six ranked in the top eight of DVOA ratings last season. The only unit rated lower than 20th was the 49ers, who came in at No. 26. Needless to say, Trubisky had a lot working against him as a rookie, and you’d be hard-pressed to say he was bad. He took too many sacks, had shaky bouts of accuracy and wasn’t great versus pressure. But Trubisky also kept his turnovers relatively low (seven picks, four lost fumbles), looked pretty good on his few deep attempts and seldom was the reason in and of himself that the Bears lost games.

And now, with Nagy coming in and the Bears making wholesale changes on offense, Trubisky has moved onto his third system in three years (dating back to college at UNC) and appears to still be in adjustment mode through two games of the 2018 season. Continuity does matter.

“What’s fair to compare is you have one, in [Mahomes], who has had a full year in this offense to understand it,” Nagy said. “Now, regardless of playing in it, he’s had a full year, more than a year to sit behind it and learn and understand and watch tape with those quarterbacks last year and get to see all the talk, all the discussions of where you go on this play and that play.

“Whereas Mitchell hasn’t had that. He’s being forced into this thing right away, and so that’s where these growing pains are going to occur. That’s where I just want to make it clear to him and to everybody, if you’re realistic about it, it does take a little bit of time.”

It is worth noting that, generally speaking, Trubisky has had his greatest success early in games — often scripted plays the team draws up and extensively works on in practices. On the first two drives of each games, he’s a combined 16-for-19 passing (84.2 percent) for 161 yards, with a TD pass, no interceptions and one sack (for zero yards lost). He also has run four times for 23 yards with a TD, and that counts a 2-yard loss where it appeared Trubisky should have had the first down.

In the rest of the two games after the initial two drives, Trubisky has completed a combined 32-of-50 passes (64 percent) for 210 yards with a touchdown, two interceptions and five sacks (for minus-31 yards), and he’s run for eight times for 33 yards. Pretty hard not to notice that disparity.

But that leads back to familiarity with the system. Mahomes has had two full offseasons in this offense, and one as the starter, while Trubisky has had one. That can’t be overlooked. And while Trubisky has the most NFL starts of this trio with 14 now, he’s still behind the other two in college and NFL starts combined.

Trubisky’s 13 college starts were the fewest in the modern era for a player drafted as high as he was, bringing his post-high school start total to 27. Mahomes started 29 games at Texas Tech, plus the three more in the NFL for 32 total. Watson started 35 at Clemson — including four playoff games, two vs. Bama — and now eight more in the NFL, for a post-HS total of 43.

We might be saying that Watson’s and Mahomes’ hotter NFL starts have set the bar higher than Trubisky has achieved in the league. But it’s pretty clear there’s a long way to go before we can make any grand judgment over whether the Bears made the wrong call when they took him instead of them.

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