Patrick Mahomes had what amounted to a redshirt season as a rookie. And he still has one of the best starts to a career through three seasons in NFL history.
Mahomes has only played 31 regular season games. He started one at the end of his rookie season. He missed a few due to injury in 2019. And he still has a great case for the best start to any NFL career.
Mahomes is the youngest quarterback to win Super Bowl MVP. He’s the youngest player to win a regular season MVP and a Super Bowl. He could retire tomorrow (please don’t) and have a more decorated career than almost everyone who has played in the NFL.
But is it the best start ever to an NFL career? Let’s take a look at the top 10 best starts through three seasons, which was a tough, tough list to crack (and we’re making players who started in other pro leagues ineligible ... sorry Reggie White).
10. Dick “Night Train” Lane
In 100 seasons of NFL football, there have been only 75 instances of a player intercepting 10 or more passes in a season. Lane did it twice in his first two seasons.
Lane set a record in 1952 as a rookie with 14 interceptions, and that record still stands. Then in Lane’s third season he had 10 interceptions to lead the league. Lane’s 27 interceptions through three seasons would be a good career for many players. Lane played 14 seasons, had 68 career picks and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
9. Walter Payton
Payton almost got left off due to a forgettable rookie season, with 679 rushing yards. But his second and third seasons? Payton had 3,242 rushing yards and 27 rushing touchdowns, carrying a terrible Bears offense. In 1977, his third season, Payton rushed for a then-NFL record 275 yards against the Vikings. He was named NFL MVP that season.
That was just the start of a historic career for “Sweetness.”
8. Lawrence Taylor
Though three seasons, Taylor had a defensive rookie of the year award and two NFL defensive player of the year awards. The rest of his career went pretty well too. He had a streak of six straight first-team All-Pro nods to start his career.
Taylor changed the league, starting right away.
7. Earl Campbell
Seven players since 1950 were NFL first-team All-Pro in each of their first three seasons (the list is below, if you want a second to guess). Campbell is the only No. 1 overall pick on that list.
Campbell was a phenomenon, a Heisman winner who became a legend with an all-time great game on “Monday Night Football” against the Miami Dolphins. Campbell had three rushing titles in his first three seasons. He led the league in rushing touchdowns twice. He won the 1979 NFL MVP in his second season.
Campbell wasn’t great in the playoffs (3.1-yard average over six games) but that’s about the only quibble with him on this list.
(The seven players to be NFL first-team All-Pro in each of their first three seasons: Jim Brown, Campbell, Keith Jackson, Ollie Matson, Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers, Lawrence Taylor.)
6. Eric Dickerson
Here are Dickerson’s rushing yardage totals his first three seasons: 1,808, 2,105 and 1,248. He led the NFL in rushing each of his first two seasons. His 2,105-yard season in 1984 still ranks No. 1 all time. His rookie season total is 21st all time. His third season wasn’t quite as good but included a 248-yard game against Dallas in the playoffs, which is still the NFL postseason record.
Dickerson still had two more rushing titles after that, in 1986 and 1988.
5. Randy Moss
Moss’ 1998 rookie year will be talked about forever. We might never see another receiver have a debut like that again. It’s possible it’s the greatest rookie season ever, regardless of position.
Moss has the most receiving yards (4,163) and receiving touchdowns (43) through three seasons in NFL history. He put up at least 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns in each of his first three seasons. The Vikings made the playoffs all three seasons, won two division titles and made two trips to the NFC title game. Moss had an undeniable impact on the Vikings and the NFL as a whole.
4. Dan Marino
Marino’s first three seasons are tough to dispute.
He had 98 touchdowns during that stretch, and nobody else has more than 86. The Dolphins were 33-8 in his starts. Marino won MVP in 1984 and got votes in 1983 and 1985. Marino’s 1984 season is one of the most famous in NFL history. Had Miami won Super Bowl XIX, this wouldn’t even be a conversation. Marino might be No. 1 ... or at least No. 2.
3. Kurt Warner
Like Mahomes, Warner is set back a bit because his first season produced little. He had 39 yards in 1998 as a backup. But then in his first season as a starter, Warner shocked the NFL world with the 1999 Rams and won MVP and Super Bowl MVP. He’s still the last player to do both in the same season. If we were counting first three full seasons as a starter we’d add a 2001 MVP and NFC title for Warner (though Mahomes would then have next season to add to his resume).
Still, Warner is one of three quarterbacks to have a 100 rating through three seasons. Mahomes is tops at 108.9, Warner is second at 104 and Deshaun Watson is third at 101.
2. Patrick Mahomes
Only 13 men have ever won a regular-season MVP and Super Bowl MVP: Bart Starr., Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Marcus Allen, Emmitt Smith, Steve Young, Terrell Davis, John Elway, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Mahomes. Mahomes is on that list of legends at age 24. Every other player on that list who is eligible is in the Hall of Fame, and Brady, Manning and Rodgers are locks.
It’s hard to compare Mahomes to others who had three full seasons as a starter, but it almost doesn’t matter. His accomplishments in his two seasons as starter are almost unmatched. The Super Bowl/MVP combination is rare and especially important at quarterback. It’s simply not too early to wonder if we’re watching the early stages of the greatest NFL career ever. Odds are against him becoming the GOAT because it’s very hard to sustain anything for 12-15 years, but a special foundation is being set.
1. Jim Brown
Let’s never forget how amazing Brown’s career was.
In three seasons, Brown had three rushing titles and three first-team All-Pros. He led the NFL in rushing touchdowns three times. He was MVP twice (and still the only rookie ever to win). His 127.3 rushing yards per game in 1958, his second season, set an NFL record and still ranks 10th all time.
Brown had a nearly immaculate career, and it’ll be tough for anyone to have a better first three seasons.
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