Noah Gray, Andy Reid and resetting expectations for Chiefs tight ends

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Noah Gray #87 of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates a touchdown in the second half during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on September 26, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Noah Gray #87 of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates a touchdown in the second half during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on September 26, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images) /

The K.C. Chiefs traded up in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft to take tight end Noah Gray out of Duke. There are plenty of quality scouting reports out there on Gray at this point, and it only takes a few minutes of watching his highlights to see that he has undeniable receiving skills. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Gray has more offensive upside than any Chiefs tight end in the Andy Reid era not named Travis Kelce. Despite that, I’m worried that Chiefs fans might be disappointed by Gray’s role in Reid’s offense this coming season.

Now, let me be 100% clear: I’m sold on Gray’s ability to run routes and catch passes. After watching several of his games, his ability to line up in the slot, juke a linebacker or safety to create separation, and snag passes with his hands jumps off the screen. He basically looks like a big slot receiver. That’s great when you’re looking at his pass catching upside, but the problem is he also kind of blocks like a big slot receiver. That’s not to say that he doesn’t give good effort when blocking, but so do a lot of wide receivers, and you wouldn’t line them up in-line to block next to the offensive tackle.

That’s what leads me to believe that a lot of Chiefs fans have the wrong idea about Gray’s role with the team next year. Earlier this week I ran the following Twitter poll.

As you can see, an overwhelming majority of people that responded believe that Gray will be the primary #2 TE over veteran Blake Bell who the Chiefs decided to bring back after he signed with Dallas in free agency last season. Simply put, I think 71% of the people who responded are wrong.

The key reason for this is that the majority of fans see the tight end position in Andy Reid’s offense as a singular position. When the Chiefs decide to use two tight ends at the same time, they just take the top two guys at the position and put them on the field. Since Gray has superior offensive upside to Bell, the casual fan believes he should be the second tight end. Period.

Andy Reid’s historic use of tight ends should make fans adjust expectations for Noah Gray.

The problem is that it’s not that simple. If you really look at Andy Reid’s use of tight ends in his offense, he really has two different tight end positions. “Tight End 1” is the position that Travis Kelce plays and it is clearly a position that is a route runner/pass catcher first and a blocker second. The “Tight End 2” position is clearly a position that is a blocker first and route runner/pass catcher second.

Many Chiefs fans seem to believe that the only reason that K.C.’s second tight end position hasn’t gotten good production is because they lack the skills to do so. I’m here to argue that it’s designed that way. That position simply isn’t set up to be a key part of the passing game. If you don’t believe me, let’s allow Andy Reid’s 22-year head coaching career provide some insight.

In his two decades-plus as an NFL head coach, Andy Reid’s TE2 has averaged just 14.6 receptions and 147.6 yards per season. If Andy Reid wanted a highly productive pass catcher at TE2, he would have found one in 22 years as a coach. In fact, the only time Reid has had any real production at the second tight end spot has been when they are phasing out an older tight end and bringing in a new one. There were a couple of seasons when Chad Lewis and L.J. Smith had similar numbers before Smith took over as the primary tight end. Then the same thing happened with Smith and Brent Celek before Celek took over as the primary option.

In those seasons, neither tight end topped 40 receptions, however. Other than those “passing of the torch” type seasons, having a second tight end involved in the offense just hasn’t been a priority for Reid.

This is because that Reid’s TE2 is primarily a blocker. Look at last season. According to Pro Football Focus, 67% of Travis Kelce’s offensive snaps last season were as a pass catcher compared to 32% as a blocker. Meanwhile, Nick Keizer (who was second in TE snaps) was only a receiving option on 27% of his snaps compared to 73% as a blocker. I’d also wager that the 27% of snaps where he was a receiving option, it was as a third or fourth read and not one of the primary targets for that play.

So knowing that, which of those two spots does Noah Gray sound like a better fit for?

Football Outsiders broke down where tight ends lined up in 2019 (I couldn’t get my hands on 2020 numbers), and that year Travis Kelce lined up in the slot on 62% of his pass targets and lined up all the way on the outside on another 10% of his targets. So in 2019, 72% of his pass targets came on plays where he was lined up in the slot or out wide. You know who else has a skill set to excel doing that? That’s right, Noah Gray.

I know this sounds contradictory to some, but Noah Gray wasn’t brought in to play TE2. He was brought in to back up TE1. That simply isn’t the same thing in Andy Reid’s offense.

Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about Ricky Seals-Jones for a moment. Before K.C. fans just dismiss Seals-Jones as a failed signing, think about his reputation when he signed with the Chiefs. He was seen as a player with pass catching upside, but he wasn’t much of a blocker. The end result was Seals-Jones basically never set foot on the field for the Chiefs. Meanwhile, KC’s primary #2 TE Nick Keizer found himself on the receiving end of a lot more fan criticism than passing targets.

If receiving potential was remotely a priority when deciding who gets snaps at the #2 TE spot, why wouldn’t Reid give Seals-Jones a look? After all, he has over 700 career receiving yards and 8 career receiving touchdowns. That’s way better than Keizer, who now has 6 career receptions and had PFF’s lowest receiving grade for any qualifying tight end in the NFL last season.

My take is that Keizer got those snaps because the position called on it to be a blocker 73% of the time, and Keizer was the better option for that part of the job. Meanwhile, Seals-Jones was there as Travis Kelce insurance, so that if Kelce had to miss time, they had someone on the roster that could serve primarily as a route runner and pass catcher. Kelce was healthy all season and Seals-Jones never saw the field. Now Noah Gray finds himself in that same position.

Still don’t believe me? Read this quote from Brett Veach from after the draft with that in mind.

“Early on, we took a liking to Noah Gray and just saw him as a really unique inside slot receiver, H-back, fullback. He’s a little undersized for being an in-line player, but it’s so hard to replace Travis (Kelce) when he’s not in the game beacause he has such a unique skill set. Noah has a similar, again you don’t want to compare anyone to Travis Kelce, but Noah has a unique skill set as a slot, bigger tight end, receiver.”

He’s basically telling you that he’s not fit to play their typical #2 TE spot, but he has the unique ability to back up Travis Kelce as a pass catching tight end. Now maybe they like Gray enough over Seals-Jones that they’ll feel comfortable letting Kelce catch a breather for a few plays per game and Gray can get on the field that way, but at that point he’s taking reps from Kelce, not Blake Bell. It’s also possible that they have a special play every now and then that has them both on the field, but I can’t see Reid completely reworking how he uses the #2 TE after 22 seasons for a 5th round pick from Duke that caught 29 passes last year.

I know a few of you are also thinking “Yeah, but Veach also mentioned him being a H-back/fullback, and with Anthony Sherman gone he can take some of his snaps too.” I originally thought the same thing. I just don’t see it on his tape. Go to YouTube and watch some of his game against Notre Dame. He lines up in the backfield a lot during that game and if you can watch it and come away with the feeling that he should get Anthony Sherman’s snaps in the offense then you are seeing something I am not. He looks like a slot receiver lining up in the backfield, not a blocking powerhouse like Sherman. In fact, at the :45 second mark a defensive end just runs him right over. I’m not saying they couldn’t come up with some plays where he runs a route out of the backfield, but Sherman’s role was predominantly as a blocker who caught a very rare pass. Gray doesn’t work in that role 95% of the time when it comes to blocking.

As far as being a H-back goes, that would be a better option for Gray than either in-line or as a true fullback. However, the Chiefs also lined Keizer up as a H-Back last year and it didn’t change the fact that he was predominantly a blocker. So yes, Reid could likely find some plays for Gray as TE2 where he lines up as a H-Back, but if the majority of snaps that H-Back is a blocker first, pass catcher second, then those snaps still go to Bell.

Chiefs Director of Football Operations Mike Borgonzi was asked about Gray’s role in the offense after the draft and while he mentioned that he played a little fullback in college, he said this about what his strength is:

“Obviously his strength is that he’s a route-runner. He’s a crafty, savvy route runner that can get open. I think he’ll learn from Travis, one of the best in the league, and I think he’s in a good spot here. Coach Reid is gonna find ways to get him in the offense.”

Again, there is nothing in that answer about being a reliable blocker or a good fit for their second tight end spot. It’s all route running/pass catching/Travis Kelce stuff.

So if you take nothing else away from this piece, I hope it’s that you’ll adjust what you are expecting from Noah Gray in his rookie season. This isn’t a player who is built to take over as an in-line blocking tight end. That job is going to go to Bell, and I would be willing to wager that Bell receives more snaps than Gray by a sizable margin if they are both healthy all season.

That doesn’t mean that Gray is a failure. It just means that he was brought in to learn and play behind the best pass catching tight end in football. Hopefully Borgonzi is right and Coach Reid can find ways to get him involved in the offense as a rookie. That might just be letting Travis Kelce take a few plays off here and there where maybe he didn’t last season, or it could be with some new plays that feature Kelce and Gray. If that’s the case, Gray may even have more receptions than Bell next season, even if Bell gets a lot more total snaps, because history tells us that getting snaps at Reid’s #2 TE spot doesn’t lead to big reception numbers.

So what do you think Chiefs fans? Do you agree with me that Noah Gray was drafted to back up Travis Kelce and not as a replacement for Blake Bell as the primary #2 TE in Andy Reid’s offense or do you still believe that Gray is going to prove me wrong? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.

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