Editor’s note: Jody Fortson left Saturday’s practice early due to what the team described as a “quad” injury. We’ll find out more regarding his status on Monday.
Never in a million years did I expect to be using the old cliche, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone," to describe my feelings about Demetrius Harris. But here we are, three years removed from Harris leaving in free agency, still wondering if or when the Chiefs will be able to replace what he brought to the field.
It's not as if Harris was a key cog in the Chiefs' well-oiled machine. He was a role player —and he was a good one at that.
From 2016-18, Harris caught 47 passes for 410 yards and five touchdowns.
In the three seasons since, the Chiefs' backup tight ends have caught 47 passes for 385 yards and three touchdowns. Nearly 50 yards and two of the three touchdowns came last season in a six-game sample from Jody Fortson. In other words, Fortson was twice as likely to catch a touchdown pass in his six-game stretch last season than every other Chiefs backup tight end was in any game over the previous three seasons.
Going back to re-watch some Jody Fortson highlights. I think he has a chance to be a real weapon for the #Chiefs this year. He was starting to make his presence felt before he got hurt last season, especially as a red zone target. pic.twitter.com/QKKEbgrtPg— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) July 29, 2022
The Chiefs' "TE2" issues have long been discussed in Kansas City. It became a point of frustration for me, honestly. A team with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce shouldn't be worried about its lack of production from a backup tight end.
But the Chiefs no longer have Hill. Kelce played less than 85 percent of the offensive snaps last season for the first time since his rookie year in 2014. The Chiefs are going to lean on their secondary pass-catchers in a way that hasn't been necessary since Hill became one of the most feared weapons in the NFL in 2017.
There's one area, in particular, which that'll be particularly interesting to follow. Did you know Hill was targeted 23 times in the red zone last season, and seven of his nine touchdowns were a result of those red-zone targets? In fact, over the last two seasons, Hill has become one of the best red-zone targets in the NFL. He's been targeted 42 times inside the 20-yard line, and it's resulted in 15 receiving touchdowns. For context, the rest of the Chiefs' wide receivers have been targeted in the red zone 47 times over the last two seasons, and they've converted those targets into 12 touchdowns.
Hill's red-zone production won't be replaced by any one individual. JuJu Smith-Schuster, for example, has been a productive red-zone threat in his past and could take on some of Hill's previous roles. But some of those targets are also likely to head in the direction of the Chiefs' second-year tight end out of Division II Valdosta State.
If you're not familiar with Fortson's story, it's a good one. He was a wide receiver at Division II Valdosta State and signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He showed flashes both in training camp and during the preseason and found himself on the team's practice squad. That's when the transition to tight end began. It had its ups and downs, to say the least, but he put in the work, and last year, it paid off. He didn't just make the 53-man roster; he carved out a role for himself as a part of the passing game.
Fortson was on the field for double-digit snaps in each of the three games prior to his season-ending Achilles injury. The only other Chiefs backup tight end since 2015 with multiple touchdowns in a season was Harris (2018). Fortson earned a role by earning the trust of the coaching staff.
Oh, and his play was hard to deny.
The #Chiefs have brought in quite a few big bodied receivers in recent years, but none have really caught on. Jody Fortson showed some serious flashes in his small sample size on the field last season. pic.twitter.com/CypnmMDU1v— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) July 29, 2022
Fortson's numbers don't jump off the page, but his highlights jump off the screen. The Chiefs have been looking for a big-bodied red-zone threat for years. They drafted Jehu Chesson in the fourth round. They signed Kelvin Benjamin and Josh Gordon to see if they could produce in the red zone. Chesson, Benjamin and Gordon have combined to produce seven receptions for 76 yards and one touchdown in 27 games with the Chiefs. Fortson essentially matched that production in six games.
Failing to find a backup tight end or a big-bodied red-zone threat is not the end of the world when you have Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill taking up the vast majority of the targets. Replacing Hill's production is not going to be easy, and it will require contributions from up and down the roster. That starts with wide receivers like Smith-Schuster, Marques Valdes-Scandling, Mecole Hardman and Skyy Moore, but it also extends to a tight end like Fortson.