What does the future at tight end look like for the Kansas City Chiefs?

After another amazing postseason from the future Hall of Famer, seemingly shutting up all the haters and doubters, it's still worthy of begging the question...just what can the Chiefs do at the tight end position to prepare for the future?

Travis Kelce pointed forward after a first down gain against the Bengals in Week 17 of the 2023-24 season.
Travis Kelce pointed forward after a first down gain against the Bengals in Week 17 of the 2023-24 season. / Jamie Squire/GettyImages

This regular season did not go exactly the way the Kansas City Chiefs wanted it to. They failed to nab the number-one seed, could not cement home-field advantage, and lost some embarrassing games like the Christmas matchup against Las Vegas. Sadly, one of the reasons the regular season lacked so much was that Travis Kelce looked mortal for the first time in his career.

Yes, the Chiefs went on the road and won two BIG games against the one and two-seeded teams. And yes, the Chiefs won the Super Bowl to make it back-to-back championship seasons. But, to say that this season wasn't Kelce's best would be telling the hard truth. For instance, Kelce's seven regular season drops ranked second on the team behind Rashee Rice (eight), with a handful of them coming on pivotal third downs.

As everybody predicted and eventually saw with their own two eyes, Kelce turned it on in the postseason (again) and reeled in 32 receptions (a career high for the 34-year-old) for 355 yards which was five yards short of his career high from back in 2020. To top it all off, he turned in a dominating nine-catch, 93-yard Super Bowl performance that reminded the 49ers and the world that he can perform at a level that nobody else truly can.

Even though Kelce brought in 3 touchdowns this postseason, compared with just 5 in the regular season, the warning signs are still showing and they're staring the Chiefs' front office right in the face: What should Kansas City do to solidify the tight end position for the inevitable future without Kelce?

What do the Chiefs have in-house?

Before you rattle off angry tweets, expletive-filled replies, and nasty comments about how dominant Travis Kelce has remained in his eleventh season, just hear me out. Kelce is not going to be in Kansas City forever, even though he has stated he's not going anywhere anytime soon and that he "want(s) that three-peat." It's still worth the Chiefs' time to look at the position's future.

The Chiefs have two solid tight ends already on the roster, Noah Gray and Blake Bell, but neither have shown that they have even an inkling of the talent and connection with Mahomes that Kelce brings to the field every Sunday.

Gray was drafted by the Chiefs back in 2021 in the fifth round and has since played in every single game (50) over the past three seasons, catching 28 passes in each of the past two years for 604 yards (10.8 yards per reception). He averages 35 snaps per game—just over 50% of the offensive plays per week—which is almost identical to second-year WR Skyy Moore who has had a notable down year.

This postseason was by far Gray's best in his three years, bringing in 8 of his 11 targets (72.7%) for 66 yards and three first downs. Also, both of Gray's receptions in Super Bowl LVIII went for 10+ yards which made him look more Kelce-esque in the eyes of Chiefs fans.

Then there's Bell, a local boy born in Wichita who is only two years younger than Kelce. Bell, who will be 33 before next year's preseason games, was originally drafted in the fourth round by San Francisco back in 2015, and has been enjoying his second stint with Kansas City over the past three seasons.

Bell helped the Chiefs win their second-ever Super Bowl back in 2019 with his 3 postseason catches, including a touchdown in the 51-31 comeback win over Houston that sparked Kansas City's playoff push. Since then, Bell has seen diminished target shares, catches, and everything that comes with that.

Bell's upside is he's a great blocker and has a vision that can continue to help the team. His downside is, despite his touchdown in Week 1's matchup against Detroit, he just hasn't been as reliable as he once was.

Bell signed a one-year, $1,165,000 contract at the beginning of the 2023 season, his sixth one-year deal in six seasons. Meanwhile, Gray's four-year, ~$4 million rookie deal ends after next season. So both tight ends on the roster could be gone if and when Kelce decides to retire—even if that's next year.

Could the Chiefs add veteran help?

Some names like Atlanta's Kyle Pitts and Houston's Dalton Schultz have been thrown around as possible players to keep an eye on, sure, but what can they bring that will help fans feel as comfortable at the TE position as they have for nearly a decade?

Pitts has huge upside, especially with the Falcons under-utilizing him since drafting him fourth overall back in 2021. Perhaps those fresh legs and some new scenery could prop Pitts up back to his rookie season numbers where he corralled nearly 70 catches for over 1,000 yards. The biggest problem with Pitts is the high-risk, high-reward gamble that Reid and Brett Veach will be paying for with a trade. If it were to work though, they would look like geniuses (again) and be known as the staff that reinvigorated Pitts' career to how it looked back at the University of Florida.

Schultz played increasingly well back in Dallas up until he was franchise-tagged in 2022, then he took a one-year deal to play with rookie QB C.J. Stroud and first-year Head Coach DeMeco Ryans which has seen him finish with his highest yards per reception average (10.8) of his career. His 5 touchdowns and positive run-block percentage (9.0% according to PFF) means he could be a solid replacement for Kelce, or at least a solid backup plan for next year depending on what the future Hall of Famer does during the offseason.

Noah Fant, a former Denver Bronco who had to watch the Chiefs destroy his team for the first three seasons of his career, is also due to hit free agency and has an upside that other 26-year-old tight ends do not.

Much like Kelce, up until this season's week one matchup, Fant is a player that is reliably on the field week in and week out. In fact, since he was drafted 20th overall back in 2019, Fant has played all but one game with that being the Broncos' final week back in 2020.

The past two seasons have seen Fant's targets go down dramatically, only being thrown to 43 times in 2023 after four-straight 63+ target seasons, so he could be primed and ready for a breakout season with Mahomes throwing to him instead of Geno Smith and Drew Lock.

What about draft possibilities for the Chiefs?

If the answer isn't in free agency or on the trade block, could the Chiefs possibly pick up Kelce's replacement in the draft? That would surely help Brett Veach with the cap space situation, as well as get some youth in the tight end room to go along with Gray and some of the younger wide receivers.

Georgia's Brock Bowers will be long gone by the time the Chiefs pick, even if they were to trade up into the late teens or early twenties, but there are some other prospects that the Chiefs might like to bring in.

One of those names is the University of Texas' Ja'Tavion Sanders, a 6'4", 243-pound tight end who declared for the draft instead of playing in his final season of eligibility for the Longhorns. The Texas junior caught 6 passes for 75 yards in the Sugar Bowl against Washington, bringing Sanders up to 99 career receptions which broke the then-record set by David Thomas (2002-05). Sanders averaged 13.3 yards per reception over his two breakout seasons in Texas, also racking up over 610 receiving yards in both of the past two years.

A name that might go under the radar is Colorado State's Dallin Holker. Holker won't be a first-day pickup, especially with names like Ohio State's Cade Stover and Florida State's Jaheim Bell sitting above him on draft boards alongside Bowers and Sanders, but that doesn't mean he can't be influential on the Chiefs' offense.

Not only can Holker block multiple defenders at the line and in traffic, but he has strong hands that like to win 50-50 balls downfield. His first two years in college were spent at BYU, scratching his way to 200+ yards receiving before only playing three games in his junior season. After that, he blew up at Colorado State, averaging 12 yards per catch on his way to 767 yards and 6 touchdowns this past season. Holker is a name to watch for on day two of the draft, especially since he fits the look and build that Coach Reid likes to bring into the tight end room.

Other names to watch for on the final days of the 2024 NFL draft include Penn State's Theo Johnson, a 6'6" tight end with quick feet and a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, as well as the local kid Ben Sinnott out of K-State who made a name for himself this past season with 6 touchdowns and 676 yards receiving.

The heir apparent to Kelce will not be as obvious to Coach Reid and the Chiefs' front office, but there are many different avenues that they can take to try and eventually replace the future first-ballot Hall of Famer. With that said, the Chiefs' organization is happy with the tight end room that helped them win two straight Super Bowls.

Veach, Reid, Mahomes, and the rest of Kansas City's decision-makers may very well move forward with what they have in the tight end room and that would be just fine for fans considering how dominant Kelce has proven himself to be since he came into the league over a decade ago. It's just at some point, this legendary ride will have to come to an end.