Travis Kelce is an elite tight end.
You may not have noticed, because he only finished eighth among tight ends in Fantasy scoring last season and ninth in 2014. In fact, given the fact that he went 82nd overall in our first mock draft this week, you probably haven't noticed.
That's fine. I don't blame you.
Delanie Walker had better numbers last season. So did Gary Barnidge. Tyler Eifert too. And Coby Fleener and Ladarius Green are big-time breakout candidates in great offenses. It's easy to get excited about a number of tight ends this season, and Kelce sort of gets lost in the shuffle after a pair of good, but not-great seasons to open his career.
However, the last four words in that sentence are exactly why Kelce is an elite tight end: "to open his career." Tight ends just don't contribute much early in their careers. Over the past five seasons, only one tight end managed to record more than 500 yards in each of his first three seasons in the league, and only eight did it twice.
And only two tight ends have record 850-plus yards in their first two NFL seasons. Not in the last five years, mind you. Ever. Mike Ditka, in 1961 and 1962. And Kelce.
Technically, Kelce didn't record a stat in his first season in the league and did not play an offensive snap after suffering a knee injury, so it's fair to consider 2014 his rookie season. And if you do, it was one of the best ever for a tight end. That he followed up his 67-862-5 campaign with 72-875-5 is pretty disappointing, but it also puts him in rare company. Given how tough it tends to be for tight ends to make an impact early in their careers, you can forgive Kelce for not taking too big a step forward in his second season. The bar was already set so high.
Especially because the big jump could come this season. Kelce is undoubtedly on the shortlist for most talented tight ends in the NFL, and currently ranks fourth among tight ends in receiving yards over the last two seasons. He also ranks sixth in receptions in that span. And yet, 10 tight ends have more touchdowns than Kelce in that time, seven of whom have hauled in fewer receptions. But touchdowns might not be the best metric to judge players by moving forward.
The best example of this might be the Bengals' Tyler Eifert, who broke out as an apparent superstar last season. Eifert finished sixth among tight ends in Fantasy scoring last season, 31 points ahead of Kelce, on the strength of his 13 touchdowns in 13 games. However, the last time we saw Eifert, he had just two touchdowns in 15 games as a rookie, on 39 catches. He scored roughly once every 20 receptions as a rookie, compared to once every four in 2015.
Maybe Eifert figured out some trick to getting into the end zone more, but this was probably some combination of playing in an improved offense and just getting lucky that so many of his targets came in the red zone. Eifert probably didn't develop a special skill to get into the end zone. Similarly, nothing about Kelce suggests he won't be able to get into the end zone more moving forward.
Of course, Alex Smith is his quarterback, which hurts his chances, to be sure. However, in 2014, Smith threw nine touchdowns to tight ends; four of them happened to go to Anthony Fasano. Last season, the Chiefs leaned on Jeremy Maclin a lot more, and he came down with a team-high eight receiving touchdowns, with Kelce coming in three behind him and nobody else finishing with more than two.
Smith just doesn't throw for many touchdowns, which limits Kelce's chances, however we're not asking for much to catapult him into the realm of the elite. Entering his physical prime in his age-27 season, with two full seasons under his belt, Kelce should only improve on his already strong play this season. If he can add 2-3 touchdowns, you're already getting close to elite.
In any other offense, Kelce's skill set would make it easy to pencil in 80 catches, 1,000 yards and eight-plus touchdowns. It would be tough to get him there in Kansas City, but it wouldn't take too much. In 2013, Smith threw the ball 33.9 times per game, four more than last season. If the defense, which ranked third in scoring last season, takes a small step back, the Chiefs might have to dial up their pass volume, which might be all Kelce needs to take that step forward.
Given his reasonable draft cost, Kelce is the tight end to target in the middle rounds on Draft Day. If just a few things break right, he could be the second-best tight end in Fantasy. His upside really is that high.