News & Analysis

Travis Kelce, No. 49 on the PFF 50, anchors the Chiefs receiving corps

Jan 6, 2018; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) runs the ball as Tennessee Titans strong safety Johnathan Cyprien (37) chases during the game in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Arrowhead stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce has made the PFF top 50 list this week, ringing in at No. 49, marking the second season in which Kelce has made this list in as many tries, after earning the 40th spot a season ago.

The sixth-year pro from Cincinnati has emerged as arguably the league’s second-most-dominant tight end in the passing game, finishing second, first, sixth and sixth in receiving yards at the position in his first four full seasons in Kansas City. All of Kelce’s damage has been done with the departed Alex Smith at quarterback and (at times) questionable support on the outside from the team’s wide receivers.

This changes in 2018, as he’ll be catching passes from 2017 first-rounder Patrick Mahomes and will be flanked by the likes of Tyreek Hill (the league’s leader in deep receiving yards last season) and Sammy Watkins (the recipient of a three-year, $48 million deal this offseason). In this article we discuss how the Chiefs receiving corps stacks up in Mahomes’ first year.

As the PFF Top 50 list suggests, the Chiefs receiving corps begins with Kelce. Unlike many tight ends, Kelce does a great deal of his work after the catch, leading his position group in that category three of the last four years (and missing out on the fourth year by just five YAC). Roughly nine percent of Kelce’s 1,038 receiving yards on the season were on WR/TE screens, easily generating the most volume among tight ends in this regard.

Travis Kelce

What Kelce hasn’t offered thus far is the ability to line up out wide and catch the fade in the red zone, either over-the-top or back-shoulder. Since 2014, the Chiefs have thrown only two fade routes to Kelce inside the 10-yard line, a number eclipsed by players like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Austin Seferian-Jenkins just last season. While Watkins was able to haul in eight touchdowns with the Rams a season ago, his work on such routes has been limited as well in the past, and his size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) might leave them looking elsewhere for efficiency in the close quarters, given that the Chiefs have yet to get much out of their big, athletic backup tight end Demetrius Harris (43.0 overall grade).

What Watkins does offer is another deep threat to go with Hill. While neither Smith nor Tyrod Taylor would be considered elite deep throwers in a vacuum, both were able to feed a receiver who finished in the top two among his position group in deep receiving yards (Watkins was second in 2015). Arm strength and deep accuracy are a trait Mahomes possesses in spades, so it would appear exciting times are ahead for the Chiefs on the outside.

The only question that remains is what the Chiefs will do in the slot. Albert Wilson departed for Miami in the offseason after generating the third-most receiving yards in the league on wide receiver screens a season ago. The leading candidate to replace him is the recently re-signed De’Anthony Thomas, who until last season, had more career yards after the catch than actual receiving yards. He’ll be challenged by the recovering Chris Conley (Achilles) and former starter Demarcus Robinson, both of whom would be making transitions from predominantly (inefficient) outside players into the slot for 2018.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.

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