The best NFL offenses are lousy with new-breed tight ends—guys like Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas, and Jimmy Graham, the dudes who bust up defenses with an unfair blend of size, speed, and pass-catching ability. And while you can't really tell from the raw numbers, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce is one of Those Dudes—and he's got a new wrinkle on the already unfair proposition of the modern tight end that could make him the next big thing at the position.
At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Kelce has the look of a prototypical tight end. He was drafted in the third round in 2013 but missed all of last year due to injury. Nine weeks into his first season on the field, he has 419 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers aren't as eye-popping as the ones Rob Gronkowski (663 yards, eight TDs), Julius Thomas (360 yards, 10 TDs), or even Antonio Gates (445 yards, nine TDs) are putting up, but a closer look at Kelce's play reveals that, when he's on the field, he's just as good, if not better, than many of his peers at the position. The "when he's on the field" qualifier is the trick when it comes to Kelce, as he's only lined up on 273 (50. 7 percent) of his team's 538 snaps. This is weird for a gamebreaking tight end. Gronkowski, who was eased back into action due to offseason surgeries, has been on the field for 444 snaps (67.1 percent) this season. Jason Witten, the Cowboys' stalwart at tight end, has seen 625 snaps (100 percent).
(It's not exactly clear why Reid isn't using Kelce more, beyond a genetic predisposition toward trolling fans. A young tight end like Kelce usually sees the bench because he can't block or is prone to dropping the ball, but consensus opinion is he's a far better blocker than Anthony Fasano, the nominal starter, and his 78 percent catch rate is sparkling.)
In the snaps he's played, though, Kelce's been a freight train. Measured by Advanced Football Analytics' win probability added, a stat measuring a player's positive impact on plays he was directly involved in, Kelce has been the second-most productive tight end in the league this year. His WPA of 0.88 makes him just a shade less productive than Rob Gronkowski, who has posted a 0.95 on the year. Going by Football Outsiders' DVOA statistic (also a rate stat), Kelce is the third-best tight end in the league. Pro Football Focus tracks him as the most productive tight end once he's turned loose too, gaining 2.85 yards per route run this season, a mark that puts him ahead of every other receiver and tight end in the league, save for Demaryius Thomas.
Those numbers are all impressive, but don't tell you much more than, Hey, new badass tight end in town. But what sets Kelce apart is how he's coming into those numbers.
Most great tight ends do all of their cooking in the seams and on crossing routes, situations where they can outrun slower linebackers and leap over smaller safeties. Kelce is more than capable of galloping his way to big gains on those routes, but what sets him apart from other tight ends is his dominance in the flat and yards after the catch. Kelce has done a ton of damage this year after catching the ball behind or just in front of the line of scrimmage. So far, he's run up 278 YAC, which accounts for a whopping 66 percent of his total yardage (just 38 percent of Gronkowski's total yards have come after the catch). He's also averaging 8.7 YAC per reception, which is the best mark in the league out of all tight ends with at least 10 receptions. The most remarkable thing about Kelce is that he hasn't been getting these post-catch yards by hauling in long balls and burning it down the field, but by nabbing short passes and then running around and straight through defenders. Andy Reid's wielding him like an Andy Reid-sized Jamaal Charles, essentially, and it turns out that's every bit as terrifying as it sounds.
This was Week 4 against the Patriots. Just look at this shit:
The Chiefs love to run screen passes like this one for Kelce, because he's great at making people miss in the open field. He's a big man, but he can catch the ball, gather himself, and start juking his way downfield as quickly as any running back or receiver. That has to be disheartening for defenses that are already chasing Charles around the field, or trying to do something about Knile Davis, the little wrecking ball who backs him up, and then all of a sudden they have a 260-pound man running free, looking to hit some defensive backs in the face.
Here's a play from Week 7 against the Chargers, in which the Chiefs deploy Kelce on a flare route, another of their favorite ways to get him the ball. Kelce doesn't gain a ton of yardage here, but watch how quickly he sets his feet and starts making guys miss after catching the ball:
That move is the difference between getting tackled for no gain inbounds with the clock ticking and moving into your kicker's range to set up a game-winning field goal (the Chiefs won 23-20). It's also the kind of pivot-and-juke you're used to seeing out of Shady McCoy, not a damned tight end.
And it's not just Kelce's shiftiness that's a weapon when he's in space on the wing. Here's another screen play from that Patriots game, in which Kelce uses his strength to bowl over an overmatched cornerback on his way to a big gain:
These are the situations in which Kelce is a unique and deadly force. According to Pro Football Focus, he's caught nine balls on the right wing while behind or less than 10 yards in front of the line of scrimmage, and he's gained 75 yards after the catch on those plays. In the same areas on the left wing, he's caught four balls and scampered for 42 yards after the catch. You can see why the Chiefs are so keen on getting Kelce in space: When tiny defensive backs have to deal with a very large man who can either shake them into the ground or run clean through them, there isn't much that can be done to stop him. (Kelce's done plenty of damage in the short middle, too, where he's caught 12 balls and run for 127 yards after the catch.)
These are plays that many of the best tight ends in the league just can't make—imagine poor Antonio Gates trying to weave his way through a bubble screen. That makes what the Chiefs are doing with Kelce unique, for now, but no more than how novel it was for the Patriots to run out two huge, fast tight ends and dare defenses to find someone big and fast enough to stop them. If yesterday's Randy Moss jobs can be turned over to the tight end position, why not tomorrow's Wes Welker roles? If Travis Kelce really is the future of tight ends, it's further proof that tight ends, or at least the huge, fast men who are saddled with that franchise tag, are probably future of football.