Does Travis Kelce Offer More Fantasy Football Upside Than Jimmy Graham?

Will we see a changing of the guard at the top of the tight end position for fantasy football in 2015?

Fantasy football is a game of compromises.

Sometimes it means trading away a solid backup running back to fill a hole that's been eating away at your WR3 spot. Other times it means dropping that sleeper you've been holding onto all season in order to field a full roster on a bye-heavy week.

And during fantasy football drafts, that compromise is often paid in draft capital, with the cost of acquiring a player with the potential to finish at the top of their position usually coming at a hefty price.

But sometimes you run into a situation where the fantasy football market has yet to catch up to the intrinsic value and potential of an undervalued player. And it's these diamonds in the rough who provide the perfect mix of risk and reward to put managers in a position to rise to the top of their leagues.

As we'll soon see, with upside that arguably surpasses that of now-Seattle Seahawk Jimmy Graham and a draft day value of a 5th Round pick, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce may be that rare instance in fantasy football where a compromise doesn't have to be struck and where you can have your cake and eat it too.

A Dead-Even 2014?

Kelce put up quite a respectable performance for a tight end last season, finishing sixth at his position in both receptions and yards. In this regard, his 862 yards through the air actually had him finish just behind Jimmy Graham's 889 yards.

Travis Kelce20141667878625
Jimmy Graham2014168512488910

These numbers are even more impressive when you consider that they essentially came during Kelce's "rookie" season (he missed all of 2013 due to injury) and on a strict snap count at that.

Indeed, Kelce's redshirt first year numbers not only exceeded those put up by Rob Gronkowski during his rookie season, but also more than doubled nearly every mark set by Graham in his first season in the league as well.

T. Kelce20141667878625
R. Gronkowski201016425954610
J. Graham20101531443565

Beyond Kelce nearly matching Graham in the receiving yards department -- according to our advanced Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- the actual value Kelce added to his offense last season nearly matched Graham's contributions to his team as well.

For those unfamiliar, NEP is our in-house metric that measures a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. A positive NEP means a player improved his team's scoring opportunity, and as you might expect, a negative score means the opposite.

And in this respect, while for the season Graham and Kelce put up nearly identical Reception NEP numbers to each other -- with Graham's 73.6 mark just edging out Kelce's 72.3 -- Kelce's contributions to his team's passing offense came on far fewer targets.

Indeed, his 0.83 Reception NEP per target ranked him fifth last year among all tight ends with at least 30 targets, placing him right below Rob Gronkowski's 0.86 figure. In contrast, Graham's 0.59 Reception NEP per target had him finish 25th in the league in this metric.

From all this it's obvious that while Graham's production was heavily reliant on the volume of work he got with the Saints, Kelce's stellar numbers were in large part due to his efficiency in the passing game.

And as we'll soon see, with both these players' situations changing drastically for the upcoming season, this disparity in the manner by which these two amassed their end-of-year numbers has huge implications for their outlooks in 2015.

Diverging Values in 2015

Though Graham and Kelce had similar end-of-season numbers to one another -- with Graham topping Kelce in receptions, yards, and touchdowns -- as we'll soon discuss the trajectories for these two tight ends are clearly headed in opposite directions.

While Graham might be hard-pressed to repeat the type of production he had in New Orleans with the Seahawks, all signs point to Kelce's 2014 numbers being his floor for 2015.

Despite his team leading numbers in the passing game last season, Kelce's 668 offensive snaps at tight end actually ranked him second behind Anthony Fasano's 671. Kelce admitted this offseason that this limited workload was all part of the plan to help ease him into the offense as he continued to rehab from microfracture surgery that cost him his entire rookie year. On that note, Kelce wasn't even cleared to resume running until a month before training camp last year.

In a recent interview Kelce revealed that he wasn't playing at 100% last season. "I didn't really feel that comfortable out there on the field but we made it work," he said. “My knee still wasn’t full strength last year which is why I’m excited about this year."

Kelce is optimistic about 2015, however. "Now I get the time to take a full offseason, get my legs ready, get my upper body and my explosiveness back that I know I had."

This confidence in Kelce to carry the load can also be seen by the front office through their recent personnel moves this offseason. With Anthony Fasano's release, the expectation now is that Kelce will be the "every-down" starter at tight end. In this regard, Kelce has also increased his weight to 255 pounds in an effort to improve his blocking for the upcoming season.

When taken together with his already efficient play in the passing game, this projected increase in playing time and full health suggests that Kelce is in a strong position to make the same "second-year" leap that Graham and Gronkowski enjoyed in their sophomore seasons.

Nicknamed "Zeus" in part due to his dominating presence on the field, a look at his Pro Day numbers suggests Kelce has the athletic and physical capabilities to impose his will on opposing defenses the same way Graham and Gronkowski have the past few years.

YearNameHghtWghtArmsHands40 ydVertBroad3Cone20 ss
2013Kelce6' 5"25533¼"9⅝"4.6135"124"7.094.42
2010Graham6' 6"26035"10⅝"4.5338½"120"6.94.45
2010Gronkowski6' 6"25834¼"10¾"4.6833½"119"7.184.47

Just like these two Pro Bowl tight ends, his large frame and impressive catch-radius alongside his freakish speed for his size creates mismatches that are a nightmare for opposing teams to defend against and is something quarterback Alex Smith is likely to exploit next season.

If you're a tight end in the NFL, it doesn't get much better than having Alex Smith as your quarterback.

That's because over his career Smith has demonstrated a strong preference for his tight ends in the passing game. Indeed, when Smith was the signal caller back in San Francisco, Vernon Davis finished as a top-three tight end in fantasy twice.

And last season with the Chiefs, Smith targeted Kelce 87 times, which was second only to now-Cleveland Brown Dwayne Bowe. On this note, Smith's 129 targets to the tight end position actually accounted for nearly one-third of his 462 pass attempts.

This reliance on the tight end was actually best demonstrated by the fact that, again, despite his limited playing time, Kelce still led the Chiefs in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.

In contrast to this arrow pointing straight up for Kelce, as our Editor-in-Chief JJ Zachariason explored this past offseason, Graham's value has taken multiple hits due to the offseason trade that sent him packing to Seattle.

As JJ has noted, the Seahawks have never passed the ball more than they've run in the Russell Wilson era and own the lowest pass-to-run ratio (0.89) over the past three seasons. To make matters worse, while Drew Brees targeted Graham a team-leading 125 times last season, Wilson targeted the entire tight end position a total of 71 times, good for just 15% of the team's total targets.

Many will argue that the Seahawks didn't acquire the Saints Pro Bowl tight end not to use him. But as they say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The Seahawks have risen to the top of the NFC on the strength of their running game and a conservative gameplan that has not traditionally looked to the tight end position.

It's likely that Graham's acquisition was more so a move to address their need for a playmaker in the red zone -- a deficit that likely cost the Seahawks a second-consecutive Super Bowl title -- than it was a sign that the Seahawks plan to overhaul their offensive game plan. Head coach Pete Carroll has always looked to fit players into his system, not vice-versa, as evidenced by his usage (or lack thereof) of wideout Percy Harvin.

All this taken together suggests that those thinking Graham will see the same workload and volume of targets in Seattle that he saw in New Orleans may need to temper their expectations.


Perennially-ranked near or at the top of his position every season, Jimmy Graham no longer owns an undisputed claim as a top-two tight end in fantasy football thanks to his change of scenery in Seattle and the immense upside provided by Travis Kelce.

And with Kelce going off the board a full two rounds later than Graham, the potential return on investment from the Chiefs tight end this season may warrant fantasy football managers decisions to pass on the former-Saints All Pro tight end in favor of the rising star in Kansas City.