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Fantasy Football: The Sleeper Tight End You Must Draft This Month

C.D. Carter considers how Travis Kelce fits into Andy Reid’s system and Alex Smith’s passing game after the tight end’s preseason breakout.

Travis Kelce
Travis Kelce

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Kelce flashed his freakish athleticism in the Kansas City Chiefs’ opening preseason tilt against the Bengals, making me officially late to the Kelce Coming Out Party.

There wasn’t a whole lot to blather about before Kelce — 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds with a dandy college dominator rating — looked downright Gronkian in the Chiefs’ first preseason game, nabbing a ball over the middle and outrunning the Cincinnati defense for a 69-yard score.

The play, and his remarkable metrics and college production, raised the prospect of something we saw in August 2013: a tight end with all the necessary measureables who’s going undrafted in re-draft leagues. Last year, that tight end was named Julius Thomas.

Kelce, 24, missed the 2013 season after undergoing microfracture surgery. His absence essentially eliminated the tight end position from fantasy relevance in Kansas City for the entirety for 2013.

In Kelce’s absence, the Chiefs tight ends — Sean McGrath and Anthony Fasano — combined for only 54 catches and 537 yards. Like I said: There was no production to be had among Kansas City tight ends during Andy Reid‘s first year as head man. Reid, who has long deployed a two tight end system, saw his tight ends average 72 receptions and 855 yards during his 14 seasons in Philadelphia.

I thought it worthwhile to dive headfirst into Reid’s tight end usage as an NFL head coach, so below is a look at his primary (leading) tight ends since 1999, when he took over as Eagles head coach.

 

Season Team Primary tight end Stat line (Receptions/yards/TDs)
1999 Eagles Luther Broughton 26/295/4
2000 Eagles Chad Lewis 69/735/3
2001 Eagles Chad Lewis 41/422/6
2002 Eagles Chad Lewis 42/398/3
2003 Eagles L.J. Smith 27/321/1
2004 Eagles L.J. Smith 34/377/5
2005 Eagles L.J. Smith 61/682/3
2006 Eagles L.J. Smith 50/611/5
2007 Eagles L.J. Smith 22/236/1
2008 Eagles L.J. Smith 37/298/3
2009 Eagles Brent Celek 76/971/8
2010 Eagles Brent Celek 42/511/4
2011 Eagles Brent Celek 62/811/5
2012 Eagles Brent Celek 57/684/1
2013 Chiefs Sean McGrath 26/302/2

 

A few observations after staring at tight end stats from the Eagles and Chiefs for more than three hours…

  • Seven of Reid’s 15 teams sported two tight ends with something close to respectable stats, thanks to the two tight end system that has been on-and-off prevalent on Reid’s teams. Smith and Lewis, for instance, posted similar lines in 2003 and 2004, while Clay Harbor caught 25 balls for 186 yards and two touchdowns in 2012, eating into Celek’s production.
  • Koy Detmer, who served as quarterback for Reid in Philly, wrote after Kelce was drafted by the Chiefs in the third round of the 2013 draft that the athletic tight end could thrive in Reid’s West Coast offense. “The relationship between a quarterback and tight end is very important because of the route concepts,” Detmer wrote then. “The tight end is a big part of it because if he’s not the primary receiver, he’s almost always the secondary receiver. That becomes a real big deal to a West Coast offense with the tight end.”
  • And perhaps the money quote from Broughton, the first beneficiary of Reid’s tight end usage in Philadephia: “That offense is made for a tight end to excel,” Broughton said. “A guy like me – I’m not putting myself down, I had enough talent to be good enough – but a backup tight end, a guy like me was able to thrive in that offense.”
  • Reid’s tight end use is spotty at best. There’s no way around that. Celek, a year after racking up 76 receptions for 971 yards, ended with just 42 catches and 511 yards one season later. There were plenty of two tight end timeshares. It can also be said that Kelce has a pedigree unlike any other tight end Reid has coached.

 

Alex Smith and tight ends

You would think that, with Smith’s popgun arm and his unwillingness to throw the deep ball or the lengthy out route, that he would be a good friend to tight ends running short(ish) routes over the middle of the field.

Below is a look at tight end market share on Smith’s teams since 2009. The market share indicates total targets to tight ends, not just footballs tossed to the primary tight end in that offense. I included all tight end targets because, well, Reid’s system is partial to two tight ends, so I think it’s important to factor that into Kelce’s equation.

 

Season Smith’s pass attempts Tight end target market share % Top tight end in offense
2009 372 29 percent Davis (TE1)
2010 342 26 percent Davis (TE2)
2011 445 27.1 percent Davis (TE8)
2012 218 29.4 percent Davis (TE6)
2013 508 13.7 percent McGrath (TE40)

 

You might consider this examination of Smith’s tight ends a bit flawed. After all, we shouldn’t compare Kelce to a guy like Davis, who has been criminally underutilized throughout his career, but is a rare talent and something close to a tight end-receiver hybrid.

For better or worse, this is what we have to work with. And it’s not as if Kelce is Just Another Guy (JAG) like Fasano or McGrath. He sports the college resume and the measurables of a tight end who could excel if given the proper opportunity.

Jackie Harris, a Packers tight end during Reid’s time in Green Bay, said a functional tight end is nothing short of the key to unlocking the great potential of Reid’s West Coast scheme.

“If you don’t have a tight end that can play well, that fits in well, you can’t do a lot of the things that you saw Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Steve Young or Donovan McNabb do in the West Coast offense,” Harris said. “The tight end is responsible for the blitz adjustment on just about every play. That offense is designed to let the wide receivers do their thing and the tight end handles all the set adjustments, the hot reads, those kinds of things.”

Knowing that Smith’s tight ends have historically seen upwards of 30 percent of his total targets, and knowing that Reid’s tight ends have had some success over the past decade and a half is enough for me to believe Kelce could emerge as a streaming tight end at worst, and an every-week starter at best.

Grab Kelce late if your draft is this week. Another preseason touchdown or two and he’ll no longer be free.

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