The summer is here, meaning we're getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2020. However, that latter exercise isn't easy, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.
That leads me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against…” where I’ve done my due diligence in looking at players who everyone seems to think is a sure bet to become uber-productive after finding success or showing potential in past seasons.
This isn't me trying to sway you from picking these players; it's just something for you to think about and make your own decisions on players ahead of your fantasy drafts. The only thing predictable about the NFL and fantasy football is that it's often unpredictable (see Michael Thomas 2020), so do with this information what you will.
The Fantasy Case Against ...
Justin Herbert | Jalen Hurts | Zach Wilson (Dynasty) | Alvin Kamara | Darrell Henderson | Derrick Henry | Michael Carter | David Montgomery | Saquon Barkley | D’Andre Swift | Brandon Aiyuk | Ja'Marr Chase | Julio Jones | Justin Jefferson | Kenny Golladay | Kyle Pitts | Travis Kelce
I'm going to build my fantasy case against Travis Kelce as a first-round selection in drafts. Yes, it seems bananas to consider such an assessment, but it's also easy to suggest he is worth a first-rounder based on his long history of success. Building this case won't be so easy. It might be impossible, in fact; regardless, it’s time for me to do my best Perry Mason against the star tight end as a top-12 overall pick.
Kelce is coming off the best statistical season of his career, posting 105 catches on 145 targets, 1,416 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 312.8 fantasy points. It was the second-best fantasy season of all-time among tight ends behind only Rob Gronkowski, who scored 17 touchdowns and 330.9 fantasy points for the New England Patriots back in 2011.
Did You Know?
Kelce has been the top-scoring fantasy tight end in each of the last five seasons. He has averaged no fewer than 13.9 points per game in that time and has averaged more than 18 points twice. He also holds five of the top nine fantasy campaigns among tight ends. Zach Ertz (2018), Darren Waller (2020), George Kittle (2018), and Gronkowski (2017) are the lone tight ends not named Kelce among the top nine in the last five seasons.
Kelce also ranks fifth among all tight ends in combined fantasy points over the last 20 years. Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Gronkowski, and Tony Gonzalez are ahead of him in that time, but Kelce has done it in the fewest games (111). Witten and Gates played over 230 NFL games apiece, while Gonzalez played in 127, and Gronkowski has 115.
Kelce is also ranked seventh all-time in fantasy points scored by a tight end, and he could move up into fourth place if he scored more than 159 points this season.
It is difficult to find anything negative to argue against as it pertains to Kelce, who has only gotten better in the stat sheets with age. But how long can his stretch of statistical success continue? Kelce will turn 32 during this season (October), and that has been the age when many tight ends in the past have seen a drop in numbers.
In fact, Gonzalez is the lone tight end in the Super Bowl era (1966-present) to score more than 188.1 points in a single season at age 32. He put up 261.8 points for the Chiefs in 2008. Just two other tight ends, Delanie Walker (2016) and Mickey Shuler (1988) have scored more than 180 fantasy points in a single season at the age of 32.
Does this mean Kelce is guaranteed to suffer the same fate? Of course not.
Kelce just overtook Gonzalez for the most points scored by a tight end in a season at the age of 31. Gonzalez saw his point total increase (+15.6) in his age-32 season, but he has been the exception to the rule. Overall, age-32 tight ends have not produced.
Kelce is also entering his ninth season in the National Football League. In the last 30 years, just three tight ends have scored more than 200 fantasy points in their ninth year. That list includes Greg Olsen (2015), Jason Witten (2011), and Shannon Sharpe (1998). Just two others, Gates (2011) and Gonzalez (2005), have scored 180+ points.
The Chiefs' offensive coaches remain intact, with Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy returning to call the shots. Reid's offenses have benefitted from having talented tight ends on the roster, none more so than Kelce. As I mentioned earlier, he has finished first in fantasy points in each of his last five seasons. Reid has also coached other top-10 fantasy tight ends like Brent Celek, Chad Lewis, and L.J. Smith while in Philadelphia.
No one can argue that Kelce is the best tight end in all of fantasy football. But taking him in the first round could result in fantasy managers having a lesser No. 2 running back or wide receiver in their starting lineups. The argument against that is simple, and it makes a lot of sense: Kelce has been so good from a statistical perspective, he makes up for a lesser runner or wideout because he is better than every tight end in the NFL.
But will that remain the case?
In 2020, Kelce had one of the two best fantasy seasons of all time at the position. Call me a Negative Nancy, but you’d have to expect some regression, right? Also, two other tight ends were close to Kelce on a points-per-game basis. Waller averaged more than 17 fantasy points a game, and Kittle put up around 16 points in his eight games. I would expect Kelce, who averaged a bananas 20.9 a game last season, to fall a few points.
In 2019, Kelce and Kittle averaged the same number of points per game (15.9). Austin Hooper, Zach Ertz, Mark Andrews, Waller, and Evan Engram were all within 2.2 points per game of Kelce and Kittle. Based on average draft position data at Fantasy Football Calculator, Kittle, Ertz, Andrews, Waller, and Engram were all better values at the position than Kelce based on their respective draft position. If Kelce does see some regression, which we have seen in the past at his age and experience level, could players like Kittle, Andrews, Hockenson, or even Kyle Pitts be better draft values?
I'll rest my case by saying this: Kelce is going to go down as one of the best (if not the best) tight end in fantasy football history. He's shown no signs of slowing down in the stat sheets either, but at some point, it will happen. It's inevitable. If that regression does happen this season, as it's happened for many other tight ends at this stage of their careers, well, drafting Kelce with a top-12 overall pick could come with regret.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!