The Kansas City Chiefs have never needed Travis Kelce more.
Despite having an uneven pass-catching situation and lacking a standout at running back, 9-2 Kansas City has the NFL’s best offense and quarterback Patrick Mahomes has emerged as the betting favorite to win the league’s MVP award. Along the way, Mahomes and Coach Andy Reid have leaned as hard as ever on the talents of Kelce, who has delivered at least 50 yards or a touchdown in every game, and in most cases, both.
“He’s just smarter as a player,” Mahomes said earlier this season about Kelce, who was a third-round draft pick by the Chiefs in 2013. “That’s the biggest thing. He knows how to get himself open. He knows how to use other people and other parts of the concept to get himself open. And he’s smart about how he blocks, how he can pin guys and get us in the right position. I think he’s just continued to evolve.”
A variety of reasons, principally injury-related, have caused a shortfall in performance this season among pretenders to the tight end throne such as the Baltimore Ravens’ Mark Andrews, the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle, the Las Vegas Raiders’ Darren Waller, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Dallas Goedert and the Atlanta Falcons’ Kyle Pitts. That has left Kelce vying more with giants of the recent past — namely Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski — in his quest to be considered the greatest tight end of all time.
With 9,918 career receiving yards, Kelce still has a long way to go to catch Gonzalez, who paces their position with a whopping 15,127 yards over 17 highly productive seasons. Kelce also needs to add over 500 receptions to his total of 777 just to come within hailing distance of Gonzalez’s 1,325.
In the more immediate future, though, Kelce’s NFL-leading and career-high 12 touchdowns this season have him on pace to break Gronkowski’s single-season record for tight ends of 17. As it is, with 912 receiving yards, Kelce is well on his way to extending his own positional record with a seventh straight season of at least 1,000 yards.
To put that into perspective, no other tight end has as many as four straight 1,000-yard seasons. In fact, among all tight ends in NFL history, only Gonzalez, Gronkowski and Jason Witten had as many as four such seasons over their entire careers.
“It doesn’t matter who’s on him. He gets open,” tight end Hayden Hurst, whose Cincinnati Bengals are set to take on the Chiefs on Sunday in a rematch of the AFC championship game, said this week. “Travis is a freak, man. His releases, his understanding of coverages. Leverage. He’s hard to cover. You line him up inside, he knows how to take advantage of it. You line him up head up, he knows how to take advantage of it. He’s seen it all. …
“He’ll probably go down as the best ever.”
Kelce is certainly the best tight end this season, as reflected in more than just the major statistical categories. His overall grade of 91.5 at Pro Football Focus, which rates every NFL player involved on every play, puts more distance between Kelce and the second-best tight end, David Njoku of the Cleveland Browns (81.4), than there is between Njoku and 13th-place Will Dissly of the Seattle Seahawks (72.6, minimum 50 snaps on passing plays). The analytics-oriented website Football Outsiders has Kelce well ahead of the pack in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR), its principal metric for tight ends. Kelce has a mark of 227 in DYAR, followed at 148 by Goedert, who has been out since injuring his shoulder in a Week 10 loss to the Washington Commanders, then Dissly at 107 and Andrews at 90.
Another popular way to measure individual performance, by fantasy points, tells a similar tale of positional dominance. At 238.7 in points-per-reception formats, Kelce is almost 94 points ahead of Andrews, who is second among tight ends at 144.8, with the Minnesota Vikings’ T.J. Hockenson (136.7) over 100 points behind but still in third.
Meanwhile, back in the real-life football world, Hill entered Week 13 leading the NFL in receiving yards (1,233) and catches (87, with Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs having nudged ahead at 91 after his Bills’ win Thursday night). Of course, Hill is now with the Miami Dolphins, after starring for the Chiefs for the previous six seasons.
The departure of one of the NFL’s most dangerous offensive weapons left behind plenty of uncertainty in Kansas City regarding how Kelce might fare without his Pro Bowl running mate to draw away defensive attention. Thus far, opposing secondaries haven’t been given too much to fear from the Chiefs’ offseason additions at wide receiver — including free agent signees JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Justin Watson, plus second-round draft pick Skyy Moore — or midseason trade acquisition Kadarius Toney. Smith-Schuster leads Kansas City’s wide receivers with 49 catches for 653 yards, but he has been slowed by a concussion, while holdover Mecole Hardman was placed on injured reserve last month with an abdominal injury. Running backs Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire have pitched in through the air with a combined 46 catches for 389 yards, but Kansas City’s leading rusher, rookie Isiah Pacheco, ranks just 38th in the NFL with 455 yards.
Through it all, Kelce has been a rock, racking up 73 catches, good for seventh in the league, to go with his NFL-best tally of a dozen touchdown receptions.
“I’m an older dog, man,” Kelce told reporters after a Week 11 performance against the Los Angeles Chargers — six catches for 115 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning score with 31 seconds left — that earned him AFC offensive player of the week honors. “Throughout my years, I’ve just learned from situations that I’ve been through on the football field, situations that I’ve seen on the football field.”
Pointing to his head, he added, “I just keep accumulating all that data and putting it in this computer up here, and hope that I can use it to my advantage when the time is needed.”