Sometime after the fall of 2015, Brett Veach, then the Kansas City Chiefs’ director of player personnel, was studying offensive linemen for the upcoming NFL draft. As Veach evaluated game film of Texas Tech offensive tackle Le’Raven Clark, another player on the screen distracted his focus. The Red Raiders’ sophomore quarterback made one unfathomable throw after another. He overcame his rawness with uncommon athleticism.
Those clips formed the basis of an obsession for Veach. And they were the Chiefs’ unofficial introduction to Patrick Mahomes.
On Saturday, Mahomes will continue his incandescent first season as Chiefs’ starting quarterback in a divisional round game against the Indianapolis Colts, both the NFL’s presumptive MVP and an avatar for the sport’s future. Mahomes passed for more than 5,000 yards and threw 50 touchdown passes, leading the Chiefs to 12 wins and the AFC’s top seed. His starburst, at age 23, made clear Mahomes could turn the Chiefs into an annual Super Bowl contender.
As Mahomes readies for his postseason debut, it is worth revisiting how the Chiefs landed perhaps the most valuable asset in professional football — and in the process kept him away from other pursuers. What began with Veach studying Clark ended with the Chiefs setting their course for 10 or 15 years. They traded two first-round picks and a third-round pick to move up to the 10th spot in the 2017 draft to poach Mahomes, then incubated him for his rookie season before unleashing him on the NFL. The process required personal connections, dogged pursuit, bold action and a little luck.
“This was a case of probably the perfect storm in a whole bunch of ways,” Mahomes’ agent Leigh Steinberg said in a phone interview.
‘A marriage made in heaven’
On Jan. 18, 2017, after Mahomes had declared for the NFL draft following his junior season, Veach traveled to southern California to scout prospects at NFLPA Collegiate Bowl practices. Chris Cabott, Steinberg’s partner, was there, too, chatting with scouts and getting a pulse on teams’ intentions. Veach and Cabott were friendly and talked frequently, but this conversation turned serious.
“When I told him we work with Patrick, he was like, ‘Let’s slide out of here and talk a little bit,'” Cabott recalled in a phone interview.
Veach informed Cabott the Chiefs had grown enamored of Mahomes. At that point, Veach may have been talking out of turn. He loved Mahomes and believed, contrary to consensus, Mahomes was clearly the best quarterback available. But Veach had yet to cultivate the opinion throughout Kansas City’s organization.
In Cabott, Veach had a fellow Mahomes evangelist. Cabott discovered Mahomes while watching him play a bowl game as a sophomore. He called a member of his agency’s board and said he had seen the best quarterback in the 2017 draft. He started cultivating a relationship with Mahomes’ family, eventually summoning the nerve to cold-call Mahomes’ mother, Randi, at work.
Now, Cabott assured Veach that once coaches evaluated and met Mahomes, the idea that he could be selected late in the first round would evaporate. Picking 27th, the Chiefs would have to trade up, he insisted.
While Veach expressed interest in Mahomes, Veach and Steinberg reciprocated. Steinberg, a longtime agent who in the 1990s represented a gaggle of star quarterbacks, believed fit mattered more than draft position. He sought for Mahomes an organization with an experienced and welcoming incumbent quarterback he could learn from; a coach who understood how to groom quarterbacks; a stable franchise; and a solid offensive line and quality skill players. In Alex Smith, Andy Reid and the Chiefs, Steinberg saw an ideal fit.
“Kansas City seemed like a marriage made in heaven,” Steinberg said.
On Feb. 4, 2017, the Saturday before the Super Bowl, Steinberg hosted his annual Super Bowl party at Hughes Manor in Houston. At the event every year, Steinberg invites his draft prospects and gives awards to NFL figures he deems worthy for their devotion to humanitarian causes. For 2017, he had chosen Kansas City owner Clark Hunt as a recipient.
“It just so happened — coincidentally! — we had Patrick co-present the award,” Steinberg said, chuckling.
Steinberg had known Hunt for four decades, and understood that picking Mahomes, especially if it required trading up, would be a momentous decision for the Chiefs that would require Hunt’s approval. The Super Bowl party introduction was how Hunt started getting comfortable with the quarterback.
As the draft approached, Veach sold Reid and then-general manager John Dorsey on Mahomes. He hounded Cabott, wanting to know about Mahomes’ injured wrist, the date of his pro day, how he was feeling — anything. He contacted him at least once, Cabott said, for 94 consecutive days.
“Brett, obviously with retrospect now, did a tremendous job on scouting Patrick and then getting first, Andy, and then later, John Dorsey, excited about him,” Hunt told reporters in October. “It truly was an organizational decision to draft him, so I don’t want to minimize that, but Brett deserves a lot of the credit.”
Veach’s sales job paid off. At one point, Hunt said, Dorsey sat down Hunt and showed him plays from Texas Tech that best demonstrated Mahomes’ potential. (Through a Cleveland Browns spokesman, Dorsey, now the Browns general manager, declined to comment for this story.) The Chiefs invited Mahomes on an official visit to Kansas City, spending six hours peppering him with questions and tests. Reid gave a brief primer of Kansas City’s offense, then asked him to diagram some plays.
“Patrick went up to the chalkboard and did the pro plays perfectly, which you’re not supposed to be able to do,” Steinberg said. “He was instantly able to adapt to the Chiefs terminology, and it showed how instantaneous his learning pattern is.”
By the night of the draft, the entire Chiefs brain trust aligned with Veach. They didn’t need a quarterback, because Smith had just concluded a season in which he went 11-4, won a playoff game and posted a 91.2 quarterback rating.
But in Mahomes, they saw their future.
‘I about jumped out of my skin’
Yet another text message from Veach popped up on Cabott’s phone, this one without words. On the night of the draft, before teams started picking, Veach sent Cabott an image of the Texas Tech logo.
“That kind of meant, ‘Good luck,’ ” Cabott said.
Steinberg and Cabott watched the draft with the Mahomes family. To the small viewing party, they brought hats with logos from teams they believed might take Mahomes, based on months’ worth of conversations and information gathering. In Steinberg’s recollection, they packed hats for the Arizona Cardinals (picking 13th overall), New Orleans Saints (11th), Houston Texans (25th), San Diego Chargers (seventh), New York Giants (23rd) and, of course, the Chiefs.
Based on their intel, Cabott said they expected Mahomes would be taken shortly after the ninth pick. He called the lineup of the Bills, Saints, Browns and Cardinals at the 10th through 13th picks the “hot corner” for Mahomes. He figured either one of those teams would take Mahomes, or one would trade into those spots to grab him.
“We had charted it pretty well,” Steinberg said.
The night began with a twist: The Chicago Bears traded up a spot, from the third pick to the second pick.
“I’d been in communication with the Bears pretty regularly,” Cabott said. “I knew they liked Patrick a lot. So when they moved up, ‘Everybody was kind of like, ‘Hmm. What’s that for?’ “
It was for Mitchell Trubisky, the quarterback out of North Carolina. The pick surprised Cabott, but it didn’t change his outlook, even as rumors swirled about the quarterback-needy Browns potentially moving up to the fifth spot in a trade with the Titans. That didn’t pan out.
The Chargers — one of the teams Cabott and Steinberg had a hat ready for, in case they wanted an heir to Philip Rivers — took wide receiver Mike Williams with the seventh pick. Two more picks awaited before the hot corner. Steinberg and Cabott were fielding and making constant calls, trying to decipher when Mahomes would be picked.
As the Bengals were on the clock at the ninth pick, preparing to take wide receiver John Ross, Veach texted Cabott. It again contained no words, only the Texas Tech logo.
“Does that mean what I think it means?” Cabott wrote back.
“Yes,” Veach replied.
The Chiefs had swung the trade with Buffalo. They would be moving up to No. 10, to take Mahomes.
“I about jumped out of my skin,” Cabott said. “I just kept saying, ‘We got it done! We got it done! We got it done! We got it done!’ It was special.”
Cabott told Steinberg. Steinberg told Mahomes and his father. He reached into the pile of caps and grabbed the Chiefs hat, the one they had all wanted all along.
“We all were celebrating before the pick was made,” Steinberg said.
The Chiefs shared that enthusiasm. Dealing three picks, deciding to move on from Smith in the near future and passing up Clemson’s star quarterback Deshaun Watson were all, at the time, remarkably bold. But they didn’t flinch.
“If you target one of those guys and you go ‘Listen, this is a guy we want to get in here,’ you go get him,” Reid said last spring on The Rich Eisen Show. “That’s what you do. The cost? Eh. You can evaluate the cost all you want, but you evaluate it so much you end up with no quarterback.”
‘We would have taken him’
Across the league, other teams reacted to the grenade dropped in the middle of the first round.
Steinberg believes, based on information he learned during and after the process more than guesswork, the Saints would have taken Mahomes with the 11th pick. This year, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that coach Sean Payton had informed Drew Brees they might take his successor as the Bengals were on the clock. Instead, they passed on other possible heirs — including Deshaun Watson — and happily took cornerback Marcus Lattimore.
The Browns traded the 12th pick to the Texans, who took Watson and left the Cardinals out of luck at No. 13. Arizona had been a “hot, hot team,” on Mahomes, Steinberg said, but was outmaneuvered by Kansas City.
“We would have taken him,” former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said this fall in a phone interview. “Oh, there’s no doubt.”
The Cardinals’ inaction, which allowed the Chiefs to move up in front of them, showed how well the Chiefs had concealed their affection for Mahomes. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay recalled there being little to no industry scuttlebutt regarding the Chiefs’ interest in moving up for Mahomes.
“You never see it coming,” said Arians, who was hired this week as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “They had Alex Smith. We never thought K.C. was going to jump in front of us. We thought Houston might move up. . . . I don’t think anybody in their mock draft would have had K.C. moving up for a quarterback with the type of year Alex Smith had. He was awesome.”
Mahomes began his professional career backing up Smith, who led the Chiefs to a 5-0 start and garnered brief MVP consideration leading Reid’s modernized offense. Even as Smith led what looked like a Super Bowl contender, the Chiefs internally realized Mahomes had fulfilled their highest hopes.
Playing on the scout team, “he used to slice and dice our defense and throw no-look passes,” said Brad Childress, then a Chiefs offensive analyst. “What makes him unique is, along with just the great arm strength, there’s so few clean pockets in the league anymore. Just the way he can get the ball out, the arm slots he can throw it from, those are things not everybody can do. Not everybody can run left and throw it back against the grain. Not just to do it, but to do it accurately.”
Their playoff position secure, the Chiefs started Mahomes for their Week 17 game against the Broncos, and he completed 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards and an interception, making one eye-popping deep throw on the run. The performance further validated to the Chiefs they had made the right choice.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen, but you don’t want to throw them out there too soon,” Veach said at last year’s NFL combine. “You want them to really be who they are and not have to process too much, just play.”
Mahomes and everyone associated with the Chiefs, to this day, express gratitude for Smith’s handling of Mahomes. He was generous in helping Mahomes learn the Chiefs’ playbook and how to decipher NFL defenses. But after Mahomes proved himself ready and Smith lost a wrenching home playoff game, the Chiefs faced an obvious choice. They dealt Smith to the Washington Redskins.
Mahomes’ time had come, and this year he instantly became one of the league’s biggest stars. The Chiefs have home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs. Veach has become the Chiefs’ general manager. Since Cabott and Veach chatted on a southern California practice field, so much has changed, but it ended just as they envisioned it would.