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Film review: Tight ends Noah Gray and Jody Fortson are important to the Chiefs’ offense

Travis Kelce attracts the spotlight, but Kansas City’s tight end room goes deeper than its All-Pro leader.

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NFL: Washington Commanders at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

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:

Maximizing opportunities

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.

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.

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.

Individual roles

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.

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.

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.

Lesser-known impacts

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.

A few months later, the Chiefs used the same play to spread out the Philadelphia Eagles’ pass defense, opening a lane for Mahomes to hobble 26 yards to set up a Super Bowl-clinching score.

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.

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.

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