When the Kansas City Chiefs released its initial 53-man roster last week, fans may have been surprised to see four tight ends make the cut. After weeks of speculation about every tight end in training camp not named Travis Kelce, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach let us know on Wednesday how much time we wasted debating which of those players would be on the team.
“We were committed to the four tight end process,” said Veach. “But the combination of these guys earning it, Coach certainly having a plan to utilize these guys — and just knowing how hard they are to find — all played into the process.”
In hindsight, the depth the Chiefs decided to keep at the position should not be totally unexpected. The team signed Blake Bell on the second day of free agency, traded up in the draft to select Noah Gray and convinced Jody Fortson to pack on 20 pounds of muscle to switch positions from wide receiver back to tight end. Whether the players would rise to the occasion in training camp was a question — it almost always is — but Veach was certainly deliberate about the talent he brought into the team’s tight end room this offseason.
Fortifying the trenches
In part, the emphasis on the position group stems from the Chiefs’ aggressive plan to fortify the trenches. Per Sharp Football, the Chiefs lined up in 12 personnel (an offensive package with two tight ends on the field) on 18 percent of its snaps last year. The league average was 20 percent. In both 2018 and 2019, the Chiefs used 12 personnel on 28 percent of snaps, which was well above the league average for each of those seasons.
While the decrease in multiple tight end sets was a footnote in a successful 2020 regular season for the Chiefs, the significance of the change reared its ugly head on the biggest stage. Despite having each of its starting offensive tackles sidelined with injuries in Super Bowl LV, the Chiefs used five-man protection on 92.3% of dropbacks. That was the third-highest usage rate of five-man protection by any team in the NFL Next Gen Stats era (since 2016).
It’s no wonder bringing back Bell was one of the team’s priorities in free agency, along with signing offensive guards Joe Thuney and Kyle Long. The Chiefs did not trust its backup tight ends in pass protection when it needed them the most in the 2020 season.
That should change with the depth the team has at the position now. In addition to using its tight ends to chip block — a quick-hitting block players use before releasing into a route — the Chiefs have the luxury of dedicating full-time tight end help in pass protection when the scouting report calls for it. With the trio of Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Kelce always a threat to create plays, the team can afford to use a player like Bell in-line to reinforce its pass protection. Per Pro Football Focus, Bell only gave up four pressures (including one sack) in 90 pass-blocking snaps for the Chiefs in 2019. Last season with the Dallas Cowboys, Bell did not allow a pressure in 43 pass-blocking snaps.
With Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy running the offense in Kansas City, there is no such thing as one-dimensional players or insurance policies in the tight end room. Reid can weaponize any position group on the roster where the front office allocates resources. When Veach wants to patch a hole in the ship, Reid does it with a cannon barrel.
We saw this in full force when the Chiefs lined up in 14 personnel — with four tight ends on the field — in the team’s final preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings. It was a peek into the creativity the Chiefs could employ with its tight end groupings and alignments this season.
Tight ends are among the most versatile players on NFL rosters, making them invaluable assets on offense (and special teams, too). Somewhere near the intersection of a mini offensive lineman and a beefed-up wide receiver (literally — in Fortson’s case), modern NFL tight ends are capable of creating mismatches all over the field.
With a full cupboard of contributors at the position, the Chiefs’ offense increases its chances of finding and exploiting those mismatches. Some teams have athletic off-ball linebackers who can match up with fast tight ends in the slot. Others have big cornerbacks who can match the physicality of tight ends on the boundary. Not every team has both those types of players on its roster, and few teams have multiples of them.
As Kelce put it this offseason, defenses “bring in more linebackers or a bigger guy because we’re bringing in bigger guys, so they try to match the personnel, which can also kind of play in our advantage because we’ve got guys that can run routes everywhere in the tight end room. It’s just trying to take advantage of those mismatches and just be accountable for the team. Anything that coach Reid can imagine, we want to be able to give him that option to call.”
Multiple-tight end sets
Reid is one of the most successful play-callers in the league using multiple tight end sets — partially due to his creativity but also because of the run-pass balance he maintains. While, traditionally, teams have utilized multiple tight ends to gain an extra blocker in the running game, Reid tends to stick to the same mix of play-calling he would use with one tight end on the field. The Chiefs have proven its pass catchers thrive in multiple-tight end sets. In the 2018 season, Hill, Kelce and Sammy Watkins each finished in the top 20 of receiving yards out of 12 personnel. Mahomes added 13 touchdowns.
Reid is a master at diversifying the assignments of his tight ends out of multiple tight end sets. He baits defenses into developing assumptions about the Chiefs’ play calls and flips their expectations against them. Running back LeSean McCoy — who played for Reid in both Kansas City and Philadelphia — told the Kansas City Star he thinks “Coach (Reid) likes drawing up plays in 12 personnel. Run, pass, whatever it is, they all look the same. That’s how you psyche teams out: by having everything look the same.”
It’s one of the reasons Mahomes and Kelce are so effective with the run-pass option.
The genius way Reid utilized his tight ends on the play was lost in the excitement of the Chiefs simply lining up in 14 personnel against the Vikings. Kelce, Gray, and Fortson — whom defenses may consider ‘receiving tight ends’ — immediately broke out into passing routes at the snap of the ball. Bell — who often gets the “blocking” tight end tag — engaged a defender at the line of scrimmage for a few moments before slipping off the block and settling over the middle of the field for a touchdown catch. That is insanely tough to stop.
While it remains to be seen how often the Chiefs will utilize multiple tight end sets this year, a few things are certain: The opportunities are endless, and the Chiefs have a plan. The diversity of personnel groupings — and play calls out of those groupings — that Reid has at his disposal this season should help open up the balanced attack the Chiefs want to establish. The tight end room will play a pivotal role in making it all tick.