KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Other than one game from his rookie season, Patrick Mahomes II remains something of a mystery to those outside the Kansas City Chiefs' circle. The Chiefs brought last season's first-round draft pick along slowly as the backup behind starting quarterback Alex Smith.
Mahomes is no longer an unknown to his teammates and coaches, though even they sometimes lack the proper descriptions when asked about his skills. Tight end Travis Kelce, in an appearance last week on ESPN's Golic and Wingo, said providing an accurate account of the way Mahomes affects a game is similar to doing so for Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill before his rookie season in 2016.
"You couldn't describe it," Kelce said of Hill. "The guy is fast. The guy is extremely fast. That still doesn't explain his difference in how he plays the game from everybody else around him.
"Patrick has that same [thing]. You can't tell everybody how he throws it off his back foot. You can't tell everybody how he's running right and throws it all the way to the sideline on the left. You just can't explain those types of things he does in practice until he does it in a game and everyone is finally like, 'Oh, now I get it.'"
Mahomes is set to take over as the Chiefs' starter next season now that they have agreed to trade Smith to the Washington Redskins. Mahomes showed his ability in leading the Chiefs to a 27-24 win over the Denver Broncos in the final game of the regular season but has to prove he can be consistently productive.
Here are questions about Mahomes as he assumes the starting job:
What expectations are reasonable next season?
Don't look for Mahomes to lead the NFL in passer rating or throw 26 touchdown passes with five interceptions, as Smith did last season. Things are going to look different with Mahomes and his willingness to try to fit the ball into tight windows than they did with Smith, who generally opted for the safer option.
That doesn't mean the Chiefs are bracing for their offense to take any kind of step backward. In Kelce, Hill and running back Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs have a trio of skill players who are among the best in the league and they intend to again rely on them heavily.
Mahomes already has shown the ability to make a play when it otherwise looks lost. As Kelce said, Mahomes' arm is so strong and accurate that he doesn't always need to be able to step into a throw to get a completion. He also doesn't always need to be square to his intended target.
That's going to get the Chiefs yards and points they otherwise might not have earned with Smith.
"Very seldom [is there] a perfect pocket that you're sitting in in the National Football League," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "You have to be able to move and still throw with velocity. ... He has tremendous vision and tremendous upside.
"There [are] a lot of guys out there that can just chuck it. You've got to have the accuracy part of it. You have to have a feel. Vision is a huge thing that you look at, too. We thought he had that."
But he's going to throw more than five interceptions. The Chiefs, spoiled by years of Smith protecting the ball to an extreme, will have to get used to that. Mahomes threw one interception against the Broncos but easily could have had another when he passed into double-coverage on the game's final drive. The pass fell incomplete and the Chiefs went on to kick the game-winning field goal.
Will he be able to succeed where other college spread quarterbacks haven't?
Mahomes didn't play much as a rookie, but that doesn't mean he didn't improve. He came a long way from when he joined the Chiefs. At that time, seemingly elementary quarterback chores like calling a play in the huddle and taking snaps from under center were a challenge because he wasn't asked to do those things at Texas Tech.
That underscores the transition Mahomes had to make from Texas Tech to the NFL. But he said shortly after being drafted that he has an advantage because in college he had the power to change plays, routes and protections.
"I feel like the control I had of our offense at Texas Tech," Mahomes said. "I feel like that was a big step for me. Other usual spread quarterbacks don't have that much control.
"I had control of the whole, entire offense. I could change any play anytime in the game. That's just Coach [Kliff] Kingsbury believing in me and that's the type of control I had of the offense. I told the line what the protection was, told the receivers what routes they had, I told the running backs what he had. It was more like me and coach Kingsbury having a conversation on the field instead of him calling all the plays.”
Reid said that while the transition for Mahomes and other college spread quarterbacks is considerable, more players will be capable of making it successfully as time goes on. He pointed to the success last season of Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff, a spread quarterback in college.
"The thing I've seen over the last few years is that kids are throwing the football now," Reid said. "We went through the option phase and then the I‐formation phase. Now, guys are spreading it out and they're throwing it.
"That to me is a positive. They're having to read things, get the ball out of their hand, move in the pocket a little bit and learn things they would have otherwise had to learn here. I think they're a step ahead, although it's a different system."
What refinements does Mahomes need to make?
Some of the necessary improvements are those that most young quarterbacks have to make and just come from experience. The near interception he threw against the Broncos is an example. Mahomes threw off his back foot and into double coverage and was fortunate one of the defenders didn't catch it.
"Getting the ball out on time with [his] feet [set], his timing," then-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said when asked what he wanted to see from Mahomes before the Denver game. "Protect the football ... you win football games when you protect the football. So turnovers, staying away from turnovers, ball security in the pocket, not trying to make too much happen.
"He's a dynamic playmaker -- he's proven that his whole college career. Now you're playing with the big boys and you have to understand that you have to play within the system, but still let your talent show. So there's a balance there.”
Mahomes also needs to continue to get comfortable working from under center and perfect the footwork that goes with that. He took 50 snaps from the shotgun formation against the Broncos, as opposed to 11 from under center. The Chiefs would ideally prefer for him to go under center more often.
"You just really have to focus on your footwork, getting through your throws and all that type of stuff," Mahomes said. "You have to really drive that. You have to be on time with your throws. And then the mental part, you have to dive into the playbook. You have to really make sure you know what is going on with the entire offense. That is a big part that I have to really take as a thing I have to go at."
Will he be able to win over the locker room?
The Chiefs aren't concerned about this. Mahomes proved last season he was serious about his craft and would do what it takes to learn and improve. That's one of the reasons they drafted him.
"Guys rally around him," former general manager John Dorsey said shortly after the Chiefs drafted Mahomes. "Guys like his competitiveness. Guys see that when you have a competitive guy with really good feet and an incredible arm, guys like that. They can see that he's all about football, and that's very important.”
The difficult part is that he's replacing a popular player in Smith. So all eyes will be on Mahomes to see how he responds as the starter when the Chiefs gather again as a team in the spring.
"It's going to be interesting to see how Patrick steps in as a leader," Kelce said on his Golic and Wingo appearance. "That's probably the biggest, I don't want to say question, but biggest thing I'm looking forward to is seeing how he takes grasp of the team."