Skip to main content

Rewriting History, Travis Kelce Has New Challenges Coming in 2022

Still the NFL’s premier tight end, how does Travis Kelce adjust to a new-look offense in 2022 without Pro Bowl running mate Tyreek Hill?

NFL history says that 33-year-old tight ends aren’t supposed to be able to produce as they once did. Recounting the list of tight ends to accumulate a 1,000-yard season after blowing out that 33rd candle — just one, Pete Retzlaff in 1965 — would get you kicked out of every trivia party across the planet. However, considering the body of work that he’s put together over his career, it's worth at least entertaining the question: has history met a tight end quite like Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce?

Feb 3, 2022; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15), tight end Travis Kelce (87) and receiver Tyreek Hill (10) pose Nduring AFC practice for the Pro Bowl at Las Vegas Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Just last week, we briefly considered the Chiefs’ record-breaking roster overhaul at the wide receiver position, which leads to a natural inclination that pressure is amplified on the players that Patrick Mahomes has built a rapport with. 

Over the last four seasons, only seven players across the NFL have amassed 500 targets. Two of them, Kelce and Tyreek Hill, were joined at the hip on the same high-powered offense. Now, as Kansas City ranks No. 1 in vacated targets, one can wonder how differently the game’s best tight end could look against adjusted defensive attention in 2022-23. 

Pundits have already started considering that factors such as age will contribute to the Mahomes-to-Kelce connection not being as potent as in years prior. The seven-time Pro Bowler saw his lowest ranks since his first Pro Bowl in 2015 in metrics such as yards per route run, deep target percentage and completion percentage. One could argue this is an unfair assessment, not only given the injuries Kelce gritted teeth and played through, but also in both how off-schedule the entire roster appeared, and how on-point he was when it truly mattered come postseason time.

Jan 2, 2022; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Putting a few of those anecdotes together, dots can be connected, sure. Kelce ranks No. 1 in the NFL since 2018-19 with 96 receptions against single-coverage, per Pro Football Focus. On the contrary, from Week 6 to Week 10 last season — when nagging injuries and subsequent frustration were both noticeable and tangible — the numbers spoke for themselves: 35 routes for nine targets, two catches and just 14 yards.

Kelce's earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to injury prevention in 2022-23. Since 2015, the only games he’s missed are a pair of Week 17 matchups with minimal consequence and a positive COVID-19 test during last season’s Week 16 matchup against Pittsburgh. The “Trainer Trav” nickname is justified, even after nine surgeries and the upper body injuries he dealt with a season ago, and should be positioned to reach new history with a seventh-straight 1,000-yard campaign.

Jan 16, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) runs with the ball behind tight end Travis Kelce (87) during the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC Wild Card playoff football game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Kelce should also be due for a regression in drops, a notable, fatal flaw within the Chiefs’ offense. He had 10 drops in 134 targets in 2021-22, compared to just two on 145 targets in 2020-21.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Just as important, one can’t help but wonder both how Kelce gets impacted by the Hill trade and subsequently, how Kelce uses this to impact the rest of the Chiefs’ new wideouts.

For years, the longstanding notion has been that defenses can hope to scheme one of Hill or Kelce out of the game, but seldom both. Even AFC West foes have come to acknowledge it. (Take a wild guess at which game-breaking WR-TE combo Davante Adams mentioned at his introductory presser with the Las Vegas Raiders.) Kelce and the Chiefs’ play-callers are too talented to be denied, though defenses did show how difficult it could be when you take away a free release at the line, rolling coverages his way, or taking away the crossers.

Jan 30, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) reacts after a play against the Cincinnati Bengals during the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Watching tape from Kelce’s 2021-22 season provides tons of optimism, particularly to that second question. Even in what the sports media world calls a “down year” — Kelce was still a top-two tight end across the NFL — he still boasts a claim to be the most dangerous man on the field, even without touching the football.

Consider a few plays like this underhanded toss touchdown to Clyde Edwards-Helaire, this third-down conversion to Hill, and this Kelce touchdown grab. Let Kelce play a little hide-and-seek with his pre-snap motion and just watch as defenses helplessly show their hand as a coverage indicator. Even on a delayed release where he doesn't even touch the ball, the respect his name commands has defenders watching him, and thus it opens up opportunities for everyone in his vicinity.

The reasons experts are speculating on Byron Pringle's production in Chicago without the gravity of Kelce (and Hill) are among the same reasons why players like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Mecole Hardman should elevate in the upcoming season. Injured or not, Kelce commands a defense’s best.

Jan 30, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (17) reacts after a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals during the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Last season’s testy times were littered with examples of the Chiefs' coaching staff and talent proving they could pivot amongst uncertainties. Pringle — to use him as an example again — had the best game of his career with Kelce out and Hill not practicing. Even without their future Hall-of-Fame tight end, the makeshift Chiefs went out and put in 36 points against a once-vaunted Pittsburgh defense.

All of that presents a roundabout way of something one simple thing: the Chiefs’ body of work should grant them the benefit of the doubt and a vote of confidence that they can be as potent offensively. For Kelce particularly, there’s a case on both sides for what this year could offer. 

But in a year in which he has a chance to reach milestones that no tight end in the history of the game has done, nothing about his body of work suggests he won’t do what he’s always done with the opportunity: catch it and make a play.