For the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the most competitive position battles taking place this offseason is for the backup tight end position — after former second-string tight end Demetrius Harris left for the Cleveland Browns in free agency.
Two-time All-Pro Travis Kelce is obviously the first man up, but the position is important because Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has shown creativity when using multiple tight end formations.
To an opposing defense, such a personnel package suggests a running play or a tight formation — but that’s exactly what Reid wants the defense to think. He’ll spread out the opposition by flexing the tight ends out to receiver positions, hoping to find a mismatch in the passing game. Once the defense adjusts by keeping defensive backs on the field, Reid will counter with a more traditional set and run it into a defense filled with smaller players rather than more capable linebackers.
But none of that is effective unless the tight ends are versatile.
After an offseason filled with tight end signings and tryouts, the competition for the second tight end has been narrowed to three candidates: second-year undrafted free agent Deon Yelder, former San Francisco 49ers fourth-round pick Blake Bell, and undrafted rookie John Lovett.
All summer, these three players have been making their case to be the backup tight end. Each stage of the offseason has given us a little more clarity into which player will emerge as an active contributor.
When the team gathered for OTAs, Kelce was recovering from his offseason ankle surgery. So Yelder assumed the starting tight end spot, but quickly suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out. In a press conference, Reid brought up Yelder’s name without provocation — and expressed his disappointment.
“I would’ve liked Yelder not to have been hurt, but he was,” Reid said on June 13. “I think he’s a good young prospect; he wanted to be out there more than anybody... it’ll be good to get him out and see what he can do here. We had him a little bit last season and kind of liked what we saw.”
Yelder was also the only reserve tight end with whom the coaches were familiar. His absence gave Bell and Lovett — two first-year Chiefs — a chance to show the offensive staff what they could do.
Lovett stood out during rookie minicamp, making some impressive plays as a receiver. Bell returned from back spasms to make a few catches, but going into training camp, it was clear that Deon Yelder was still the favorite to win the job.
The Chiefs returned to St. Joseph, Missouri for training camp — and so did Travis Kelce. He was finally cleared to fully participate in practice. The three candidates to be his understudy were all healthy and didn’t miss any practices leading up to the preseason opener.
Blake Bell with a one-handed catch from Mahomes. #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/riJARJ4Wk6— Kristen Carver (@NPNowCarver) August 8, 2019
During practice, Bell began to catch the eyes of spectators with strong blocking and tough catches in traffic. Lovett was slotted into the fullback position behind starter Anthony Sherman — implying that the team might have seen him in a different role — but he still took reps as tight end with the third-team offense.
Special teams coach Dave Toub says Blake Bell is taking all of Demetrius Harris’ snaps in special teams.— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) August 2, 2019
Harris was a crucial part of special teams, team needs to find someone to fill all of his duties
It was a significant development when special teams coordinator Dave Toub said that Bell was taking Harris’ special teams snaps. Harris had been a very important piece in Toub’s game plans, so this news was viewed as improving Bell’s chance to make the team.
But on the same day, Toub also cited Lovett as a stand-out special teams player.
Yelder didn’t seem to stand out in camp as much as Bell did. But when the first official team depth chart was released prior to the first exhibition game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Yelder was listed as the second-string tight end.
Chiefs vs. Bengals
The Chiefs offense opened up in a double tight end formation; Bell got first opportunity to play alongside Kelce. His first snap was in pass protection, and a miscue led to Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap hitting quarterback Patrick Mahomes after the ball was released.
Bell's first #Chiefs catch went 23 yards pic.twitter.com/EmJsgSVeCK— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 14, 2019
Kelce and other front-line players were quickly pulled from the game and Bell slid into the first tight end spot. He bounced back with a nice 23-yard catch and run to get into the red zone. Yelder made his initial appearance with the first team as the second tight end beside Bell, getting a deep target on a free play that ultimately did not count.
On their first few drives, the Chiefs showed the importance of their tight end depth. They used a two-tight end set on six of the eight plays — and eight of the first 11 total offensive plays. Mahomes and backup Chad Henne combined to target tight ends on six of their nine throws.
Yelder had a nice catch early on as well pic.twitter.com/cHnW5dC4j8— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 14, 2019
Yelder and Bell both had long receptions that resulted in first downs.
Both these guys had important blocks on the Mecole Hardman TD pic.twitter.com/haIVnLOXpq— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 14, 2019
Both players alternated as the sole tight end during the second series — and both made key blocks on rookie wide receiver Mecole Hardman’s touchdown catch. On the second drive, Lovett came in to the game as a fullback.
John Lovett had a good-looking back shoulder reception pic.twitter.com/LpFIUO69ws— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 14, 2019
In the third drive, Lovett and Bell came out as the tight end duo and got the offense 36 yards with back-to-back catches on the first two plays. Yelder rotated in with them, but Bell still seemed to be the first guy in when the offense called for one tight end. In the the fourth and final drive of the first half, Yelder took over as the single tight end.
Yelder recovers this muffed punt, but Lovett does the dirty work. Unfortunately, this is the play where Lovett separates his shoulder. pic.twitter.com/IphpunpxAh— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 14, 2019
Yelder continued to take the tight end snaps into the second half — and came up big on special teams when he recovered a muffed punt. Unfortunately, on the same play, Lovett injured his shoulder while fighting for the ball at the bottom of the pile. Yelder and fourth-string tight end Nick Keizer took the rest of the offensive snaps.
Yelder added a late-game touchdown to his productive night pic.twitter.com/q07dO4cjp9— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 14, 2019
Late in the game, Yelder added to his productive night with touchdown catch.
#Chiefs Tight End snaps in preseason week 1— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 14, 2019
Deon Yelder: 41 offensive snaps / 15 special teams snaps
Blake Bell: 24 off. snaps / 4 ST snaps
John Lovett: 3 off. snaps / 5 ST snaps
Nick Keizer: 28 off. snaps / 8 ST snaps
Yelder ended up leading all players in both offensive and special teams snaps. Bell got the most opportunity with the first and second-team offenses, but Yelder contributed from the first quarter to the fourth quarter. Lovett already appeared to be behind both of them, so his injury almost assures that the backup tight end battle is a two-horse race.
During the Bengals game, both Blake Bell and Deon Yelder showed good ability when receiving and blocking. Bell looks to be a better blocker, but Yelder showed off more impressive route running and playmaking. Still, Bell had the first chance with the first team — and Toub is praising his work on special teams.
All that leads me to believe Blake Bell will emerge as the second tight end in the Chiefs offense — but don’t count out Deon Yelder. He could still earn a spot on the active roster.