You'd be hard pressed to find a bigger Mitchell Trubisky fan in the 2017 pre-draft process than yours truly. Trubisky entered that 2017 NFL Draft as my QB2 and my 17th rated overall prospect, behind Deshaun Watson and ahead of Patrick Mahomes (more on him shortly). His athleticism and raw skills were amplified by some big game moments at UNC -- including a frantic comeback against Florida State in Tallahassee in one of his first starts for the Tar Heels. The kid had something that caught my eye early.
It apparently caught the eye of Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace, too. The Bears flipped picks with the 49ers and took Trubisky with the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He went 8 picks before Mahomes and 10 picks before Watson.
They say in football that he who strikes first, wins. But that's only evident in the trenches. Because the first quarterback selected in the 2017 NFL Draft is falling off the pace despite steering a 12-win campaign in 2018 for the Bears and coming off of his first Pro Bowl last season -- alongside his 2017 colleagues in Watson and Mahomes.
Trubisky has been swimming upstream against the narrative ever since he started 12 games as a rookie. In that season, under coach John Fox, the former Tar Heel was anything but promising. He was more of a handcuff than a catalyst -- often relegated to managing the game and trying not to steer the Bears wrong. They did that on their own, however. Trubisky went 4-8 as a starter and tossed just 7 touchdowns in 330 pass attempts. More importantly, he looked to take a step backwards relative to the energy he brought in 2016 at the college level. His athleticism and escapability waned and he was sacked 31 times (8.6% of his drop backs). Trubisky was, generally speaking, average to below average as a passer to all levels of the field.
2018 under Matt Nagy brought out much more of the good in Trubisky. His completion percentage bumped by 7%. His touchdown percentage more than doubled (2.1 to 5.5). And the Bears ran a style of play that was much more friendly to his skills. Optimism rightfully began to slowly build -- Trubisky was creating more with his legs and creating more explosive plays. But he was still too much Jekyll and Hyde. His passer rating splits were woefully inconsistent.
- 2018 games with a passer rating < 80.0: 6
- 2018 games with a passer rating > 80.0: 8
Flip a coin. Roll the dice. Trubisky was nearly 50/50. But hey -- that's better than all bad. Movement in 2018 trended, overall, in the right direction.
Which is what made his 2019 debut so damn disappointing.
First and 10 from the opposing 16-yard line. 2:14 remaining on Thursday Night Football, the Bears trailing the Packers by seven, 10-3. Trubisky hasn't been on top of his game -- scratching and clawing for any level of consistency in the passing game all night. He's missed open receivers both with his eyes and his arm, but the game is here for the taking now. Snap, drop...perfect. The Bears have the match-up in their favor: RB Mike Davis is running the wheel route against back-up safety Raven Greene. Davis flips vertically just as a Packers pass rusher zooms into the sightline of Trubisky, who instinctively fades off his back foot.
The ball is woefully short and Davis, who had a yard of separation, is unable to come back to the ball and make the play on what could've been an easy touchdown. Incomplete.
Fast forward to Monday Night Football, a few nights later. Fellow 2017 Draft quarterback Deshaun Watson has also scratched and clawed against the New Orleans Saints. He takes the field with :50 remaining and a tight lower back after a rough bump into the end zone earlier in the game. The Texans' leaky offensive line has let him down once again, surrendering five sacks and countless additional hits. Houston trails 27-21 and possesses no timeouts, needing to go the length of the field.
First and 10 from his own 25, you'd never guess Watson was in crunch time. His 5-step drop is smooth, calm. Watson's eyes flip left and he unleashes a perfect ball as a stunting Trey Hendrickson flashes across his sightline. The toss is on a rope up the left sideline to DeAndre Hopkins, who hauls in the over the shoulder catch -- moving Houston 34 yards down the field...and out of bounds to stop the clock. The Texans are in business.
1st and 10 from the Saints' 32, the very next play. Watson again drops, eyeing the Saints' Free Safety as he gets width to the closed hash -- opening up a lane for slot receiver Kenny Stills, who is running a skinny post. With the safety's eyes locked in on TE Jordan Akins' crossing pattern, Watson fades to his right to buy time against a free rushing blitz from the outside of LT Laremy Tunsil. Just enough time -- Watson laces a dagger shortly before being crushed to the turf, the ball zipping into the hands of newly acquired Stills for a touchdown and, miraculously, the lead. Texans lead 28-27 with seconds remaining.
Cut back to Thursday Night Football. Trubisky remains on the 16-yard line, facing 3rd and 10. The Bears implement trips receivers to the open side of the field and Green Bay safety Adrian Amos sits on the far hash -- leaving plenty of real estate for the Bears to work to the left. Still trailing 10-3, Trubisky needs a touchdown, but he's got 10 yards for a first down to extend the drive, two plays to get there and plenty of time at his disposal.
Amos drifts between the hashes immediately after the snap -- standard rotation into Cover 3. The Packers try to trap the underneath routes, with the boundary corner squatting into the flat and the nickel corner dropping for depth to take the deep third -- but there's a problem.
Trubisky's eyes have shifted left early...and they stay there. Amos, reading middle of the field, has a good bead on the route combination. There's just one threat to the backside, a condensed receiver whose alignment left him plenty of room to break to the sideline for the out route he's running. But Trubisky never considered it, his eyes glued to the left corner of the end zone. And Amos fades it -- attacking the boundary to carry overtop of Allen Robinson's corner route to the open pylon.
Trubisky pulls the trigger, once again fading off his base to loft the throw in. Maybe Robinson wins a jump ball against Tramon Williams, the deep third defender. But Amos has momentum from flying out of the middle of the field and following Trubisky's eyes. Working overtop of both receiver and defender, Amos leaps to intercept Trubisky's pass, sealing the Bears' defeat.
The little things are the big things. And in crunch time of Week 1, the little things betrayed Mitchell Trubisky -- very much the opposite of his colleagues from the 2017 quarterback class. The stats don't always tell the story, but in the case of these three, the stats tell the story quite well.
- Mahomes: 23.9 completions, 36.0 attempts, 319.9 passing yards, 2.9 passing TD, 0.7 INT
- Trubisky: 18.9 completions, 30.0 attempts, 209.0 passing yards, 1.1 passing TD, 0.7 INT
- Watson: 20.5 completions, 30.8 attempts, 255.5 passing yards, 2.0 passing TD, 0.8 INT
But what the stats don't tell you is why we're here. Mahomes and Watson have thrived, becoming catalysts of explosive plays left and right in the passing game. Mahomes was the player I viewed as the biggest boom or bust of the group, hence why I ranked him third among the passers. Yet he's thriving with tailor made weapons and a beautiful scheme fit courtesy of coach Andy Reid. And while I will forever lament not having Mahomes higher, I did at least acknowledge there was potential for something special.
"Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes II has the highest ceiling of any Quarterback in the 2017 class ... Mahomes has the physical skill set to be an All-Pro; he has arm talent to drop throws in from all angles. Yet he currently struggles with timing concepts and full field reads. Prior to the draft, Mahomes must prove that this style of play is a product of his environment. If not, there will be a steep learning curve to accommodate for such a stylistic clash in preferred play and running a fully functional and sustainable style of offense. Mahomes is a true boom or bust player; if he is able to mentally recondition himself and gain consistency in his mechanics he will be a star in the NFL." - Kyle Crabbs, 2017 NFL Draft Prospectus
Again, it's the little things. Mahomes hasn't just reconditioned himself mentally, he's struck the perfect balance between his physical tools and the composure and control necessary to thrive in the chaotic mess that is an NFL pocket. Take this throw against the Jacksonville Jaguars from Week 1 as a perfect example:
Jaguars defensive lineman Calais Campbell defeats RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif immediately on a tight swim, framing his rush beautifully before cutting into the A-gap -- immediately into Mahomes' path. And with Campbell -- one of the most feared defenders in all of football -- bearing down on him, Mahomes drops his arm slot, throws around the 6-foot-7 Campbell and laces this throw over the middle to WR Sammy Watkins for a house call. Everything here from the eyes to the arm slot to the accuracy are all picturesque in that they lie to defenders...Mahomes eyes are to his right but he sees the field. And he doesn't flinch.
Little things all adding up to one big play. Just like Watson's slight fade to the right in the pocket against the Saints. And completely unlike Trubisky's two red zone tosses in crunch time against the Packers.
This isn't a eulogy for Mitchell Trubisky, the franchise quarterback. But it is an acknowledgement of the growing divide in the little things that make Watson and Mahomes bonafide star quarterbacks -- while Trubisky is still struggling to find his groove.