Brett Veach entered this last offseason with much bigger concerns on his plate than worrying about tight end. From a complete overhaul of the offensive line to serious concerns at linebacker, wide receiver, and other positions, tight end was no doubt far down the list of issues for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021. But eventually addressing depth at the position was at least an item of note, if only because they didn’t want the position to turn into a concern in years to come.
When the Chiefs general manager spoke about tight end at the start of the offseason, he mentioned that the Chiefs wanted to get Travis Kelce some help so that he could rest more in 2021. The Chiefs followed through on that hope by re-signing Blake Bell to be a strong blocker at the position behind (and often alongside) Kelce in various formations. They also invested a fifth-round pick in Duke product Noah Gray and developed Jody Fortson into an offensive weapon worthy of an active roster spot.
By the time the Chiefs rolled into the regular season, they were four-strong at the position with the aforementioned players all taking up a spot on the 53-man roster, a rarity of riches at a spot where other teams typically roll three-deep at maximum.
The Kansas City Chiefs spoke publicly about the importance of helping Travis Kelce more in 2021 but it’s not happening.
Here’s the issue: nine games into the regular season, Travis Kelce is playing just as much as ever. If the Chiefs, in previous seasons, felt like they leaned too heavily on Kelce, that they needed to create some breathing room in the present, they haven’t made any concessions in that direction. It’s almost as if there was never a concern at all.
If the Chiefs aren’t remotely concerned about Kelce, then I might as well stop writing. Kelce is, after all, the single best player at his position, No one would think about pulling Patrick Mahomes for a few reps per game for the sake of “rest” and maybe Kelce is the sort of iron man that Tony Gonzalez turned out to be, a player for whom age and experience don’t matter in terms of eventual decline or injury.
The Chiefs should consider themselves incredibly fortunate if that is the case.
It’s true that Kelce is an annual All-Pro who is redefining consistent production at the position on a historic level year after year. But at some point, it has to be said that Kelce is one of the older Chiefs players on the roster at 32. He also has 120 games on his resume after also missing his entire rookie season due to injury.
If you’ve watched games closely this season as a Chiefs fan, you will already know that Kelce has looked banged up at times, even if he’s never been held out of a game due to an official injury. Teams are consistently jamming him at the line, and they’re being overly physical in their coverage in hopes of slowing down a potent Chiefs’ offense (present struggles notwithstanding). A player can work through that differently at 24 and even 28 than he can at 32. Perhaps Kelce is the exception there, but the Chiefs might prefer not to take that risk.
In 2015, Kelce first became the sort of go-to target that anchored the offense that we’ve come to expect, a year in which he took 92 percent of the snaps. Since that season, Kelce has never played less than 86 percent of all snaps (2020). This season, he’s playing 85 percent of all snaps, which would technically represent a low total but even that total skews just a bit low because of how many snaps he missed against the Tennessee Titans when banged up with minor injuries. He played 74 percent of snaps in that game and 82-91 percent in every other contest.
The bottom line is that Kelce is playing just as much this year as he did in 2020 which is basically as much as he’s played before in 2019 and so on. You get the idea. On the one hand, this is as it should be. Kelce is an offensive cornerstone and the Chiefs should be building on top of his abilities as much as they can. On the other hand, if the Chiefs want to help prolong Kelce’s effectiveness well into his thirties, it might help to start getting some rest during the regular season in much the same way NBA teams monitor minutes per game.
The NFL is only going to make it harder to enjoy the sort of longevity exhibited by Kelce so far in his career. An extra game was added this year and an 18th regular season contest is likely coming in the next couple of seasons. That’s two more games of tough, physical hits than what NFL players were already accustomed to taking. Teams, then, are going to have to become smarter about managing a player’s reps, especially as age comes into the picture.
Even with four tight ends still on the roster—Daniel Brown has replaced the injured Jody Fortson—the Chiefs are still using Kelce like he’s a fresh-faced 25-year-old playing out his rookie deal. It’s possible that he feels that way, too. All the same, it’d be nice to see him give way to Gray or someone else in order to be at 100 percent for the postseason.