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Chiefs rookie breakdown: Noah Gray

The Chiefs’ fifth-round pick could contribute to their offense in many different ways.

Syracuse v Duke Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Now that the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2021 draft process is complete, it’s time to start evaluating how each player fits into the team’s scheme, how they’ll factor into the 2021 depth chart, and how they project to contribute in the long term. I continue with 2021’s 162nd overall selection: Duke tight end Noah Gray.

Team fit

At Duke, Gray was not used as a traditional Y-tight end. During the 2020 season, he was primarily featured off the line of scrimmage as an H-back — a hybrid role that has characteristics of both a fullback and a tight end — or as a true slot receiver. He also had snaps as an isolated receiver on the outside of the formation.

From that slot alignment, he was heavily targeted on shorter routes over the middle of the field; that’s where his route-running ability truly shined. His quick feet, decisive cuts and overall athleticism allowed him to create separation and earn yards after the catch — even against defensive backs.

His receiving capabilities were also utilized from a fullback alignment. Duke used creative play-action passes to get Gray open in the flat — and sometimes, even vertically up the field. Gray’s commitment to selling his block allowed for some of those plays to turn into big gains.

If he hadn’t been able to fulfill the blocking responsibilities that come with being a fullback, it wouldn’t have made sense for Duke to have Gray line up in the backfield. They trusted him as a lead blocker on traditional inside handoffs, to cut off backside defenders on split zone runs — and occasionally, to seal the edge on pass plays.

He showed great blocking effort and fundamentals but didn’t always look comfortable while initially engaging defenders. Especially in pass protection — when he was waiting for a defender to come to him — he lacked an anchor, which sometimes led to him being pushed back into the quarterback’s throwing lane.

In the Chiefs’ offense, Gray seems to fit into a unique role. He could create mismatches from a backfield alignment — we’ve sometimes seen Travis Kelce be utilized out the backfield — but Gray can also win on routes from the slot. If the defense can’t determine whether to use heavier or lighter personnel when they see Gray on the field, it can create an advantage for the Chiefs.

How he factors into the 2021 depth chart

Duke v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Gray shouldn’t just be lumped into the tight end depth chart with Blake Bell, Nick Keizer and Evan Baylis. Following the draft, Chiefs assistant director of player personnel Mike Bradway called Gray a “hybrid receiver-tight end,” noting how he could play as a slot receiver. He also compared him to Kelce:

“What makes him attractive is that, and I’m not saying he’s — obviously Travis (Kelce) is a potential Hall of Fame guy — but he can run some of those routes, he can do some of those things that Travis does as a receiver, split out while also giving you some flexibility in terms of being able to line up in the backfield, do some fullback responsibilities.”

So Gray may be in a position group of his own. I believe the second tight end in the Chiefs’ traditional 12 personnel packages will be Bell or Keizer. I can’t see him overtaking Michael Burton as a traditional fullback either. Head coach Andy Reid may have special formations where Gray is utilized — and so his usage could vary from week to week.

But in the unfortunate event that Kelce misses time, I believe Gray could (and would) be his immediate substitute in the unique alignments and routes that he runs.

Long-term outlook

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Duke Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Gray has the tools to develop into a tight end who could be used in the way Kelce has been used over the years — although whether that means he could produce like Kelce is probably a different story. He may need to put on weight and work on his blocking strength — but that’s something Kelce had to do, too.

There’s also a scenario where the Chiefs become very serious about regularly implementing an H-back into the offense — and Gray stays in that niche and runs with it. I think it’s fair to compare Gray to San Francisco 49ers’ H-back Kyle Juszczyk. Gray beat Juszczyk’s 40-yard dash by 0.9 seconds, but the rest of their college pro day results were very comparable.

But when he becomes a fully-developed athlete — and no matter how he’s utilized — Gray promises to be a fun offensive weapon (and a chess piece) for the Chiefs’ innovative offense.

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