For the first time since 2015, the Kansas City Chiefs used a draft selection on the tight end position. They traded up 13 spots in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft to take Duke tight end Noah Gray with the 162nd overall pick.
Gray joins a Chiefs tight end room with legitimate NFL experience: Besides Travis Kelce’s eight seasons, Blake Bell has played six years and Nick Keizer appeared in all 19 games for the Chiefs in 2020. On reserve/future deals, Sean Culkin has played in 19 career games and Evan Baylis has played in 11.
The existing tight end depth boasts experience and familiarity with the offense, but Gray’s defining trait is what he should immediately excel at over the other backup candidates.
“What Noah does best is his receiving skills,” Chiefs area scout David Hinson explained in a conference call following the pick. “He knows how to set defenders up and create separation. He has really good hands. He can extend, catch the ball, adjust, all those things that you want to see from a tight end that may not create space, even though he can, but he can still catch in a crowd and do those types of things.”
Catching passes is all Gray did in his four seasons at Duke. He earned 105 receptions in his career, totaling 948 yards and eight touchdowns with them; he ended his collegiate career on a streak of 26 consecutive games with at least one reception.
He was a tight end by name, but Gray contributed in multiple roles; he also took pride in his play in another phase of the game.
“I’ve played a multitude of positions when I was at Duke,” he explained. “I’ve played tight end, I’ve played fullback, I also played a lot of special teams which is something that I know I’m going to have to excel at and be really good at moving forward especially with the Kansas City Chiefs. I had a lot of experience with that, and I’m just thankful for my coaches at Duke who kind of gave me that experience.... Duke used me in a lot of ways.”
Gray’s usage in college fits what a lot of NFL teams look for in a modern H-back — a fullback-type player that can be moved all around the formation and be a legitimate receiving threat. It sounds like that what the Chiefs had in mind when they traded up to get him.
“We just thought with his versatility, his receiving skills, he’s kind of a hybrid receiver-tight end,” assistant director of player personnel Mike Bradway told reporters. “He can play in the slot, he can play on special teams, so he brings a lot to the table. Like I said, as a tight end, as a receiver, we thought it was just great value to get him where we did.”
Gray may be lining up at more places than tight end, but he’ll still be practicing with and learning from three-time All-Pro Travis Kelce.
“I’m extremely excited,” Gray said of becoming teammates with Kelce. “It’s not every day that you get to learn from one of the best tight ends in the league. It’s truly an honor. I’m excited to get there and kind of just be a sponge and just try to gather as much information, watch him as much as possible, see everything that he does on the field, but even off the field. How he conducts his business as a professional, that’s something that’s extremely important.”
As a college prospect, Kelce had two inches of height on Gray and roughly 15 pounds more on his body — but the two had similar 40-yard dash times. They share a similar athletic profile for that position, and Chiefs scouts noticed.
“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,” Bradway explained about Gray.
Bradway went on to confirm that Gray is a special teams contributor — and a type of player the Chiefs haven’t had in recent seasons.
“I think the kid can become a really good special teams player,” Bradway continued. “Because as Dave (Toub) has said many times, this kid is a high character kid, he’ll do anything you want, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’ll throw his body around. So, I think you don’t just pigeonhole him as just a receiving tight end, I think the guy’s got some ability to be more than that. So, he is something different than we’ve had the last couple years.”
Gray’s pro day numbers are comparable to one NFL player with a very unique position: San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Juszczyk. Gray is a little taller and weighs a little less than Juszczyk did coming out of college — but they had similar three-cone drill, vertical leap and 40-yard dash results. Juszczyk was selected in the fourth-round — 23 selections prior to where Gray was taken.
It may not happen right away, but this might be the Chiefs’ attempt at finding their own Kyle Juszczyk.