I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Travis Kelce is really good at football.
Now that I've blown your mind with such high-level analysis, let's talk numbers a bit.
Kelce is currently tied for first in the league in receptions at his position with 40 catches. He's tied with the inhuman Rob Gronkowski and something called a Gary Barnidge (who has been a fantasy killer this year after four years of doing virtually nothing. What a weird sport this is). He's also third in the league in receiving yards at his position with 538 yards, a ways behind Gronk (646) and right at the heels of Barnidge (567).
If you break down the numbers a bit further, Kelce hanging right with those two is even more impressive. Gronk has been targeted (per ESPN) 63 times to get those 40 catches. Barnidge has been targeted 57 times. Kelce is last among that "big 3" group (who are statistically all well ahead of the fourth place TE in yards) in targets with 53. What that means is that on a yards per target basis, Kelce is more productive than Barnidge and just a HAIR behind Gronkowski (like, a tenth of a yard per target).
Kelce is currently on pace for 80 catches and over 100 targets and a thousand yards on the season. For a quick frame of reference, the incomparable Tony Gonzalez had over a thousand yards four times in his 17 year career. He had over 100 catches exactly once (in 2004, in which it took him 148 targets to get there, per Pro Football Reference. That's about 40 more targets than Kelce is on pace to get).
In other words, those of you who predicted Kelce would take his place among the best TEs in the league this year were absolutely correct.
Additionally, the way in which Kelce has gotten his numbers stands out. How many tight ends are able to get enough YAC on bubble screens to keep their yards per catch from plummeting? Kelce is asked to do things most tight ends simply can't do multiple times per game. That's not a praise of the way Kelce is used (personally, I'm not always a fan), but it's a testament to Kelce's incredible talent that he's able to make it work.
So what makes Kelce such a difficult cover? Quite often people talk about his speed, and it's indeed frightening. He's been clocked as the fastest tight end on the field this season. This is a far more impressive (and important) feat than running a fast 40 time. In pads, on the field, with defenders around him, Travis Kelce IS the fastest tight end in the league. It's science, people.
But pure speed isn't enough. Ladarius Green is very nearly as fast as Kelce. So what makes him stand out?
Well, there are two things in my mind that make Kelce such a unique receiver at the tight end position besides his pure speed. The first is his one-of-a-kind quickness and agility.
Very little LB can do here. Have to respect potential crosser, few quick enough to stick w/ Kelce when he cuts back. pic.twitter.com/4VMx7BlD8I
— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 2, 2015
I've heard that route called quite a few different names. I like the in-and-out, because it reminds me of food. And I love food. So we'll go with an in-and-out.
That route isn't insanely intricate or complicated. It's simply a receiver selling a drag route then quickly cutting back outside, taking advantage of the defender committing to running with the receiver on the drag. Nothing too fancy. However, it requires two things to work.
1) Enough speed to sell the drag route and force the defender to start to run horizontal for fear of being beaten across the field.
2) Enough foot speed / quickness to turn 180 degrees and start running the other direction before the defender can recover.
There are a few tight ends in the league (well, more than a few at this point. It seems every year another speed demon is added to the position) who can do the first part. The second part? That's another story. Like I said, the route isn't complicated, but it's difficult to do well. Most tight ends simply lack the agility to stop and start so quickly. They're striders who look great in space but don't have "phone booth" athleticism.
Not so with Kelce. He looks like a giant wide receiver out there. That statement is made about a lot of tight ends, but with Kelce it's actually true. What is a linebacker in that situation supposed to do? With Kelce threatening to go across the field, he HAS to turn his hips and start to run, otherwise he risks being left behind. Kelce getting a step on you is fatal.
Very next 3rd down shows why that cutback route works for Kelce. If he gets a step on you it's a 1st down. pic.twitter.com/NfTyo8s0oT
— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 2, 2015
That's not even a linebacker, it's a safety. That doesn't matter once Kelce gets a step on him. He's gone, and it's a first down. The safety (you know, the guy who weighs 40 pounds less than Kelce) can't get back the step he loses initially. That's S-P-E-E-D, and you either have it or you don't.
You see the problem, right? Any linebacker (or safety) who is in coverage on Kelce can't let him get a step. They won't get it back unless they have absolutely elite speed (and even then, considering Kelce's stop speed, there's no guarantee). So they turn their hips to run across the field. BUT ... Kelce has the fluidity and quickness to stop nearly on a dime and start moving the other way. So ... you really don't WANT to have to turn your hips immediately.
There's just no good option there, and only a handful of defenders in the NFL are going to be able to do anything to stop him in that situation.
The other thing that sets Kelce apart is his fluidity with the ball in his hands. It's the reason he can run bubble screens. As John Lynch said during the Chiefs broadcast against the Lions, when he has the ball it's like he's got the skills of a running back. His combination of speed, strength, balance, and vision are unmatched throughout the league.
Not sure there's any better TE after the catch than Kelce. Including Gronk
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) November 1, 2015
You could find a clip of Kelce demonstrating this ability in any game he plays, but one of my favorites was from this preseason.
Kelce is one the best YAC players in the NFL, period (out of bounds or not, which he was). Remarkable smoot... https://t.co/ZO6GgDYYxO
— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) August 29, 2015
That's some abnormal stuff, right there.
Kelce is one of the best 2-3 tight ends in the league, and he's also the the most unique human at the position (Gronk, of course, being an alien. Probably from the same planet as Justin Houston, now that I think about it). Combine all of that with the fact that he can actually block (waves to Jimmy Graham) and he's about as complete a player as you can get at the position. I look forward to watching him continue to make defenders look foolish.