Rising Star Travis Kelce Could Be NFL's Next Gronkowski

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterOctober 3, 2014

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After watching the tape on Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, it’s easy to see that the arrow is pointing up on the second-year pro because of his size (6’6”, 260 pounds), power and athleticism after the catch.

A complete player at the position who can maul defenders at the point of attack in the run game, Kelce has the skill set and catch radius to produce numbers in Andy Reid’s West Coast system.

Today, let’s break down some of the tape on Kelce and discuss why the tight end is showing some similarities to Rob Gronkowski with his matchup ability.


Kelce’s Role in Andy Reid’s System

Reid’s playbook has evolved since he was in Philadelphia, but the core West Coast concepts still remain when looking at the route tree.

Think inside breaking routes here with the ball being thrown between the numbers and the hash. That’s “West Coast 101” in the short-to-intermediate passing game (three-/five-step drops).

Sep 21, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid looks on during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. Chiefs won 34-15. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

And given the lack of playmaking talent the Chiefs have outside of the numbers, Reid is leaning on his Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) to run his core concepts (Hi-Lo series, seam, spot, stick-out, all slants) with Kelce being utilized in a variety of alignments.

The tight end can run the dig, shallow cross, deep over route, option, the inside curl in the spot combination, etc. while attached to the core of the formation or removed (flexed) in a slot/wide bunch alignment.

That speaks to the skill set of Kelce and the play-calling of Reid when looking at the tape.

Here’s an example of Kelce producing in a base West Coast concept—Hi-Lo Opposite—out of Ace/12 personnel in a Unit formation (2x2) versus the Miami Dolphins' Cover 3 look.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Hi-Lo Opposite is a two-level read for quarterback Alex Smith with Kelce on the shallow drive route (underneath crosser) and Anthony Fasano running the dig (square-in).

With the Chiefs clearing out the open-side cornerback on the deep post, Smith can read the depth/width of the underneath zone defenders to target Kelce coming back across the core of the formation.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This is where we see the ability of Kelce after the catch as the tight end secures the ball and beats the cornerback to the end zone for six points on a route concept Reid has been calling for over a decade.

Back in Week 2, the Chiefs dressed up the same concept out of Slot Open formation (trips to open side) with Ace/12 personnel in the game to set a “pick” for Kelce versus the Denver Broncos' Cover 1 pressure.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Fasano stems his route to set a “pick” versus cornerback Aqib Talib. That allows Smith to identify his underneath read versus pressure and deliver the ball to Kelce as the tight end produces an explosive play.

Let’s take a look at one more with Kelce aligned in a wide bunch (removed from the core of the formation) on the “spot” concept (7-curl-flat combo) versus the New England Patriots' Cover 1 scheme.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The “spot route is usually run with pre-snap motion into the core of the formation to create a bunch alignment.

Here, Reid utilizes the wide bunch with Kelce running the curl (or running to the “spot”) as the Chiefs widen the defense on the flat route and clear out the top of the secondary on the 7 cut (corner route).

Kelce turns outside after the catch (forcing the safety in coverage to overrun the route) and once again displays his ability after to push the ball down the field.

These are basic West Coast concepts. However, with Reid utilizing his Ace/12 personnel, the tight end can showcase his 4.6-4.65 “game speed” (at 260 pounds) to make plays in the open field.

Matchup Ability

Kelce isn’t a top-tier route-runner at this stage of his career. He's more of an athlete who gets open, from my perspective. And that’s fine, as he will continue to develop with reps on the field after missing the entire 2013 season.

However, he still has the matchup ability that every offense wants when looking at his size and athleticism to separate. This is where I see the similarities to Gronkowski before injuries started to add up for the Patriots tight end.

Sep 21, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) carries the ball against the Oakland Raiders at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

That’s tough on linebackers and safeties who have to check Kelce in coverage while playing from an outside leverage position when the tight end can initiate contact at the top of the route and shield the defender from the ball.

Plus, when given more opportunities this season, he can use his size/frame to win at the point of attack.

Ask any safety playing Cover 1, blitz-man or Cover 4 versus a tight end with size and enough speed to separate to the ball on the inside seam, 7 or dig. That’s hard work to maintain leverage and stay in-phase (on the hip) when the tight end pushes up the field and breaks.

Focus on that athletic ability to win on the route stem with the size and catch radius to finish—especially down in the red zone. Find a positive matchup and feed Kelce the football until the defense finds a way to limit the production.

Think of Kelce as the backside X in a 3x1 “Dakota” formation, flexed in the slot to run the seam or the red-zone fade when the defense is forced to choose between a cornerback or safety in man-coverage.

Let’s look at two route schemes that show how Kelce can win based on leverage and route stem.

In Week 1, the Tennessee Titans sent zone pressure with Kelce running the 7 route versus a linebacker (seam-flat defender, matches to No. 2).

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Check out the route from Kelce as he stems hard inside before working back to the 7. This allows the tight end to stack on top of the linebacker and win to the outside while taking a hit after the catch from the safety driving to the throw.

Back to the Week 2 game versus the Broncos, Kelce drew the matchup of a linebacker with Denver showing a single high-safety versus the “Seattle” concept (three verticals with open side shallow drive route).

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Chiefs can clear out the open side of the formation with the X receiver removing the cornerback in coverage and Kelce working back across the field away from the linebacker’s leverage on the deep over route.

That’s a long way to run for a defender unless they disrupt the stem and stay in a position to play to the upfield shoulder of the receiver.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With the open side of the field now vacated (and the free safety in the deep middle), Kelce can create separation versus the linebacker in coverage and stem this route to the opposite numbers.

These are just two examples from the tape, but they show us that Kelce can get open when matched up versus second-level defenders.

Creating Opportunities

Packaged plays (multiple run/pass reads within the scheme) are all over the NFL tape right now, as they put stress on defensive keys through the mesh point (quarterback/running back exchange).

But how many teams are throwing the bubble screen to the tight end?

That’s what the Chiefs showed on Monday night versus the Patriots with Kelce aligned in the slot (or in a wide bunch) to run the bubble off the mesh point (inside zone).

Here’s a pre-snap look at one of the Chiefs' packaged plays (Ace/12 personnel in the game) out of a Doubles Slot formation with Kelce aligned as the No. 2 to the closed side.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Smith can hand off the inside zone (1), throw the bubble (2) to Kelce or target the wide receiver on the slant (3) based off the coverage look and the number of defenders in the box.

Later in the game, the Chiefs came back to the package play with Kelce aligned as the No. 3 in a wide bunch (count outside-in).

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Smith shows the ball quickly through the mesh point and gets this throw out to Kelce with blockers in front on the bubble screen.

This allows the tight end to push the ball to the sideline, use the stiff arm and move the sticks for a productive gain.

Kelce’s Progression

After catching eight balls on Monday night for 93 yards and a touchdown on the national stage, I would expect Kelce’s reps to increase because of his ability to make plays along with the production the Chiefs can generate out of their Ace/12 personnel.

With any young player who is putting up numbers, we have to slow down at times and let the season play out before forming an opinion on their overall game.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Offensive game plans can change and opposing teams will scheme specifically to limit production based on the tape.

However, Kelce has the size and the skill set to make an impact on the game in Reid's West Coast system running the short-to-intermediate route tree. 

As I said above, the arrow is definitely pointing up with Kelce. And I’m anxious to see how he progresses this season—because the talent is there.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.