Travis Kelce is the league’s best tight end. Deservedly, he was the unanimous first-team AP All-Pro selection at the position in 2020. Travis Kelce also plays the position unlike any other tight end in the league. Kelce can still line up inline, block, and play like a traditional tight end. But it’s what Kelce brings outside of those responsibilities that make him one of the league’s most dangerous offensive players and potentially the biggest threat in the Super Bowl.
Throughout the season, there have been a lot of words written about the Chiefs offense and Kelce’s role in it. Before the season, his contract extension paid him as one of the top tight ends but that undersold his contributions on the field.
As a receiver, Kelce lives in the slot. Including the playoffs, Kelce has seen 110 targets this season when lined up in the slot. That’s easily the most among tight ends. Logan Thomas of the Washington Football Team was second with 82 and Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens was third with 74.
How often Kelce lines up in the slot isn’t what makes him special, it’s more about how productive he is on those targets. Kelce has 77 receptions and 1,097 yards from the slot entering the Super Bowl. His completed air yards (710) would still rank first as total yards among tight ends from the slot. His yards after the catch alone (394) would rank eighth in total yards in that group.
Of course, volume is one thing, but Kelce is doing this efficiently. He easily leads the position in Expected Points Added on targets from the slot, but he also has the highest positive play rate (percentage of plays that produce positive EPA) among highly targeted players. Below is the list of the 10 tight ends with the most slot targets in 2020. Kelce with a 64.5% positive play rate is the only tight end over 58%.
Top Tight End Targets From Slot, 2020 (including playoffs)
|Logan Thomas||Football Team||84||0.4||44.0%|
Kelce matches up better with the league’s top slot receivers rather than the league’s other tight ends. Below is where Kelce falls within the receivers with the most targets from the slot this season.
Only Cole Beasley had more EPA and Kelce was seventh in positive play rate among that group of 53 players with at least 50 targets.
It’s not just the slot. The Chiefs often line up in 3×1 sets with Kelce as the isolated receiver. Just having Kelce as a threat as the lone receiver can give the Chiefs an advantage on the trips side. In that alignment, Tyreek Hill often lines up as the inside receiver on the trips side, which can create a mismatch against a slot corner.
As the ISO receiver, Kelce presents a dilemma for the defense. Does the opposing defense dare put a linebacker, a player likely to get outrun, over Kelce? A safety? A cornerback? Though Kelce provides a bigger receiving threat than most wide receivers, defenses have still treated Kansas City’s 11 personnel as a true three-receiver set. 78% of the Chiefs’ snaps in 11 personnel came against a nickel defense (five defensive backs) while 19% came against dime (six defensive backs). Those nearly matched up with the league average from 11 personnel — 78% against nickel and 16% against dime.
There’s really no good answer for the defense, though. The Chiefs averaged 0.16 EPA per play from 11 personnel against nickel but they averaged 0.35 EPA per play against dime. The league average for both was 0.03.
Kelce plays a significant role in that with his ability to play big along with his technique to run routes that to get open against any defender. We all remember what Kelce did to Denzel Ward in the Divisional Round when the tight end was matched up against Cleveland’s top corner.
As the isolated receiver, Kelce had 44 targets, 26 receptions, and 381 yards. It’s a tool not many other teams or players have in their arsenal.
No matter where Kelce lines up, he’s a matchup nightmare. The Chiefs consistently move him around to take advantage of that skill set. Whether it’s as one of the league’s best slot receivers, isolated in those 3×1 sets, or even lined up in the backfield, Kelce is sure to make an impact in the Super Bowl.