Could Travis Kelce Finish as Fantasy Football's Top Tight End Once Again?
Since the dawn of the 21st century, five players have been able to put together back-to-back seasons as the leading scorer among fantasy football tight ends.
Tony Gonzalez managed it in the 2003 and 2004 seasons, while Antonio Gates took the crown in each of the next two seasons. Jimmy Graham was the cream of the crop in 2012 and 2013, before handing the reigns over to Rob Gronkowski in 2014 and 2015.
But after leading the pack in 2016 and 2017, Travis Kelce has the chance to be the first player to three-peat as the most reliable option at one of fantasy football's least reliable spots. Can he pull it off?
The Top Dog
At his position, Kelce has been top dog in the majority of receiving categories in the last two seasons. He has been targeted 239 times, 23 more than his nearest challenger (Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz), and he has 16 more receptions than Ertz in that same time frame. In yards, Kelce is a whopping 523 clear of Ertz, however, the Kansas City Chiefs weapon finds himself 4th among tight ends with 12 total scores. In spite of the lower-than-expected touchdown count, Kelce leads Ertz by 66.5 points in point-per-reception (PPR) scoring.
Kelce's counting stats make for pretty good reading, but his per-play efficiency has been something to admire as well.
According to numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- which you can learn more about here, Kelce has been just as dominant. Of the 6 tight ends to see at least 100 targets in 2016, Kelce paced them all in terms of Target NEP per target (0.63) and Reception NEP per target (0.87). He finished second in each of these metrics in 2017, trailing only one other tight end. His numbers had fallen slightly, to 0.42 and 0.73, respectively, but he was still better than any other tight end not named Gronk.
Why He Can Three-Peat
According to numberFire's models, Kelce (139.6 standard points) finds himself behind Gronkowski (176.5) in projected scoring for this season. But does this automatically mean Kelce's race has been run? Absolutely not.
Kelce has found a niche in the Chiefs' offense and has become a bigger part of it in each of his four seasons (he missed almost all of his 2013 rookie campaign). His target share has increased every season, from 16.05% in 2014 all the way up to 21.03% last season. It is accurate to say that Chiefs coach Andy Reid has never had so much love for a tight end in his time as a head coach. Prior to the 2014 season, the highest market share a Reid tight end saw was 18.98% in 2009 (Brent Celek in Philadelphia).
Kelce is also coming off his best season as a red zone weapon. Only two tight ends were targeted more times inside the 20 than Kelce, who saw a career-high 20 targets. He converted five of these into touchdowns.
The 28-year-old can also point to his durability as an advantage over Gronkowski. Kelce hasn't missed a game due to injury since 2014, with his only absence being when he was rested in Week 17 of last season. The last time Gronk played a full 16-game season was in 2011.
With many expecting the Chiefs to struggle on defense this season (26th defensively in our power rankings), the expectation is that second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes will be expected to throw the ball more than the Chiefs would probably like. That is also great news for fantasy owners, as opportunity drives fantasy production. As noted, Kelce did experience a drop in his per-play numbers last season, however, his opportunities saw an increase, with his target share rising from 20.28% to 21.03%.
Plus, if last season is any indication, Kelce will have eight games against teams that were in the top 12 in terms of fantasy points allowed to tight ends in 2017. This includes four total matchups against the Denver Broncos (eighth-most) and the Oakland Raiders (sixth-most).
Barriers to Success
This is not the same Chiefs offense as the one that Kelce has dominated in for the last two seasons. For starters, Mahomes is in at quarterback, with Alex Smith now with the Washington Redskins. Kelce didn't play in Mahomes' only NFL action, when he started a meaningless Week 17 game this season. We don't yet know if Mahomes can recreate the chemistry that Kelce and Smith enjoyed.
At the helm, Smith posted an adjusted yards per attempt (AYA) of 9.70 when targeting Kelce. He had a more productive relationship with just one player, Tyreek Hill (9.99 AYA).
Hill and his new teammate Sammy Watkins are further reason to be concerned about Kelce in the upcoming season. For the first time in the Alex Smith era, the Chiefs enjoyed great success throwing downfield in 2017. With Hill boasting a 40-yard dash time of 4.34, and Watkins no slouch himself (4.43), the Chiefs may look to become a more vertical offense than they have been at any time during Reid's tenure as head coach.
They certainly have a quarterback capable of slinging deep; Mahomes' arm was clocked at a 60 mile-per-hour velocity at the Scouting Combine last season. Plus, in his final season in college, Mahomes averaged a very respectable 9.2 adjusted yards per attempt. One potential pitfall is that he may pass up the relatively easier option of Kelce underneath as he looks to go deep to Hill or Watkins.
But this is conjecture. Andy Reid has shown himself to be a creative offensive coach, and not one to merely throw away what has worked for him just to fit in a new gadget. It took Reid a while to work out how best to utilize Kelce, and I would be stunned if he marginalized a player who has been so productive for him over the last two seasons.
While the unknowns surrounding the Chiefs' offense should give us pause for thought, they should not discount the factors working in favor of Kelce's pursuit of history.
We saw that Hill can be explosive last season (all of his touchdowns came from 30 yards or further), while Watkins offers the same temptation heading into 2018. But that explosive, long-ball efficiency isn't always repeatable. And it's a risky proposition for a young quarterback.
Kelce has proven himself to be a durable, reliable and efficient part of the Chiefs' passing game. His type of production, unlike relying on splash play after splash play, is the type that travels from season to season and game to game.
Assuming Kelce maintains his health, expect him to compete for the TE1 spot yet again.