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Question of the Week: What will Travis Kelce’s role look like in 2024?

Kansas City’s superstar tight end is facing a career crossroads. How should the team approach it?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In this weekly series for Arrowhead Pride, I’ll ask one big question about the Kansas City Chiefs’ season. A week ago, we discussed Kansas City linebacker rotation.

This week, we’re considering the future role of one of the team’s superstars.

What does Travis Kelce’s role look like in 2024?

Since the tight end’s emergence in 2014, the Chiefs have built some of the best offenses we’ve ever seen — with Kelce serving as the Sun in their unique solar system. The offense has been built on his unique versatility and football IQ. He can play on the outside, from the slot or as an inline tight end. He can be isolated on the back side of formations or run routes as an X wide receiver. While he has never been a fantastic blocker, he has never been a negative in Kansas City’s running game, either.

All of this allowed Kelce to produce at a level we’ve only rarely seen among NFL tight ends.

And even in the Chiefs’ 2023 offense, Kelce has still been good. While his numbers across the board are down, he is on pace for more than 100 receptions and 1,100 yards this season — which would mark his eighth straight 1,000-yard season. No other tight end has had more than four — much less eight in a row. Kelce has shattered all expectations about what a tight end can do.

Still, Kelce is averaging his fewest yards per game (69.1) since 2017. His yards per reception are at a career-low 10.8. He’s likely to record fewer than 60 first downs this season — which would also be his lowest figure since 2017.

Kelce’s average yards before reception are down to 5.6, the lowest of his career since Pro Football Reference tracked this. His average yards after catch is down to 5.2 — the lowest since 2019. His average depth of target is 6.8 yards, continuing a three-year downward trend. After registering 13 in 2022, Kelce has broken only four tackles this season.

Per Pro Football Focus, His yards per route run is still at an impressive 1.99still ranked fouth-best among tight ends — but is noticeably less than 2022’s 2.27 mark. Kelce has also reached a career-high in penalties (10) this season.

As he has grown older, the Chiefs have used Kelce in ways to help alleviate his physical burdens. This season, he’s played 50.2% of his snaps from the slot, continuing a three-year upward trend. He’s now out wide on just 21.3% of the reps — his lowest mark since 2015.

But none of these stats indicate poor performance. Even today, I would argue that Kelce is one of the NFL’s top three tight ends. Still, the film shows this is — by far — the worst Kelce has ever looked.

He’s struggling to beat man coverage as he once could. One of my all-time favorite Kelce plays was when he dusted the Cleveland Browns’ star cornerback Denzel Ward in a playoff game. The Chiefs put him on the back side of a formation, where he cooked Ward one-on-one.

This kind of play used to be routine for Kelce. But in man coverage, he can no longer beat most cornerbacks — and even some safeties and linebackers. He lacks the same burst he could once show at the top of his routes. He’s dealt with numerous injuries this year, which has zapped most of the athleticism he possessed in his prime. His whole route repertoire is based on his innate feel for space — but now, if he’s not able to create the same space with his wiggle, it gets harder for him to thrive.

While Kelce is still playing an impressive 77% of the team’s offensive snaps, he’s getting gassed in most games. By the end of a long drive — or in the fourth quarter — he can’t get downfield with any speed at all. The most stark example of this was the end of the Bills game, where Kelce was so tired he couldn’t get downfield on a fourth-and-15.

But all of this is perfectly natural. Kelce is a 34-year-old man whose body has endured a lot of punishment; in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, he revealed that he's had 10 surgeries that he feels every day. He has still aged masterfully, though, using improvisations in his route-running to account for his dip in athleticism.

But no one can get away with that approach indefinitely. And that leaves the Chiefs in a bad spot for 2024.

Kelce will be 35 — and coming off his worst season ever. If Kelce returns, what will his role look like? How will the Chiefs manage his snaps? Will we see him take a back seat in the offense? Will Kansas City acquire another tight end to take his role?

The Chiefs simply can’t continue to use Kelce the same way next year. They’re going to have to protect him more. That means fewer snaps, targets and routes — all so that he can stay fresh for the playoffs. This, however, will require the team to shift the offense away from their veteran tight end — something it hasn’t had to do for a full decade.

This moment was inevitable — and it has now arrived. It’s time for the Chiefs to pivot their offense in a new direction. How well they do that will have a significant impact on the team’s success over the next 3-5 years.

It's Game Time.

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