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The Best (Healthy) Tight End in Football

With Rob Gronkowski out for the season, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce has ascended to the tight-end throne by making big play after big play in the passing game and run-blocking like an offensive lineman.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Coming out of the University of Cincinnati in 2013, Travis Kelce earned the moniker “Baby Gronk” because of similarities in size (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) and speed (4.61 in the 40) to Rob Gronkowski — in addition to his potential as both a pass catcher and a blocker. But now, four years removed from being drafted by the Chiefs in the third round, Kelce has grown up. With Gronk on the shelf for much of the year with injuries, Kansas City’s versatile weapon was the NFL’s best tight end. And by the way, he’d prefer it if you called him “Zeus.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who’s tasked with game-planning for Kelce this week, summed it up Tuesday. “Kelce is as dynamic as any tight end in football right now.” Kelce presents a conundrum to defensive coaches: He’s too big for a corner, too fast for a linebacker, and even most safeties can’t match him in size and speed.

During the regular season, Kelce caught 85 passes (second at his position) for 1,125 yards (first) and four touchdowns. He earned first-team All-Pro honors, but not just due to the damage he inflicted on opposing secondaries. Kelce’s also one of the league’s best run-blockers. Rather than impacting only passing plays, his presence is felt whenever he’s on the field. Even, uh, after the whistle blows:

The Chiefs’ 33–10 win over Denver in Week 16 was Kelce’s pièce de résistance. The Broncos had given up more than 100 yards to a non-running-back just once all season — to Kelce, in Week 12 — and in an effort to avoid a repeat they tried a variety of countermeasures and coverages to keep the Chiefs tight end in check. None of it worked. They threw safety Darian Stewart out in coverage, gave a pair of rookie safeties — William Parks and Justin Simmons — a try, and even used linebacker Von Miller on him at times. When the dust settled, the star of Catching Kelce had caught 11 of his 12 targets for 160 yards and a touchdown. It was one of the best tight-end games you’ll ever seen; no Chiefs player at that position has ever had that many receiving yards, and Kelce did it against the best pass defense in the league.

Teams rarely utilize their tight ends as receivers in the screen game — they’re typically just not fast enough for it to make much sense, and they’re usually better served as downfield blockers on those plays — but Kelce’s got the speed and quickness to give the Chiefs a fun little curveball. Early in the first quarter against the Broncos, after lining up close to the line in the slot, he bounced outside, caught the pass, and picked up 4 yards.

Later that quarter, he did a little better: After lining up on the wing, he caught another screen pass from Smith and, after negotiating through a few well-set-up blocks, accelerated and broke free for 80 yards and a touchdown.

It’s the uncommon burst he shows right after seeing that lane open up near the sideline that makes him so dangerous — and that acceleration really helps on downfield routes, too. Midway through the third quarter, after getting Simmons completely turned around off the line, Kelce caught a pass on a slant route and hit the afterburners. Again, you just rarely see this type of explosiveness from a tight end, apart from maybe 25-year-old Jimmy Graham or Kellen Winslow Sr. in his prime.

That explosiveness also allows the Chiefs to use him on isolation routes on the outside since he’s able to beat coverage off of the line. Midway through the first quarter, he lined up in man coverage on the outside and ran a slant, picking up 8 yards.

In the second quarter, on a third-and-5, Kelce ran a little whip route — faking the slant before going outside — that gave him a huge amount of separation from Parks.

In the third quarter, in a similar situation (third-and-4) the Chiefs lined up in the same look against the same coverage, and Kelce faked Parks out again. He faked the whip route this time, and after a hesitation move, ran the rest of the slant, making the catch and picking up big yardage and a first down. This just isn’t fair.

You know what else isn’t fair? That a guy with Kelce’s ability in the passing game would be a force as a blocker, too. The All-Pro had two enormous blocks in the win over Denver, both springing ball carriers for Kansas City touchdowns. The first came in the first quarter, when he sealed Simmons away from Alex Smith (who had kept the ball on a read option) for a full 10 yards, allowing Smith to jog into the end zone untouched.

Later in the quarter, Kelce did it again. This time, he ditched any thought of sealing a defender and instead just ran him over. Coming around the edge of the offensive line to block for Tyreek Hill, Kelce pancaked Stewart with a huge block to spring Hill for a 70-yard touchdown.

The Chiefs offense may run through Smith, but Kelce has been the team’s most valuable player. When he’s not blocking on the edge, Kelce is Andy Reid’s trump card in the passing game from everywhere on the field: On the season, he caught 40 passes lined up in the slot, 26 split out to the wing, and 19 lined up in line.

Kelce may be a tight end, but he’s Kansas City’s de facto no. 1 receiver. Whether he lines up on the inside (the Steelers ranked 13th in the league against tight ends in coverage, per Football Outsiders) or on the outside (Pittsburgh ranked dead last against no. 1 receivers), he presents a problem. His ability to take a simple slant or screen pass and create yards with his feet has been the main reason the Chiefs can run a dink-and-dunk offense but score points with explosive plays. If Kansas City’s going anywhere this postseason, it’ll be because we see Kelce doing a lot of dancing.