This season has been an interesting one for a number of reasons. The Chiefs have played a number of heart-stoppingly close games. Eric Berry has single-handedly won several games with huge picks. Watching Chris Jones step onto the field and become a monster interior rusher has been fantastic. Tyreek Hill is borderline breathtaking every time he touches the ball. And on and on it goes.
However, one of the most interesting and fun developments of this season has been watching Travis Kelce evolve into the best tight end in the NFL not residing in Boston (Gronk is still untouchable, though Kelce throughout this year is the first “well, maybe...” guy I’ve seen look to challenge his reign).
Seriously, guys, it’s true. Kelce has become elite, and we were too busy worrying about drops (a legit concern, to be fair) and reality television (not a legit concern) to realize it was happening. Seriously, look at what he’s done lately.
Just an absolutely insane six-week run for a tight end. pic.twitter.com/fMJOtCZmJZ— Clay Wendler (@ClayWendler) December 26, 2016
To sum up, in six games Kelce has 42 catches (on 57 targets) for 651 yards. That’s 15.5 yards per catch. Even more insane, that’s 11.4 yards per TARGET. If you extrapolate that over of a full season (always a fun exercise with smaller sample sizes), you come up with 112 catches for 1,736 yards. It’s a ridiculous pace for a tight end (or any player).
Clay and I both looked briefly for a better six-game stretch by a tight end. He checked Tony G. in 2000, Jimmy Graham in 2011, and Gronk in 2014 and came up with nothing. I checked Tony G. in 2004, Gronk in 2011 and 2015, Graham in 2013, Gates in 2005 and 2009, Witten in 2007 and Sharpe in 1997. Still came up empty. The only stretches we could find was Shannon Sharpe (of course, that jerk) in 1996 and Ben Coates (totally saw that coming, amirite?), both barely beating out Kelce.
In other words, Kelce is on a tear that’s been matched literally two times in history.
The thing with Kelce is that we all KNEW this might happen. From the moment he got healthy his second season and began demonstrating YAC skills no one had ever seen from a tight end, we all sensed he could become a great player. The problem with Kelce is that we were never sure he WOULD become great. The concern many people seemed to have is that he would be content with “very, very good,” which is something he already was based on his talent alone. But fumbles (early in his career) and drops (as recently as earlier this season) made people question if he’d learn to do the little things correct.
Here’s the thing that flew under the radar as Kelce amazed people with his athleticism: he WAS learning to do the little things well this entire time. Go back and watch his route running in his second year, then compare that to this year. He’s much crisper in and out of breaks and wastes fewer steps. That doesn’t happen by accident. Watch Kelce at the end of plays this year as defenders close in: he wraps up that football as though it’s made of solid gold. In prior years (when he had multiple fumbles each year) that wasn’t the case. Kelce has zero fumbles this season. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Kelce has put in the hours and hours of work necessary to sharpen a major skill (route running) and erase a big weakness in his game (fumbles). That’s one reason I haven’t been too worried about his drops this year. Time and again, Kelce has shown he’ll put in the work to get better.
Kelce has become a guy who does the little things well. Look at what happens here when a safety plays off man coverage (in an attempt not to get beat at the line of scrimmage).
There's really nothing you can do about this as a defender. If you're in off coverage on Kelce, he's just too quick into his break. pic.twitter.com/EMhu5N0o7H— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 26, 2016
As unflashy (definitely not a word, but it’s two in the morning) a play as you’ll find, but in it we see why Kelce has become a player The MMQB’s Andy Benoit says cannot be covered. Watch Kelce’s feet. Notice anything? He’s able to make his cut on his inside foot with the second step. That’s really tough to do and get a sharp cut WHILE maintaining your balance WHILE still running at full speed. Kelce does it with ease and as a result gets easy separation and a nice gain. You can’t cover that if you’re the safety.
Those little things (inside foot, no wasted steps, sharp, decisive cut) are what stand out to me now about Kelce’s route running. When you combine veteran footwork with his natural athleticism, there’s not much defenders can do. And that’s just on your basic, run-of-the-mill slant route.
Sure, you might say, but the defender made it easy on him there by playing off man. What’s he going to do when he’s got a defender on him at the line?
He’ll rip his soul from his body and show it to him, that’s what.
Look at what Kelce does to this poor defender at the line. TE's aren't supposed to move like that. He's a basically a giant wide receiver. pic.twitter.com/UvwNUuJqNp— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 26, 2016
That’s disgusting. You really aren’t expecting a guy who is 6’5 and somewhere around 260 pounds to do that to you. It’s really not even close to fair.
But also, look at how he accelerates to beat the defender’s angle after the catch. Kelce goes from catch to full speed faster than any tight end in the league, and his top speed might be the best around at the position. It’s one of the reasons he’s so phenomenal after the catch, he’s just outrunning guys to a spot. There are tight ends in the league who are perhaps better route runners than Kelce, but none of them can match his athleticism. Gronk is the best tight end the league has ever seen, but he wins with brute force and hands like stick-um. He’s not out there tying defenders in knots at the line of scrimmage. They have very different styles, and Kelce’s might just be more impossible to cover.
But of course, with Kelce, it’s not just about what he does to get open (though he really is ALWAYS getting open. Constantly. He can’t be covered one-on-one). It’s about what he does after the catch better than any other tight end in the league. We saw a glimpse of that in the last play, but obviously nothing encapsulates it better than this touchdown.
That touchdown feelin pic.twitter.com/Fmg9H7XiHy— Travis Kelce. (@CatchingKelces) December 26, 2016
The part of the play we’re looking at demonstrates the point I’m trying to make. Go find me another tight end who is being asked to take wide receiver-style bubble screens and make something happen. I’ll wait. And I’ll be waiting a while.
There’s a reason no one else is being asked to consistently do the kind of thing Kelce does on a weekly basis. His rare blend of acceleration, balance and vision make him a legitimate home run threat when he touches the ball. Other tight ends rely on well-thrown and well-timed passes down the seam (generally) in order to make a big play. Kelce can do it on his own. It’s a marked difference between him and everyone else that gives him the edge when you’re trying to decide who The Man is at tight end now that Gronk is on the shelf.
And on top of all of this, Kelce doesn’t possess a glaring hole in his game when it comes to blocking, like Jimmy Graham during his years in New Orleans (a closer comparison to Kelce than Gronk in my opinion, given the athletic similarities). Kelce is a very willing blocker, especially in the running game. In fact, a lot of what the Chiefs do on the edges depends on his unique blend of athleticism and strength.
Kelce is an important part of the run offense on these stretch plays, w/ athleticism to get to the edge and strength to plant defenders. pic.twitter.com/D266bD3vUL— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 26, 2016
We haven’t seen as many of these stretch plays this season, since Spencer Ware doesn’t always have the burst you need to get to the edge. However, with Hill’s emergence as a backfield threat Kelce’s ability to get in space quickly and plant secondary players could come in handy. He also laid a key block on Alex Smith’s touchdown scramble (side note: how great was it seeing Alex use his legs as a weapon again? It makes a huge difference for this offense).
In short, Kelce is a highly unique weapon, unlike anything else in the NFL. The Gronk will keep claim as the best tight end alive for a while, but Kelce has ascended to a place where he’s the primary challenger, and is getting close enough that Gronk can’t feel comfortable. His blend of route running, athleticism and strength is unparalleled throughout the league.
We’ve all wondered for a few years what Travis Kelce’s ceiling is if the offense went through him. Well, we’re starting to see it, and it’s everything we could have hoped for. The only thing that can stop Travis Kelce is Andy Reid not calling his number and Alex Smith not getting him the ball (fun note: at least three passes I counted to Kelce seemed to be the result of a kill by Alex Smith. Seems like someone has figured out who the go-to guy is). Short of that? Travis Kelce is unstoppable.