Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce has easily been the league’s most productive at the position over the past decade. Now entering his 11th season, fantasy football players appreciate and covet Kelce’s skills — possibly to the extent quarterback Patrick Mahomes does.
In 2022, the longest-tenured Chief hauled in a career-best 110 catches on 152 targets for 1,338 yards. The campaign marked his seventh consecutive 1000-yard season — and his second-highest yardage total. He also found the end zone a personal-best 12 times — highlighted by a four-touchdown performance against in the Chiefs’ Week 5 30-29 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.
Let’s look at what we should expect from the reigning First-Team All-Pro tight end in 2023.
Reasons for optimism
Kelce rose to the occasion following the Chiefs’ shocking decision to trade Tyreek Hill in the 2022 offseason, proving who was truly the Chiefs’ most dangerous weapon. Though Mahomes exceeded 5,000 yards passing, no wide receiver crossed the 1,000-yard mark. That isn’t to say, however, that the Chiefs were devoid of weapons outside of their star tight end.
In the midst of feeding Kelce, Mahomes did a masterful job of spreading the ball to all pass catchers. The dependability of a deep receiving corps prevented defenses from attacking Kelce with the sticky coverage that frustrated him for portions of the 2021 season.
The best-case scenario for Kelce’s fantasy owners would be for the Chiefs’ philosophy at wide receiver to work exactly the same in 2023: multiple viable options without a dominant star. Though JuJu Smith-Schuster — Kansas City’s second-leading receiver in 2022 — signed with New England in free agency, the Chiefs should have a deep enough group of weapons to prevent defenses from focusing entirely on Kelce. He should again have plenty of opportunity for off-script magic with Mahomes — leading to similar 2023 numbers, even as the star nears his 34th birthday.
Reasons for concern
Although Kelce should continue as fantasy football’s top tight end, there are signs that his numbers may moderately trend down as he enters the twilight of his career. His snap counts have shown a slow — but steady — decline each season since being on the field for 95% of Kansas City’s offensive plays in 2018. Should the pattern continue in 2023, Kelce’s season snap count will likely dip below 80% for the first time since 2014.
While his health has rarely been an issue, Kelce gave fans a major scare in the playoffs when he was a late addition to the injury report for the Chiefs’ AFC Championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals with a back injury. To no one’s surprise, he suited up and totaled 78 yards receiving and a touchdown. Should his back pain resurface, however, the Chiefs may be more willing to rest him for a regular season game to preserve him for a playoff run.
The worst-case scenario for a healthy Kelce’s fantasy value may be other players eating into his target share. While Kansas City did not add talent to the tight ends room through free agency or the draft, a pair of young Chiefs may be poised to take on some of his work.
Second-year wide receiver Skyy Moore has a chance to carve out a major role in the offense, presenting another check down option for Mahomes on short and intermediate routes. Third-year tight end Noah Gray has minimal fantasy relevance, but he played more than half of Kansas City’s offensive snaps in 2022 — registering the most productive season for a Chiefs backup tight end in the Kelce era. Gray threatens to vulture occasional red zone opportunities — and possibly allow for further management of Kelce’s usage.
Other players to know
Simply put, there is no viable handcuff for Kelce, currently averaging fifth overall in drafts per Fantasy Pros.
Should Kelce miss time, Gray would be a priority waiver add — and a good bet to see red zone action. Having the talent to maintain a large role in the passing game for an extended period, however, is a major unknown. Gray should be available in the final rounds of most drafts for owners wanting an insurance policy.
In the later rounds, Kelce fantasy owners may be wise to target Chiefs running back Jerick McKinnon — currently 127th in average draft position — as a bench option. McKinnon last season teased a connection with Mahomes for improvised plays — catching a touchdown in each of the regular season’s final six games. The veteran back would likely see an uptick in passing game usage if Kelce were out of the lineup. McKinnon also may find a large early-season role if Isiah Pacheco — the Chiefs’ leading rusher in 2022 — is phased back into game action after a pair of offseason surgeries.
Expect a very slight decline in Kelce’s production in 2023 as the Chiefs manage his snaps to give him the best chance at a third Super Bowl ring. A down season for the game’s best tight end, however, will still pay dividends for fantasy players.
Even missing a game in 2021 due to COVID protocols, Kelce totaled 92 catches for 1,125 yards while finding the end zone nine times. Accounting for a probable reduction in snaps, we are going to predict similar numbers, only across a full, 17 game season.
Final projection: 90 receptions for 1115 yards and eight touchdowns