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Travis Kelce Week 9 Film Review: the best tight end in the NFL

Down in the AP Lab dissecting why Kelce is even more special than you may think.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

For the last few years, there’s been a debate going on in the National Football League about which tight end is the best in the league.

When Rob Gronkowski burst onto the scene, he quickly took the consensus title from the standard bearers: an aging Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham — a different type of tight end. The difference between Gronkowski and the others was superior blocking — and superior might have been an understatement compared to many of the other top NFL tight ends.

But by 2016, it was becoming apparent that Gronkowski was injury-prone, and clearly starting to move a little differently on the football field. The Old Guard at tight end — Greg Olsen, Graham, and Gates — were still effective players, but they were getting older, and not the players they once were.

There was an opening among the top ranks at the position.

Enter a modern tight end named Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs. Kelce was essentially tight end sized (6-feet 6-inches and 260 pounds) but was playing split-out in the slot, out wide or as an H-back — but in-line far less than most traditional tight ends. Kelce was running space routes to the outside, running screens, and having plays dialed up specifically for his ability to run after the catch.

These were things he’d been doing for the previous two years in Kansas City, but starting in 2016, the league took notice. Teams started praying that their coverage cornerbacks could stick to Kelce — because safeties and linebackers had been unable to do so.

Ever since then, the debate has continued: can Kelce — a modern tight end who isn’t asked to play a traditional in-line role very often — actually be considered the NFL’s best tight end, or will he always be in Gronkowski’s shadow?

We are now two seasons removed from the beginning of this debate — and it’s not even a contest anymore. Even if Gronkowski is healthy, it should no longer be a question.

Travis Kelce is clearly the best tight end in the National Football League. Everyone sees the highlights — the freaky plays crossing up cornerbacks on whip routes, hurdling 14 players on his way into the end zone and so on — but down in the Arrowhead Pride Laboratory, the Cleveland Browns game tape is a great example of what makes Kelce so incredibly special.

Grab your drink of choice, and join me down in The Lab. We’ll enjoy the absolutely beautiful things Travis Kelce can do on the football field.

What makes Travis Kelce so special

Route running

This isn’t hyperbole. Quite simply, Kelce is the best overall route runner the NFL has seen at his position. That sounds like insane praise — and it is, given the history of Gates, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, and so on — but Kelce’s combination of athleticism, technique and nuance to his routes are unparalleled. It doesn’t matter what kind of route you ask Kelce to perform — in-breaking, out-breaking, vertical — he can beat coverage players of any caliber.

This touchdown on a seam route is an absolute masterpiece of route running by anyone — let alone a TE.

Look at this release at the line of scrimmage against a hybrid DE/LB who is trying to disrupt him off the snap, knowing there is help over the top. To beat this jam, Kelce comes to balance off his stance with a hard jab step inside — which gets the defender to open his hips — and then releases to the outside.

While this is easy enough for anyone to do, the speed and precision with which Kelce is able to do it is what makes it so effective.

But it doesn’t even end there. The swipe and swim to clear the defender’s hands are equally important, as it gives Kelce a free release and puts the defender on his back hip, turning him entirely into a chase player.

It still doesn’t end there. With the defender stacked, Kelce knows he still has to work over the top of the defender, so rather than a simple head nod or speed cut, Kelce uses a rocker step to get the defender to key outside. Kelce plants hard on his inside foot before giving another hard step outside with a head/chest tilt over his outside shoulder.

Finally, Kelce dips his inside shoulder — to limit the contact surface area and tighten his turn — as he turns back up the seam clean and free of the defender’s hands, which opens him up for the throw.

This is an incredibly long explanation of a single short route run by Travis Kelce, but it encapsulates why he is so good. He doesn’t simply beat a defender on the route. He defeats him three separate times. He isn’t relying purely on athleticism or technique but instead blending them together in a small space. He’s operating within 12 yards of the line of scrimmage on the short side of the field, with possible help to either side. There is only a finite window in which Kelce can win on this play — and he does it with ease.

At first glance, this play doesn’t appear as impressive in terms of Kelce’s route, but there is still so much to love.

It’s the exact same release as the touchdown (Kelce had used it multiple times in this game — which is normal for him) and the same stacked position — this time on a safety. Like the touchdown play, Kelce uses an initial pressure step and a hard plant inside, but instead of tying it in with an outside fake, he just simply speed cuts off the leverage. The defender leans into the pressure step as well — expecting an immediate post/seam or the outside fake again — but either way, Kelce generates a ton of separation against what should be a plus coverage defender.

Football IQ

Because of his on-field (and off-field) persona, it’s not well-appreciated how intelligent of a football player Kelce is. As with the play above, Kelce recognizes the position of the defender, and how to set him up based on the flow of the game.

This is early in the game, and the Browns are using most common coverage — Tampa 2 — and Kelce attacks it perfectly. Off his release, he bends out around the traffic and threatens the middle linebacker — who has responsibility for the deep hole — vertically, so that he can’t jump or undercut Kelce’s route. As Kelce makes his speed break to the outside, he does a great job of settling down in the open area of the zone, rather than carrying his dip too far outside, which would allow other defenders a chance at the ball.

It’s not a complex play, but the wherewithal to drive vertically between the hashes not only moved the linebacker out of the play, but also gave him the space to make the outside break and still settle down in open space.

Catch point emergence

As mentioned at the top, Kelce has prototypical tight end size, but he’s never a major player in the typical ways a traditional tight end might be used — as a red zone target, a jump ball specialist, or powering through the middle of the traffic. It wasn’t because he couldn’t do it. It’s just that before this year, he had rarely been given the opportunities.

On this red zone snap, Kelce has a free release — again working against Tampa 2. He tries to eat up the space on the deep-half safety, and sell him on the outside fake. The safety actually plays the route very well, as the cornerback is able to sink under a would-be corner route with no one really holding him. But the slight outside fake allows Kelce to cross the face of the safety and get inside leverage — for which you can hardly blame a safety playing for a low throw to the front line of the endzone.

Instead, Mahomes recognizes the leverage Kelce has and fires one high out of the back of the end zone — except that Kelce is able to elevate and snag the ball out of the air. Kelce is at full extension — and has hand traffic in the way — yet he is still able to pluck the fastball right out of the air like it’s nothing. The size to handle contact — and the athletic ability to get to the pass — are unique. It’s been a pleasure see Kelce be given the opportunities to make these plays this year.

Open-field ability

One of Kelce’s biggest advantages over other NFL tight ends is his ability to get yards once the ball is in his hands. It’s long been one of his best traits — and it continues to this day.

The body control at this size is unnatural. Kelce is able to adjust to the ball, make a catch, get turned back upfield and still stop on a dime while a defender goes flying by.

Against the Browns, Kelce wasn’t asked to get a lot of yards after the catch — at least compared to most games this year — but there are still moments that showcase his greatness.

Here is a Y-iso with a safety as the defender playing off — showing respect for Kelce’s vertical ability — but it’s a quick hitch route. The safety has to come up and make a stop, but Kelce simply sidesteps him, brushes him off, and begins accelerating upfield for an extra 14-15 yards.

To be sure, plenty of tight ends can make this play, but it’s nearly a given that Kelce is going to make the first defender miss every single time — which turns this alignment into a free first down. But with his ability as a route runner, if the defense pulls that safety up into press coverage, there is a chance the free first down becomes an easy 40-yard gain over the top. At all times, Kelce generates the ultimate dilemma for defenses.

That’s the sales pitch

That’s the quick elevator long, subway pitch for why Travis Kelce is such a special player — one that is starting to get the respect he deserves as the best tight end in the NFL. In terms of historical ability, there should probably be more appreciation for Kelce than he currently gets, too.

During his career, Kelce has been overshadowed by Gronkowski — whose starring role in the Patriots dynasty has contributed to that — but as he continues to produce more and more, Travis Kelce’s name will become prominent in discussions about the greatest tight ends in history.

Quick blocking anecdote

Travis Kelce is a fine blocker — in fact, he’s a very good space blocker, which is how he’s used.

He’s come a long way from where he was when he entered the league, eventually becoming an upper-tier blocking tight end. But Andy Reid and the Chiefs have correctly identified that this is not his best use. Demetrius Harris is a better in-line blocker — which is fine — and Kelce draws equal amounts of attention. Even more, the Chiefs often show you their respect for Kelce as a blocker, using him as a lead blocker on a long or quick pull in the run game.

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