After Rob Gronkowski, Should I Draft Travis Kelce or Jordan Reed in Fantasy Football?

Should Alex Smith's inability to throw touchdowns or injury concerns to Reed be your main concern when choosing a fantasy tight end?
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The Debate Series of the SI/4for4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit will pit two top minds in the fantasy industry against one another. They will take opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts, and make the case for their guy. In this installment, 4for4’s Chris Raybon and John Paulsen debate Jordan Reed vs. Travis Kelce.

Jordan Reed, TE, Redskins (ADP: 37.5)

Chris Raybon makes the case for Reed over Kelce...

Over the past two seasons, Jordan Reed has been the most prolific fantasy tight end on a per-game basis this side of Rob Gronkowski. With an average of 10 standard fantasy points per game, Reed trails Gronk by only 1.1 points per game for the league lead at the position since 2015. Travis Kelce is a distant sixth, two full points per game behind Reed.

Reed has been even better in PPR. No tight end—not even Gronk—has scored more PPR points per game over the past two seasons than Reed.

Concerns of a toe issue in training camp will only amplify the “don’t draft Reed because he’s an injury risk” argument, but it still falls by the wayside when considering that all of Reed’s upside can be secured while mitigating his missed-game risk by handcuffing him with Vernon Davis. Essentially free in all fantasy drafts, Davis showed he can still ball last season, posting six games with 50+ yards before re-signing for two more years guaranteed. Reed’s upside is easily worth reserving a roster spot on your team for Davis.

Perhaps nothing is more demonstrative of the upside Reed possesses than the fact that while Kelce’s six 100-yard games in 2016 were the most by a tight end in 12 years, Reed still averaged more fantasy points per game than Kelce: 8.6 to 8.5 in standard and 14.1 to 13.8 in PPR. 4for4’s TJ Hernandez published research on which statistics correlate most from one season to the next for tight ends, and you know which statistic topped the list? Fantasy points per game.

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Reed bested Kelce in per-game scoring last season despite essentially playing with a handicap. While Kelce was in on 87% of Kansas City’s offensive snaps, Reed was in on just 72% of Washington’s—meaning Reed scored 20% more fantasy points per snap than Kelce. In 2015, when Reed led all tight ends in PPR points per game (17.4), he played on only 65% of snaps. If Reed can stay healthy enough to finish games (and stop getting ejected for throwing punches), he has the potential to outscore Kelce by even more points per game in 2017.

A popular pro-Kelce argument this year will be his nine-target-per-game average in Weeks 9 to 13 last season with Jeremy Maclin out (or limited). While I think Kansas City should feed Kelce nine targets per game, I’d approach the small sample with caution, as Kansas City’s offense has never ranked higher than 20th in pass-play rate under Andy Reid. Given that Washington has averaged 71 pass attempts, 929 passing yards, and eight passing TDs more per season than Kansas City over the past two years, I believe it’s Reed—who averaged 8.7 targets per game in 2016 after his two one-target games where he left early are removed—and not Kelce, that has more volume-based upside.

And that brings us to Kelce’s biggest fantasy nemesis: Alex Smith. If Smith weren’t so inept at throwing touchdowns, we admittedly may be debating Kelce versus Gronk right now. Instead, we have 11 years of data showing us that regression to the Smith is real. A measly 23 touchdowns ranks as his career-high. For comparison, Kirk Cousins threw 29 touchdowns in 2015, and 25 touchdowns in 2016. In fact, in 17 fewer career games, Reed has caught three more touchdowns from Cousins (17) than Kelce has from Smith (14). It’s a shame considering Kelce’s extensive celebration repertoire, but essentially, Reed is twice as likely as Kelce to score a touchdown any time they step on the field.

Ultimately, we have to acknowledge the possibility that Travis Kelce’s 2016 season was more of an outlier than we might think. Since 1999, there have only been two other instances of a tight end posting six 100-yard games in the same season: Tony Gonzalez in 2000 and 2004. In 2001, Gonzalez had just one 100-yard game, while in 2005, he had none. And aside from his target binge from Weeks 9 to 13, Kelce averaged just 6.6 targets per game, in line with his average of 6.4 the season before.

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On the other hand, Reed still quietly possesses untapped upside. He has posted monstrous per-game fantasy scoring rates, but missed multiple games each season. He posted monstrous per-snap fantasy scoring rates, but missed 28%–35% of snaps.

Once Gronk is off the board, Jordan Reed—not Travis Kelce—is the highest-upside tight end in fantasy football.

Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs (ADP: 31)

John Paulsen makes the case for Kelce over Reed...

After finishing as the No. 6 tight end as a rookie and the No. 8 tight end as a sophomore in PPR formats, Travis Kelce was the top overall tight end in 2016, with 85 catches for 1,125 yards and four touchdowns on 117 targets. He has set career highs in targets, receptions and yards in each of the last two seasons, and after missing the entirety of his rookie year with a patella fracture, has played three consecutive 16-game seasons.

I believe that Kelce still has room to grow in the Chiefs offense. The franchise cut Jeremy Maclin this spring, and his 23.5% market share of targets (when active) is up for grabs. It’s a small sample, but in the six games in which Maclin was either out or extremely limited, Kelce averaged 6.0 receptions for 85 yards on 8.5 targets per game, which represents a 31% increase from his 6.5 targets per game with Maclin in the lineup. Those numbers extrapolate to a 96-catch, 1,363-yard season. Since 2000, only Tony Gonzalez (twice), Jimmy Graham and Dallas Clark have exceeded the 96-catch mark, and only Graham (1,310 yards) and Rob Gronkowski (1,327 yards) have broken the 1,300-yard mark, both in 2011.

In other words, Kelce has played at an elite level with Maclin sidelined.

The Chiefs are sure to expand the role of talented sophomore receiver Tyreek Hill, but Kelce’s role is bound to increase, as well. When asked about Kelce, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said, “I think every year you will see him probably get a little bit more here and there. Different things, like you said, he plays a lot, so it will not be play time necessarily, but just variations of the passing game. He can basically do everything a wide receiver can do. He gives you some flexibility there.”

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When asked specifically about the red zone, Reid said, “Well, he is pretty good in there. We can use him even a little bit more and just keep staying creative with it.”

This is important, because if there’s a weakness to Kelce’s resume, it’s his lack of touchdowns. He has 14 scores in the last three seasons, which is quite low for a tight end with Kelce’s skill set. He’s tied for seventh among tight ends in targets (10) inside the opponent’s 10-yard line over that span. Some of this has to do with his quarterback, Alex Smith, who ranks 23rd among all quarterbacks over the last two seasons with 41 pass attempts inside the 10-yard line. 

There is, however, reason to believe that Smith’s passing touchdowns will bounce back from the four-year low (15) that he set last season. Prior to 2016, Smith had a TD rate of 4.2% in three seasons with the Chiefs. If he regresses to this mean, he’s looking at an additional 5.5 touchdowns, assuming his passing volume remains the same. Even if he’s only able to post his career TD rate (3.8%), he should throw for an additional 3.5 touchdowns. Kelce should benefit in either case.

Kelce’s track record boasts both production and durability. Unfortunately, Jordan Reed has trouble with the durability part. Reed has suffered multiple concussions and soft tissue injuries throughout his career and is already dealing with a toe injury in camp. If Reed were guaranteed to play 14 or 15 games, this might be more of a debate. Saving that, my choice is clear.