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Travis Kelce Has Earned Opportunity to Start for the Kansas City Chiefs

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Travis Kelce Has Earned Opportunity to Start for the Kansas City Chiefs
USA Today

The Kansas City Chiefs defense and special teams accounted for a whopping 12 of the team’s 53 touchdowns in 2013 against a soft schedule.

Accumulating that many non-offensive touchdowns will be unlikely against a tough schedule, and head coach Andy Reid knows he will need more offense in 2014 if his team is to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is ready to be the No. 2 weapon behind running back Jamaal Charles, but the Chiefs need a consistent third weapon if they want an explosive offense.

Running back De’Anthony Thomas is dynamic, but he’s best suited for low-volume role.

That leaves tight end Travis Kelce, who missed 15 games last season after having microfracture surgery on his right knee.

Kelce is showing the kind of ability that prompted the Chiefs to select the 6’5”, 260-pound playmaker with a third-round pick last year, and it’s clear after two preseason games that he needs to be playing with the starters.

His development and incorporation into the offense will be important because the team will be trying to pick up any slack left by the defense, special teams and its No. 1 offensive weapon.

Only six non-quarterbacks in history have put up back-to-back seasons of 19 or more total touchdowns, so the Chiefs must plan to replace at least some of Charles’ production from last season.

A healthy and motivated Bowe should help, but questions will remain about quarterback Alex Smith’s ability to use his wide receivers until he proves otherwise. Smith has already demonstrated the ability to throw to his tight ends, having played for years with star tight end Vernon Davis in San Francisco.

Vernon Davis With and Without Alex Smith
With G REC TAR YDS YDS/REC TD TAR/G TAR/TD
2006 10 20 42 265 13.3 3 4.2 14.0
2007 6 22 36 235 10.7 0 6.0 0
2009 11 56 89 703 12.6 10 8.1 8.9
2010 11 44 73 662 15 6 6.6 12.2
2011 16 67 95 792 11.8 6 5.9 15.8
2012 9 29 41 404 13.9 4 4.6 10.3
Total 63 238 376 3061 12.9 29 6.0 13.0
Without G REC TAR YDS YDS/REC TD TAR/G TAR/TD
2007 8 30 49 274 274 3 6.1 16.3
2008 14 52 49 509 9.8 4 3.5 12.3
2009 5 22 39 262 10.7 1 7.8 39.0
2010 5 12 20 252 21 1 4.0 20.0
2012 7 20 12 144 12 1 1.7 12.0
2013 15 52 84 850 16.3 13 5.6 6.5
Total 54 188 253 2291 12.2 23 4.7 11.0

Pro-Football-Reference.com

In his career, Davis has averaged 6.0 targets per game with Smith at quarterback and just 4.7 targets per game with any other quarterback. With Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, Davis has averaged 4.4 targets per game.

In the past, Smith has used his tight ends more to move the chains than as weapons in the red zone. Davis averaged a touchdown on every 13 targets with Smith compared to a touchdown on every 6.9 targets with Kaepernick.

This would be insignificant if Kaepernick were throwing a lot more touchdowns than Smith, but that hasn’t been the case.

Kaepernick uses Davis more in the red zone, but Smith made Davis a big part of the offense. Davis was Smith’s favorite offensive weapon in San Francisco, so a similar talent like Kelce has the opportunity to be that kind of player for the Chiefs.

Davis has averaged about the same amount of yards per reception with Smith as he has without him—12.9 to 12.2 yards per reception, respectively. With Kaepernick, Davis doing a little better with an average of 13.9 yards per reception, making up for fewer targets.

What we know about Smith as well as the fact that Davis’ production on a per-reception basis with and without Smith is about the same suggest he’s doing a lot of the work after the catch.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Davis averaged just 4.8 yards after the catch per reception last season. In his last full season with Smith, he averaged 5.9 yards after the catch per reception. Davis was doing even more after the catch before head coach Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in 2011.

Making People Miss
Player Games Yards After Catch/Rec Missed Tackles
Travis Kelce (2014 Preseason) 2 14.5 7
Donnie Avery 16 5.4 7
Dexter McCluster 14 5.2 6
Anthony Fasano 9 3.6 2
Sean McGrath 16 5.3 1

ProFootballReference.com

After-the-catch ability has been Kelce’s strength so far this preseason.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Kelce is averaging 14.5 yards after the catch per reception and has forced or evaded seven tackles. He has also been sure-handed, having caught six of his seven targets with zero drops.

By comparison, in 2013-14, Donnie Avery posted seven missed tackles, Dexter McCluster had six, Junior Hemingway had zero and tight ends Anthony Fasano and Sean McGrath had a total of three. Dwayne Bowe had a total of 14 missed tackles last season in 15 games.

The preseason is not the regular season, so we could ignore Kelce's statistical numbers if not for it being obvious that he should be Kansas City’s No. 3 option in the passing game behind Charles and Bowe.

There has been a lot of discussion about which wide receiver will step up and secure the starting spot opposite Bowe, but the reality is that the No. 2 receiver should be Kelce.

Credit: NFL Preseason Live

Kelce has two long receptions this preseason, but his most impressive was a four-yard grab against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Out of 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end), Kelce peeled off to the right, broke a tackle attempt by a defensive back, then another by a defensive lineman and almost slipped through the grasp of another defensive lineman before defensive help arrived.

There are many different ways the Chiefs can use Kelce, but the most common alignment will likely be out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). That will allow Fasano to stay in to block, which will help the offensive line but also get Kelce on the field ahead of a fullback or the No. 3 wide receiver.

We’ve yet to see Kelce used in a 12 personnel grouping with the starters this preseason, which needs to change.

Maybe Reid is just saving his best for the regular season, but it wouldn’t hurt to get Kelce some work with the starters in the dress rehearsal for the regular season Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings.

“He has to keep coming with it,” Reid told Randy Covitz of the Kansas City Star. “There’s more to it than just route running. You have to run-block, and detail all your work there. You have to give him credit for the effort he’s given in the pass game, and he sure has a nice skill level.”

It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement from the head coach, but that doesn’t mean Kelce will waste away on the bench.

Kelce stayed in to block 19 times on 29 total snaps against the Panthers last week, per Pro Football Focus, so he’s getting reps and did well enough that he still deserves the chance to do it against a first-team defense.

Smith seemed genuine in his excitement about incorporating Kelce into the offense.

“He’s going to add another element to the tight end position,” Smith told Covitz. “He’ll stretch some defenses and do some things with the ball in his hands. It’s exciting to see.”

It should not surprise anyone that Smith loves players that can gain yards with the ball in their hands. Smith is conservative to a fault and the coaching staff is trying to reprogram him to trust his arm a little more.

If Reid puts Kelce on the field, he has the potential to be a big part of the offense just because of Smith’s tendencies.

Smith cited Kelce’s ability to stretch the field, which should also help the Chiefs offense. Smith may be hesitant to throw deep, but like any conservative quarterback, he’s likelier to throw deep down the middle than toward the sideline.

If the Smith can connect with Kelce on a few deep balls down the middle, that should open up the short passing game because safeties won’t be able to drive on short passes.

It’s easy to overreact to a couple of big pass plays against defenders that won’t have a job in two weeks, but at least Kelce has earned a big promotion. The Chiefs would be foolish not to try to incorporate Kelce into the offenseeven if that wasn’t the original plan.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com.

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