Is the college basketball conversion experiment working for the Chiefs?

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 19: Albert Wilson
OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 19: Albert Wilson /

A closer look at the receptions of the Kansas City Chiefs back-up tight ends with regards to their targets shows that conversion might not be working.

Drops are a thing in these parts. For the Kansas City Chiefs, drops by pass catchers were a serious concern (plague?) on the team’s offense in 2016 as several players let easy passes carom off the chest or slip through their hands. We discussed it in detail this offseason, while simultaneously watching the Chiefs jettison their steadiest receiver in Jeremy Maclin.

Fortunately, the Chiefs have become more and more efficient in terms of pass completion year over year in Andy Reid’s tenure. See the following:

  • 2013: 333 receptions on 535 targets (62% catch rate)
  • 2014: 320 receptions on 486 targets (66%)
  • 2015: 310 receptions on 463 targets (67%)
  • 2016: 365 receptions on 536 targets (68%)
  • 2017: 204 receptions on 284 targets (72%)

Within the last couple seasons, however, two players who have been the targets of an experiment of sorts have also been the two worst in catch rate: tight ends Demetrius Harris and Ross Travis.

Both Harris and Travis are former college basketball players. Harris played ball at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Travis never even played college football at all, since he played basketball at Penn State. Both players have a large athletic frame that could handle the additional weight, and both players have certainly been successful enough in their transition to stave off competition and remain No. 2 and 3 on the depth chart for the Chiefs over the last two years.

For Harris, the experiment has reached year four. That’s four years in the offense and the weight room. That’s four years to learn the timing and four years to work with the coaching staff. If there’s an official timeline on this experiment, I’m certainly not privy to what it is, but four years does seem like an awful long time.

Last year, Harris caught 54.8% of his passes thrown to him and had 6 outright drops. It was by far the worst drop rate in the NFL, a sign that Harris needed to seriously work on his hands if he was going to keep his spot on the team. Yet even after some memorable drops and some legal troubles, Harris proved most of us wrong by remaining on the club into the 2017 season. Apparently the coaches like him far more than we realized, and of course there’s nothing fans would love more than to be proven wrong—since that would mean great things for the team.

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Yet halfway into another season and Harris is not only leading the team in drops again but he’s also watched his catch rate drop to 43.7%. To give Harris a bit of credit, the small sample size doesn’t help, but once again there’s no one remotely close to his drop rate on the team with any significant amount of catches. Running back Akeem Hunt has caught 1 pass on 3 targets, if Harris wants to point to someone worse.

The same can (sort of) be said for Ross Travis. Projecting one man’s issues onto another and calling it a concern for both is a risk here, but Travis caught 3 of 6 passes in 2016 and 4 of 9 targets this year. Those percentages simply aren’t good and between Harris and Travis, they occupy the bottom two slots in terms of dependability on this roster. Even DeMarcus Robinson, who has had errant throws in his direction that unfortunately count against him in this general stat has caught 12 of 19 targets and that mark should be much higher.

What does all of this mean? Do the back-up tight ends need more time to adjust? Travis, for example, is only 23, so there’s some merit there for sure. But is this a bigger issue for the Chiefs? Is it problematic for there to be multiple players on the roster trying to make the leap from playing one sport into another? Is the experiment hamstringing the offense from having more reliable pass catchers?

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These sorts of experiments sound great until a dropped pass or missed opportunity stalls an important drive. Should the Chiefs go with just one? Will both players end up okay? The Chiefs certainly seem to love both, and they’ve decided to wave goodbye to other options like James O’Shaughnessy and Gavin Escobar in order to keep the depth chart as is.

Here’s hoping one day soon we’ll understand the team’s commitment to this experiment.