After nine games this season, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce had just 42 receptions for 466 yards and three touchdowns. He was on pace for 75 receptions, 829 yards and five touchdowns over the course of a 16-game season. After 12 games, Kelce has 65 receptions for 815 yards and three touchdowns. He hasn't found the endzone since Week 8, but his recent rate of production has leaped in such a way that it never has before. Kelce has 23 receptions for 349 yards over his last three games. That would put him on pace for 123 receptions and 1,861 yards over a 16-game schedule.
Kelce obviously won't keep that pace up. The Chiefs don't run their offense in such a way that will allow him such a workload. What this recent stretch does do is remind us of the quality that Kelce possesses.
There aren't many tight ends in the NFL with the talent that Kelce possesses. While Rob Gronkowski is clearly far ahead of everyone else no matter how you measure, Kelce is chasing him as well as anyone. Kelce's fluidity in space and his ball skills to adjust to misplaced passes downfield gives him a similar skill set to that of Jordan Reed in Washington. Neither player is necessarily a great blocker but both essentially function as oversized wide receivers who can create mismatches against linebackers, safeties or cornerbacks.
The past three games have been a testament to Kelce's talent. He hasn't been benefiting from a more aggressive Alex Smith, he has been creating his own yards and showing off his considerable talent in the process.
Early on against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Andy Reid called a hard play fake with three deep routes releasing downfield. Kelce initially lined up in-line to the left side of the field. He initially looked like he was going to run across the field but cut back towards the sideline after advancing past the linebackers in underneath coverage. The route combinations on this play were excellent as the outside receiver cleared the cornerback in deep zone coverage to leave wide open space for Kelce. Although Kelce was wide open, Alex Smith had to wait to see him before releasing the ball.
Smith's pass was slow in getting to his tight end and it arrived high above his head. Kelce was able to make an impressive leaping grab, plucking the ball out of the sky before bracing himself for a hit that never came.
The play design made it relatively easy for Kelce to get open on this play. His route requried him to show off some balance and the awareness to know when to break back towards the sideline, but he wasn't in any rush because of the hard play fake and extra protection that gave Smith time in the pocket. For his next big gain, Reid's offense played an important role in setting Kelce up for success but it was the tight end who was the protagonist when it came to creating separation.
First thing to note on this play is where the ball is. It's not exactly on the left hash mark but it's close enough to it. This makes the left side of the field the narrow side of the field. Kelce lines up inside the numbers to that side of the field. On the opposite side, the Chiefs have three receivers while the running back next to Smith in the backfield is on the near side. These are important details because they help to isolate Kelce against the safety who is responsible for covering him in man coverage.
Keanu Neal is enjoying an impressive rookie season but he has little chance working one-on-one against Kelce. Kelce relatively easily gets away from him.
Smith helps the deep safety to the middle of the field with his eyes initially. The safety was moving in that direction from the start either way because the wider side of the field had three receivers to threaten the opposite seam. Kelce releases towards the outside, giving Neal a chance to get on top of his route and squeeze him out over the sideline. The tight end is too fast for him initially and then shows off great balance to sell the out route before turning upfield. Neal is badly beaten. There is a significant gap between the two and if Kelce catches the ball cleanly he likely runs into the endzone untouched.
Even without a comfortable catch, he still extends the play so that he is marked out of bounds just short of the endzone.
That's the kind of comfort, precision and speed that receivers show off in their routes, not tight ends. Even working against a strong safety and not a cornerback, Kelce's ability to so easily create separation is outstanding. If you'll watch his route closely, you will see a slight push-off against Neal after he turns upfield. He pushes off without fully extending his arm and does so at the perfect time to hide it from the officials. This push-off forces Neal to slow down so he is re-accelerating as the ball arrives.
If you're expecting your production to rely on downfield throws in an Andy Reid offense led by Alex Smith, you're never going to be a consistent fantasy option. Kelce isn't necessarily a consistent fantasy option right now, largely because he has so few touchdowns, but his skill set at least gives him the potential to be.
Although it's unconventional, Andy Reid is willing to use Kelce as the screen receiver while his wide receivers act as the blockers on the play. That was evidenced on this 27-yard gain against the Falcons where an excellent cut block in front of Kelce offers him an opportunity to sprint downfield. The cutblock alone doesn't get Kelce free as he has to be quick enough to accelerate downfield before the unblocked cornerback outside closes on him. Kelce has the quickness and acceleration to get to the first down marker before breaking a tackle and continuing further down the sideline.
On this play Smith finds Kelce underneath after play action. The tight end is initially covered but his quickness to instantly stop and turn leaves the linebacker in his wake. Once Kelce has turned he shows good speed to reach the first down marker again before making the safety miss to extend the gain further downfield. A simple throw for Smith turns into a long gain for Kelce because of his quality with the ball in his hands. Kelce can also act as the deeper option on these types of plays to show off his receiver-like skill set.
At 27 years of age with his level of athleticism, Kelce should be a quality tight end for at least another five years. When he's not being hidden by Alex Smith's reticence to throw the ball in his direction or when he's not getting ejected for throwing things at officials, Kelce shouldn't be forgotten in the discussions of great NFL tight ends.