Having a tight end as its No. 1 receiver certainly makes the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense unique — but that’s mainly because All-Pro Travis Kelce is also unique. He can align as a slot receiver to run those routes. He can also line up outside, where he can beat up any cornerback trying to jam or press him at the line of scrimmage.
When Kelce fills those unusual roles, however, the Kansas City offense still has a tight end on the field. Head coach Andy Reid’s scheme still has its roots in the West Coast offense, which strongly values the position. In any successful one-back running game, in-line tight ends are a very important element — and because they see favorable coverage matchups, they are an X-factor in the passing game, too.
During the Kelce era, the Chiefs have struggled to find tight ends that can complement their superstar’s usage in the passing game. But in the last two seasons, both Noah Gray and Jody Fortson have become legitimate contributors.
Let’s take a look at what makes them important in Kansas City’s offense:
In 2022, the Chiefs increased the number of formations including two or more tight ends. Gray was on the field for 52% of the offensive snaps. In 2021, Blake Bell had the second-highest snap rate for a tight end: 27%.
That doesn’t mean they passed the ball any less. In 2022, Mahomes had only 10 fewer attempts than in 2021. Tight ends were simply getting a bigger piece of the pie. There were 201 targets to tight ends last season, which was up from 157 the year before.
In 2022, Gray had 28 catches for 299 yards and a touchdown. That’s the most productive season for a secondary tight end in Kansas City since Demetrius Harris had 12 receptions for 164 yards and three scores in 2018. Even Fortson’s 2022 season — nine catches, 108 yards and two touchdowns — represented significantly more production than the team has had behind Kelce during the previous three years.
The #Chiefs cranked up passes out of 12 & 13 personnel last season. That put Gray & Fortson in position to run the crossers, verticals & deep curls that are staples in any of KC's pass concepts— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 10, 2023
Both executed in these situations and maximized their opportunities pic.twitter.com/htXLCAh2Rm
This increased emphasis on tight ends in the passing game didn’t mean the Chiefs changed how they called their passing plays. On longer-developing dropbacks, they still sought to succeed with crossing patterns, deep curls or vertical shots — whether up the seam or the sideline.
Gray and Fortson are both capable of running these routes — and that’s why they had success. Instead of running a wide receiver on a crossing pattern into defensive personnel prepared for it, the Chiefs could come out with a run look featuring multiple tight ends. Defenses often responded with heavier personnel — which gave Kansas City’s tight ends favorable matchups.
You could see 15 & Noah Gray build some chemistry last yr. These two off-schedule completions show it— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 10, 2023
Gray actively finds open space in both plays after his initial route is covered downfield
Gray knows Mahomes will throw against his body if it means converting an OT 3rd down pic.twitter.com/Aej2uUCkdy
Since he was on the field more often, Gray was featured on these passing plays more often than Fortson. That helped him build experience.
You can see this experience as quarterback Patrick Mahomes connects on these two passes. Both are thrown after the initial route is covered, but Gray finds open space. On the first play — a third down in overtime — Gray knows that Mahomes is capable (and willing) to throw back across his body 30 yards downfield for a first down.
Gray and Fortson’s talents have generally elevated the performance of the position group — but on a given play, each can directly impact the offense in different ways.
Jody Fortson only had 9 catches in 2022; 11 #Chiefs players had more receptions. His presence in the RZ was his biggest contribution to the unit— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 9, 2023
His frame gives 15 confidence to throw it up to him, but he can also harness his WR skills from college when isolated on the outside pic.twitter.com/yJXERS7iKM
Fortson’s long, massive frame can be an asset in the red zone.
On this play against the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City took advantage of the man coverage the Cardinals’ defense was forced to play in the red zone, leaving Fortson one-on-one with a defender. Mahomes trusted him to go get the ball.
The second play shows a different kind of score: a slant route where Fortson is just too big and strong for the cornerback to disrupt the incoming pass. Knowing that Fortson can wall off defenders in tight spaces over the middle of the field, the Chiefs also use him that way outside of the red zone.
A nice quality of Noah Gray's is he tends to maximize his YAC opportunities when he gets them— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 10, 2023
Has good acceleration, gets downhill, but can make a little move when he needs to pic.twitter.com/nadrxaga8z
Meanwhile, Gray has proven to be a reliable checkdown option. He’s athletic enough to make the most of a simple dump-off or a throw to the flat — and since his rookie season, he has improved his pass-catching ability: he had three drops on 14 targets in 2021, but just one drop on 37 targets in 2022.
The #Chiefs seldom used Fortson outside of the RZ, but one specific play did create two huge moments— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 9, 2023
These pre-snap motion wheel routes give the long-legged Fortson a full head of steam up the sideline. 1 is a beautiful completion, the other opens up the MOF for *that* scramble pic.twitter.com/coXSjrkPDP
Against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 11 of last season, a pre-snap motion sent Fortson across the formation with a head start up the sideline. The play gained 40 yards, setting up a touchdown.
With the head start these motions give him, Fortson’s long strides become dangerous. They can put a lot of stress on a defense that is ready to defend a condensed, heavier formation.
Reps like these support Noah Gray as the de facto fullback in #Chiefs 21p run gm— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 9, 2023
1. Counter run. Tracks play-side LB, attacks inside shoulder w/ wide base & tucked hands to seal lane. Finishes strong
2. Split zone, but that technique & pop can translate to the kickout on Power pic.twitter.com/S8JPsSxkrj
With training camp just around the corner, the Chiefs have not yet signed a fullback to replace Michael Burton — so Gray may have another role to fill.
But as we see here, Gray has experience doing some of the blocks fullbacks have made in the Kansas City offense. On the first play, Gray leads the back through the hole by latching onto the play-side linebacker and pancaking him. The next play shows him using good technique to kick out the edge defender — a block that a fullback would make in a traditional Power run.