We are entering the point of Travis Kelce’s career that he’s going to keep breaking various records every season. The Kansas City Chiefs have such a storied history at the tight end position, and it’s been a pleasure to watch Kelce take it over for the past six years.
We are getting to the point of his career where Kelce is being celebrated league-wide. In this article, we’re going to explore why.
Kelce doesn’t make his living by boxing out defenders in the end zone and high-pointing 15 touchdowns a year. He isn’t a dominating interior blocker that teams like to run behind. Instead, Kelce runs relatively wide open across the field or galloping along in the open with the ball in his hands.
How is it that a 6-foot-5, 260-pound gallivants across an NFL field? What better game to dive into that question than this past week against his son (also known as the Denver Broncos), against whom he went for 11 catches on 13 targets for 142 yards in a snowstorm.
Down the stairs into the Arrowhead Pride Laboratory we go, as we flip off the lights and turn on the film.
What makes Travis Kelce great
Change of direction
Travis Kelce’s game centers a lot around his superb change-of-direction ability. Traditionally-sized tight ends like Kelce often move very linearly — even the athletic ones. They may be able to make proper cuts, run good routes and create a matchup problem for bigger defenders, but they operate in a linear fashion. Kelce is not limited laterally or in his ability to decelerate, flip his hips and accelerate in an entirely new direction.
What makes Travis Kelce so special? There is a long list but at the top of that list has to be his body control and change of direction ability at his size.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 17, 2019
- Skip release, close distance to LB
- Dream shake + foot fire
- Clear inside arm
Even the hi-lo wasn't working for Den pic.twitter.com/zyJmc36gFK
If a single type of play showcases who Kelce is as a player, it has to be this exact sequence on a slant. Kelce attacks the defender with a power skip to close the final few yards, opens his chest to sell the break, then uses a football version of the dream shake. On the football field, it’s essentially an exaggerated bam step and head-fake, but Kelce takes it to another level. By pinning his outside elbow back to his side, he briefly opens up his chest and hips to the outside, creating an obvious read of an out-breaking route. That’s where Kelce’s fluidity and ability to flip his hips back around with a cross-over step and accelerate inside come into play for easy separation.
There are many wide receivers in the NFL who don’t move that smoothly through even basic steps before flipping their hips inside, so for Kelce to do that at his size is unique. Kelce’s rare body control allows him to lean into the fake and then back into the break, making the initial route stem an easier sell.
Breaking down defenders
The above play is an excellent example of Kelce beating an inferior athlete by using his own athleticism. But he is not limited to relying purely on that to beat defenders.
Y-Iso look - Chiefs always run a ton vs Den and hopefully continue this trend into the playoffs - has Kelce matched up with a CB. Another slant w/ a different release/stem— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 17, 2019
- Attack DB's hips
- Dead leg stem forces DB to play both ways
- Snaps hips over and locates the ball pic.twitter.com/XidK2ORedl
Simply understanding the matchup and how a defender has to play him makes Kelce that much more dangerous. On this play, Kelce is aware that cornerback Chris Harris Jr. can’t let him get into his body. The size and strength discrepancy between the two is going to be too much for Harris to contend through contact or at the catch point. Knowing this and understanding how Harris is going to play him, Kelce pushes vertically at Harris, forcing him to backpedal. As Kelce comes balanced, he drags his outside leg, forcing Harris to play for a two-way break.
Kelce has quite the arsenal of fakes, which force defenders to be patient and wait for him to commit. As Kelce sets up the stem, lulling a cornerback into thinking it’s going to be a two-part move, he snaps his hip over the top and breaks off the slant. It looks easy, it looks like the Broncos simply forgot how to play defense, but the truth is Kelce forced them to play him a certain way, and then countered it.
Yards after catch
Kelce’s signature skill has always been his ability to get yards after the catch. Whether it be his usage in the screen game, behind the line of scrimmage on shovel passes or just how he operates in open space, Kelce has often been near the top of yards after the catch since earning his starting job.
Kelce's career started off hot by being one of the most dynamic TEs ever with the ball in his hands... which holds true even in the snow— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 17, 2019
- Wins on another slant
- Pressure stem into head fake+bam step for separation
- Instant hard cut back outside
- Accelerates past defenders pic.twitter.com/3bRWhG7gGx
On this play, we see Kelce haul in a catch over the middle of the field and then break off some insane moves. Kelce has a little skip while making the catch to slow his momentum down for the ball, and as he hits the ground, he looks upfield to locate defenders. He immediately sees a cutback lane, drops his hips, then changes direction into instant acceleration. By comparison, the cornerback covering him has to take a fourth step, drag his foot, then use multiple steps to accelerate upfield in pursuit. The poor field conditions, along with being the reacting defender play a role, but Kelce handles the open field much smoother. Kelce maximizes his yardage by looking upfield.
Maybe not the first that thing that comes to mind with Kelce’s play is his ability to win at the catch-point, but since Patrick Mahomes has taken over as his quarterback, there has been a stark uptick in that area. Opportunities have surely played a significant role, but he simply looks more aggressive attacking the ball and using his size than he did earlier in his career.
Weather probably had a small effect on the type of usage but it wasn't just slants for Kelce— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 17, 2019
- Comes to balance and gives the inside head nod
- Swim and swipe to win outside release
- Widen using space to the SL
- Locate and high points the ball pic.twitter.com/eEZ6A3Wj11
Kelce beats the press with excellent feet and handwork. Something Kelce didn’t always do early in his career was alter his body angle to give himself a chance to high-point the football and use his athleticism. He’s improved drastically, maintaining his path while getting in position to attack the football in the air. It shows on these nine, corner and post routes.
Knowledge of zone coverage
The ability to identify zone coverage and knowing how to attack it is another art Kelce has mastered.
The most underrated part of Kelce's game - and route running in general - is understanding zone coverage, how to leverage it, and where to sit— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 17, 2019
- Press vert/inside hook def forcing release
- Pump arms, hips square to opp S forcing him wait and catch
- Drop arms & sit in 1 motion pic.twitter.com/J2MYpWBL8W
There is much variation in zone coverage — from the number of players in an area of the to where those players are coming from. Understanding where defenders are settling in and where they are coming from to attack their pass-off rules is vital to finding soft spots in zone.
Kelce has been fantastic throughout his career at finding those soft spots and stretching an underneath defender to his limits, then sitting down as soon as they pass him off. This play highlights the process as he works inside the hook defender, knowing he has to respect the two other receivers to his side.
As Kelce works vertical to get by him on the inside, the hook defender has to pass Kelce off quickly. Next, a safety drops into the high hole to defend a post or one of the Chiefs’ beloved over routes. Kelce threatens him by squaring his hips towards him, dropping his chest and pumping his arms, which indicates a vertical push. Passed off by the linebacker with the safety squatting in the hole, Kelce simply sits in the soft spot between the two.
The bottom line
There isn’t much of a debate as to whether Kelce is one of the best tight ends in the NFL, and at his current pace, there won’t be much of an argument for him not being one of the best of all time.
What separates him from others that are mentioned in the same vein is simply how he’s been able to accomplish his success. Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates opened the door for the athletic, receiving tight ends in the NFL in a major way, but even these players used their athleticism mostly to stretch a field vertically.
Those elite tight ends excelled in traditional tight end roles of the passing game — over the middle on tons of contested catches — but Kelce took the field-stretching abilities to the next level. He didn’t stop at being a vertical field-stretcher but brought that same element to a West Coast offense with his ability to stretch the field horizontally.
Kelce’s elite blend of change-of-direction ability, understanding of coverage and ability in the open field all at traditional tight end size gave the NFL an entirely new breed of player to deal with, and the opposition still hasn’t fully figured it out.
There are holes to poke in any player’s game, but at the end of the day, Kelce is pacing for historical production from a tight end, and in doing so, he has forged his own style of play for the position that will likely be copied — much like Sharpe, Gonzalez, and Gates — for the next couple decades.