When Tyreek hill was traded to rival team, it wasn’t like Patrick Mahomes was throwing a parade the day the Chiefs dealt Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins. No one wanted to see him go, least of all the quarterback whose skill set so perfectly matched his Roman candle of a receiver.
But by the time the trade went down, it was hardly the news to Mahomes that it became for the rest of a sports world that seemed to treat it like Kansas City general manager Brett Veach went from zero to 60 at a record clip. The quarterback was apprised throughout, from initial negotiations that seemed to have Hill destined to stay, to how Davante Adams’s contract blew that up, to Hill getting permission to seek a trade partner, to the trade itself.
And while all that, of course, doesn’t mean he won’t have to reckon with the realities of subtracting such a unique player from the offense, it did help soften the blow.
“It more surprised me whenever it got to the point where we were really considering trading him,” Mahomes said over Zoom on Wednesday, a week after the trade. “They kept me updated the entire time; I knew the extension talks were going on. And then I knew when he got the permission to seek to get traded. But I mean, still, I played my entire career with Tyreek, so definitely, there was a little bit of shock when he got traded.
“At the same time, they kept me involved the entire process, and I know that we made a tremendous effort to try to keep him in Kansas City. Tyreek, he’s such a tremendous player, he got what he deserved. I’m happy for him. And he’s at a place where he has a home and he’s closer to family and stuff. So I’m very happy for him. We had to move forward.”
“We had to move on and try to get as much as we could for him and try to build that receiving room again,” he continued. “And do it to where we have the ability to go out there and compete every single week, which I trust Brett Veach and Coach [Andy] Reid will do.”
This has been a busy offseason for Mahomes, and a busy one around him, too. When he and I talked, he was just back from his honeymoon on St. Barts. With Hill gone, his receiver group has been flipped, almost as drastically as the line in front of him was a year ago. The other three teams in his division have treated this offseason like a Walmart on Black Friday.
And with all that, the 26-year-old with regular-season and Super Bowl MVPs, and four home AFC title games already under his belt, moves forward to a new phase in his career, where the Chiefs really are his team in a different way than they were before. Only four players on the roster—All-Pros Chris Jones and Travis Kelce, kicker Harrison Butker and snapper James Winchester—predate him in Kansas City. He’ll be counted on, as the face of the Hunt family’s franchise, to be a big part of making up the difference.
Which makes it easy to see why Veach and Reid wanted to keep him up to date on Hill.
Mahomes and I spoke about Airshare, a private jet provider he has an ownership stake in. He got involved with them as a rookie in an effort to get his parents to games, and has continued working with them—right through a busy 2022 offseason of shuttling his wedding party to Hawai‘i and then heading off on his honeymoon.
“As I’ve kind of built my business off the field, using their services I’ve been able to get to all these meetings and still keep football at the top of mind,” he said. “Being able to watch film on the plane, being able to go through the playbook on the plane and still be able to get in and out of cities during and out of football season, it’s been a huge help for me.”
All of this is sort of indicative of where Mahomes is, too, in trying to find the next steps after a half decade entrance to the NFL that really doesn’t have much precedent.
For this week’s GamePlan, more than just diving into the Hill trade with Mahomes, I wanted to look at how, now, the dynamic for him as a player is starting to change. As it stands today, his cap number will grow nearly fivefold from last year to this year. In 2023, it’s scheduled to top $40 million, and is set to stay over that threshold for the eight years to follow (though, obviously, cap numbers can be fiddled with).
The implication that goes along with that is that you have to make up for it somewhere else, and that’s what’s flattened the ascension of some young quarterbacks (Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, to name two) in the recent past. So if you’re going to re-sign Orlando Brown Jr. to play left tackle? Maybe then you can’t pay Hill more than Adams, and a tough call has to come.
The good news is that through our discussion, Mahomes showed how thoroughly he understand his responsibility in that equation, and that, now, his team, without the ability to throw money at every problem, would probably need him to do more. Here are some takeaways from that talk that, I think, will illustrate how I landed at that conclusion.
Mahomes has a good handle on his involvement with Reid and Veach. Like we said earlier, the coach and GM kept their quarterback updated through the Hill transaction, and I was interested to hear that’s actually not new—especially during a period when the involvement of quarterbacks in such matters has become a hot-button topic.
“I’ve been involved pretty much my entire career [as a starter],” said Mahomes. “I mean, I remember when we signed Sammy Watkins. I’m not saying who we need to sign and who we don’t need to sign and all this different type of stuff. But they let me know what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking it, and I think that’s why the relationship that we have in Kansas City is so great with Coach Reid and Veach and everybody, it’s they keep everybody informed of where we’re going and what the vision is of the future.
“And that’s the reason I signed the contract that I did, and that’s the reason that I know I’m gonna be in Kansas City for my entire career, because I have great people around me. I kind of kept myself out of making decisions or anything like that. I don’t even know if they’d let me make decisions like that. I’ll give my input on what I think about the guys they ask me about, but other than that they just kind of keep me involved in what we’re trying to do.”
Which, Mahomes continued, would be of interest to him, regardless, because he likes to follow the business side of football.
“I’m definitely interested,” he said. “I’m interested in the vision of what we’re doing, especially our team. I like to see other stuff from other teams, see kind of how they’re going, but at the same time, I want to see the two- to three-year plan that we have, how are we going to be successful every single year to have chances to compete for Super Bowls? And we’ve done that these last few years, we’ve been able to keep a lot of young talent and fuse it with older guys, veteran guys that are leaders on our team.
“And this is definitely going to be a transition year where we try to figure out how we’re going to have success with this team; it’s gonna be different than the teams that we’ve had.”
Mahomes believes last year’s experience with the line will help him this year. At this time a year ago, the ink wasn’t yet dry on Joe Thuney’s new contract to play guard for Kansas City, and the Chiefs were still weeks away from trading for Brown, and drafting Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. Those four formed the foundation of the line that would protect Mahomes in the fall.
So you can excuse the young quarterback if he isn’t shaking in his boots over the idea that the Chiefs are losing three of their top four wideouts from a year ago.
“I think it changed this last year more than I think it will change this year,” he said. “This last year when we brought in all those different offensive linemen that, I mean, obviously they’re all super talented and make us have one of the best offensive lines in the league. But I had to become more of a leader, because before that I had a lot of guys that had been there for a long time and that had done it and were great players, so I could kind of lean on them for information.
“I could lean on them when we’re out there in the huddle, guys that have all seen every single look. So when I had all these offensive linemen come in this last year, I knew I had to set an example of how we do things. Lucky enough for me, we had guys that love football. You get Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, all those guys, they love football. … So I think I’ll continue to evolve, I’ll continue to have to be that example, this year for the receiving room.”
In that regard, Mahomes believes he’s playing from ahead this time around, like he was, if unknowingly, last year, because his early impression is that Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Juju Smith-Schuster love the game, too, which means they’ll work on it enough to shorten the learning curve coming in.
“By the end of the year, [the linemen] were one unit—you would have thought those guys were together for 10 years,” Mahomes said. “And so the receiver room will be similar in a sense. I think it’s a little bit more of them just trying to figure out the different roles they have within the offense on certain plays. But I think when you have guys that are talented that played in systems like Green Bay and Pittsburgh. where they’ve had veteran quarterbacks, they understand what guys want. I’m sure will be very similar in that sense.
“And just kind of getting those guys to know every single position in the offense because Coach Reid’s offense, every receiver plays every position. I think as they continue to learn more and more of that, they’ll continue to get better because they have the talent to do so.”
That said, Mahomes knows it’ll be different without Hill. There’s no receiver like Hill—recent drafts show how hard other teams are trying to find another one—and for the Chiefs, not having him will, indeed, change how other teams approach them. Where will that manifest itself? For right now, on April 1, it’s hard to know.
“I’m very interested, honestly, because obviously we got a lot more two-high shell zone coverages this last year and for a while it had a lot of success against us,” Mahomes said. “So do defenses go back to the coverages they were playing against us before, because we don’t have Tyreek, who’s such a dynamic playmaker? Or do they try to evolve in the defense they were playing last year, because they were having some success early in the season?
“I’m interested to see. I’ll try to prepare for it all. But that’s what’s great about the NFL; it’s just always changing, it’s always evolving and you have to continue to get better and better or you get lost behind everyone else.”
One thing that should help, though, is the experience Mahomes referenced, another one from last year. As he said, early in the season, the Chiefs’ offense struggled, and the defense carried the team, as opponents started to play two safeties deep constantly, daring Mahomes to go on 12- and 14-play drives, rather than even giving them an inch to make the kind of explosive plays the Chiefs feasted on through consecutive Super Bowl runs.
Eventually, Kansas City adjusted and got back to the championship round. In doing so, Mahomes hopes, he and his offense are better equipped to manage the loss of Hill.
“It 100% made me better,” he said. “The quicker decision-making, getting the ball out of my hands, not just going for the home run every single time, I think it helped me involve more people in the offense, too, being able to get the ball to everybody, the running backs out of the backfield, all the different tight ends that we have and then obviously still involve our main guys, with Travis and Tyreek this last year. It helped me become a better quarterback.
“And I think that’ll be something that will help me a ton this next year because more than having that one guy that we had with Tyreek that’s so dynamic, that can even if he’s double-covered make something happen, I’ll be able to spread the ball around more this year and let these other guys make plays happen. … I think it’ll help our offense in a sense where they can’t just focus on Travis and Tyreek, Travis and Tyreek.”
And Mahomes is well aware that means he’ll have to be better, too. He believes, after all the transition last year, he’s got “one of the best offensive lines in the league” in front of him, a “playmaker that no one can stop” in Kelce, new faces in Valdes-Scantling and Smith-Schuster who “love football that can make plays happen,” and a run game that should be much improved.
“We’re going to have a great offense, I’m sure, by the end of the year,” he said.
Which brings us to where he’s going to take his individual game next. Back from his wedding now, he’s working on it—and drilling a specific area that he has in the past, so he can be even more of a problem, and a better teammate, than he’s already been.
“I just want to continue to get better from within the pocket,” he said. “I think I’ll always be able to make plays happen outside the pocket. But when you have the offensive line that I have, I think there were times last year where I got too jittery in the pocket and put them in bad position. So being able to be better within the pocket, because knowing that’s a strength of our team, that offensive line, I think that’ll help our team in the long run.
“I’ll be able to get the ball out of my hands, I’ll be able to stay away from the big hits and the crazy plays, and we’ll have more success as a team.”
And considering where the bar is already through five years, and four starting, that’s a pretty daunting thought, even for the others in a much-improved AFC West.
This weekend, the work begins in earnest toward finally clearing the bar again, with Mahomes welcoming teammates to Texas to throw and work out, and try to position the Chiefs to kick down the door they’ve been knocking on the last couple of years, in looking for a championship to follow the 2019 run.
“I actually have a lot of guys coming in the end of this week and we’re going to continue the rest of the offseason and OTAs,” he said. “We will be together and working. We have a whole new receiving room, so I’m gonna get these guys together as much as possible just to build those relationships, as much as me getting to work with them. So I think by the time we get to the season, we’ll have a tight-knit group with a lot of great playmakers.”
Hill won’t be one of them, and neither will Demarcus Robinson or Byron Pringle (Mecole Hardman’s the only wideout who had a catch in 2021 for the Chiefs that’s back with the team). And just like it did last year with the line, when mainstay bookend tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz departed, it may take some time for everyone to adjust.
But Mahomes goes in knowing, with time and work, the Chiefs will be where they need to be.
After all, it is, in large part, on him to get them there.
MORE FROM THE MEETINGS
The NFL annual meetings are the books. Here are five things I’m taking from the week …
1) Do I think everything was perfect between Tom Brady and his coaches this year? I don’t. There was friction. But I don’t believe it’s why Bruce Arians is no longer the coach in Tampa Bay—and I do think the team is being forthright in saying that Arians is retiring on his own volition and largely out of a desire to hand the reins to close confidant/defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Brady’s carried a big stick in that building for more than a year, and Arians had slowly started to delegate more over that time. Last year, Brady ran OTAs for veterans, with only the younger players working with the coaches through the spring, and, obviously, he has an expansive role in game-planning and scheming, and a lot of latitude in play calling on Sundays. Meanwhile, Arians’s role as a head coach wasn’t what it had been in Tampa Bay to begin with, and he delegated more as the last three years wore on, having a staff he really trusted at his disposal. So sure, Brady probably missed some of the structure and discipline in the program he helped build over the 20 years before getting to Tampa Bay. But the idea that he pushed Arians out? Don’t buy into it. That’s never been how Brady operates.
2) That said, I do think Brady and Bowles will find philosophical alignment easier than Brady and Arians did. Remember, Bowles cut his teeth as an NFL coach in the Bill Parcells coaching tree, breaking into the league under Al Groh in New York, with Parcells in the front office, then working for Parcells himself in both Dallas and Miami. Bowles has a very tough, disciplinarian edge to him that Brady absolutely identifies with. And that the staff remains is huge—even Bowles’s old coordinator role should be filled smoothly with his old DC from the Jets (Kacy Rodgers) and a rising star in the profession (Larry Foote) sharing the duties. It probably doesn’t hurt that Foote’s a college teammate of Brady’s, either.
3) One under-the-radar story that was a divisive (and big) one among the owners: how the league is handling the $790 million settlement with St. Louis. The NFL paid it, and how the league gets that money back is at issue. Rams owner Stan Kroenke had initially agreed to pay all legal fees associated with his team’s move, but things have gotten considerably messier in the six years since he signed the indemnity agreement with the league. My buddy ESPN’s Seth Wickersham did a nice job breaking down the strife between owners on this in the fall.
4) Maybe they were all just trying to burnish their own images, but I found that owners seemed more upset over the optics of the Deshaun Watson contract than the precedent it set. Some thought the way teams chased Watson was a bad look for everyone. Of course, it was easier for teams that have franchise quarterbacks to take that position—and the truth is that it perhaps illustrated how desperate the league in general gets when a great one becomes available.
5) The Broncos’ sale was another good talker in Palm Beach. It looks like the timing may not work out for billionaire/Denver native Robert Smith, who some high up in the league office were hoping would make a run at becoming the league’s first Black owner. As for the price tag on the team, some I talked to were optimistic that the franchise would go for more than $4 billion when all is said and done (the hope is it gets sold before Week 1). That’s a pretty remarkable number, when you consider that the Panthers sold for $2.275 billion less than four years ago.
ONE THING TO LEAVE YOU WITH
Trust is really important to Lamar Jackson—and that’s something I’d keep in mind when listening to the Ravens speak about their quarterback’s contract situation. Especially since this is a negotiation, for lack of there being an agent, that’s happening directly with a player and not through an intermediary.
Bottom line, Baltimore’s walking a tightrope in trying to maintain Jackson’s trust, while going through what can be a naturally adversarial process in hammering out a new deal.
I think they’ll get it done before the season. And I think because all these things are at play, when it goes down, my bet would be it’ll come out of nowhere. Which, I think, is how Jackson would want it to be.