Travis Kelce’s age, not Tyreek Hill’s absence, is the key to Kansas City’s season

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Travis Kelce’s production is the key to Kansas City’s season.

Travis Kelce’s production is the key to Kansas City’s season.
Image: Getty Images

Before I start, Travis Kelce should still be the first tight end off the board in this year’s fantasy football draft. He’s going to get an increased workload with Tyreek Hill in Miami, and Patrick Mahomes will lean on him early like you lean on that one person you know at the wedding before the alcohol loosens people up.

I’m not saying Mahomes is going to start drinking before games; I’m saying it’ll take time to build chemistry with free agent additions JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and rookie Skyy Moore. I don’t want to hear anything about Mecole Hardman either — at least not until he’s more than a theoretical good receiver.

That means there’s going to be a lot more short, quick passes to No. 87 on crucial downs and in general. And that’s kind of been the MO if you’ve watched KC since Mahomes took the reins. In fact, since the Texas Tech product became the starter, Kelce has tallied more targets (565 in 63 games) than Hill (520 targets in 60 games). Each took turns as the team’s leading receiver yardage wise, with Hill taking the honors in 2021 and 2018, and Kelce leading the team in 2019 and 2020.

Hill claimed in June that Mahomes was going to have a lot of long days without him on the field, and that might be the situation for a little bit. However clunky it is at first, I expect Kansas City will start humming because a quarterback of that caliber doesn’t regress to Jeff George with the loss of one receiver. While Mahomes will have to figure out his deep threats, his connection with Kelce is symbiotic enough to convert third downs. How far they can go with an older tight end as the No. 1 option is worth wondering though.

The prevailing logic is Kelce will have a 100-plus reception, 1,000-plus yard season now that he has Mahomes to himself. And while that’ll probably remain the case, it’s fair to ask if the Chiefs’ cornerstone will be up to the task for a full 17-game season. He’s played 15 games or more every year other than his first season when he only appeared in one game due to injury. That leads me to believe that he’ll be out there.

The issue is what version of him will be running around Arrowhead. He turns 33 in October, and this’ll be his 10th season. Rob Gronkowski was retired for a year before he played his 10th season, and he just re-retired at age… 33. I understand New England and Tom Brady didn’t do Gronk any favors as far as receiver help and usage goes, and Kelce has never looked as rigid as the other 87 did toward the latter part of his career.

That said, Kelce had his lowest yardage output in 2021 (1,125) since 2017 (1,038), and had the lowest yards per catch average (12.2) since 2015 when he posted the same number, per Pro Football Reference.

Tony Gonzalez never had more than 930 yards in a year after he turned 33, and Antonio Gates failed to surpass 872 yards after he hit that age. The most yards Jason Witten put up after reaching that watermark was 713. Shannon Sharpe stepped away from the game at age 35 following 811-, 686-, and 770-yard seasons. Jimmy Graham hasn’t been relevant since he left New Orleans, and he has only accounted for 1,020 yards total in the three years since turning 33.

Kelce currently sits at 9,006 career yards, good for sixth all time among tight ends. He’ll pass Gronk this year and could move as high as fourth on that list if he racks up more than 955 yards to leapfrog Sharpe. He already has more 1,000-yard seasons (six) than any other tight end in NFL history, and unless George Kittle and Darren Waller (two each) can put together four more All-Pro seasons, he’ll retire with the record.

I’ll probably get death threats from Kansas City fans after this piece because hopped-up Midwestern ladies love them some Travis Kelce. I can’t speak to that aspect of his game, but that fan base is very protective of the players who gave them their first Super Bowl in decades. (Thank God they can stop defending Hill.)

So, yes, draft Kelce ahead of Mark Andrews because he’s going to have a good year. Even if he doesn’t have an All-Pro first team type performance, he’ll have enough touchdowns to make it worth your money/pick.

The league is more pass-happy than ever, and when you factor in Mahomes and Andy Reid’s love of throwing the ball, all signs point to Kelce going down as the best receiving tight end ever when he calls it quits. However, he’s entering never-before-seen territory, and will have a bigger burden and garner more attention from secondaries than he’s seen since the Cheetah arrived.

So, yes, Hill leaving was a big loss, but the glaring issue is Kelce and his effectiveness. Best tight end in the NFL? Sure. Is he still great enough to help his QB get back to a Super Bowl during a transition year for the receiving corps? That I don’t know. 


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