Travis Kelce is beasting for the Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs are going to the playoffs for the third time in four years, and tight end Travis Kelce is going to explode onto the scene.

It’s long been true in the National Football League that when talking about the tight end position, it is Rob Gronkowski, a wide gulf, and the field. Entering Week 17, that is no longer the case.

Hidden out in Kansas City is the emergence of 27-year-old Travis Kelce, who in his fourth season has become a superstar. After missing his rookie season with microfracture knee surgery, Kelce recorded 862 and 875 yards in 2014 and 2015, respectively. This season, the Cleveland Heights native exploded, earning his second Pro Bowl berth with 84 catches, 1,117 yards and four scores.

Kelce has been absurd despite a game-manager at quarterback in Alex Smith. He has six 100-yard games this year, a record for a tight end. He has recorded two games above the century mark against the Denver Broncos this season, something no other player – at any position – did even once against the defending champs this season.

Even in the smaller details, Kelce has proven himself a quick study. Once regarded as a pass-catching tight end who couldn’t block, he has become a bulldozer on the edge. Kelce has also curtailed a fumbling issue that saw him lose the handle on six football over his first two seasons. This year, Kelce is yet to fumble once.

On Christmas night, Kelce racked up 11 catches on 12 targets for 160 yards (an all-time single-game franchise record for a tight end), including an 80-yard touchdown. In the following three plays, we look at what has made Kelce go from star to unstoppable in his fourth campaign.

Play #1

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This is Kansas City’s first offensive possession, with the score 0-0. It;s 1st and Goal from the 10-yard line. The Chiefs are in “12” personnel with both Demetrious Harris and Kelce tight left. The Broncos are in their base, 3-4 defense. Rookie safety Justin Simmons (circled) is responsible for Kelce, while Shane Ray (inside Simmons) is supposed to hold the edge against the run.

Kansas City is running the option here. If Ray crashes inside, Alex Smith keeps the ball and runs left. If Ray holds his position, Spencer Ware gets the ball.

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Here’s the play, about a half-second in. Kelce locks onto Simmons, giving Smith a lane to the outside. With Ray locking onto Ware, Smith makes the right decision to keep the ball, especially with both inside linebackers committing inside. The rest of this play depending completely on Kelce. If he whiffs the block, this run is likely dead on arrival. With a good block, the Chiefs are in the end zone.

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This is the key frame. Kelce squares his body and uses his strength to turn Simmons inside. Smith still has to get to the edge, but Kelce’s body position gives him a clear path to the end zone. Also, note the hand placement. Kelce keeps his hands inside the framework of Simmons, avoiding a holding penalty. This looks like an easy block, but it’s one that most tight ends would struggle with in space.

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The epitome of finish. Kelce’s block began at the 10-yard line and droive Simmons inside the five. Simmons was never able to even remotely shed the block, giving Smith an untouched score.

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Smith recognizes the play immediately. Touchdown.

Play #2

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This is Kansas City’s next drive, leading 7-0. It’s 1st down and 10 from its own 30-yard line. in this set, the Chiefs come out in “13” personnel, featuring a back and three tight ends. James O’Shaughnessy and Harris are tight left, with Kelce going in motion to the right side. Jeremy Maclin in the lone receiver while Tyreek Hill, a receiver masquerading as a running back, is in the backfield.

Denver is playing its base defense with Von Miller lined up over the left tackle (typically, Miller is on the right tackle). On this play, left tackle Eric Fisher must get to the second level and handle inside linebacker Todd Davis. Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif also pulls to the left, lookign to seal the inside edge.

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Kelce (arrowed) is pulling hard around the left end, looking to lock onto safety Darian Stewart. Stewart can blow the play up for no gain if he gets to Hill, who is following Kelce and Duvernay-Tardif. With the pulling guard helping O’Shaughnessy on Miller, Kelce has to wipe out the safety. The second level has been secured with an excellent block by Fisher.

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It’s not an overstatement to say this could be the block of 2016 by a tight end. Kelce de-cleats Stewart, planting him and allowing Hill a huge swatch of grass along the sideline. Here’s the play from another angle, split-second later.

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Hill raced the rest of the way, scoring a 70-yard touchdown for his 11th of the year. Kelce’s block sprung the play, another example of his maturation as an all-around tight end.

Play #3

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We’re midway through the third quarter, and it’s 21-10 Kansas City. The Chiefs are facing 2nd and 13 on their own 40-yard line. On this play, Kansas City is once again in “12” personnel with Denver playing its base defense.

Travis Kelce is in the slot, between Jeremy Maclin (inside slot) and Chris Conley (outside). The Broncos are showing man coverage with a single-high safety. Kelce’s matchup is Simmons, a youngster with potential but plenty to learn.

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Kelce is a yard off the line of scrimmage, and the play is already over for Simmons. The 260-pound tight end gives a shimmy off the line and sells an outside move. Simmons turns his hips toward the Denver sideline, and the race is on. The jerk route is Kelce’s best, and he uses agility and smarts to perfection off the jump.

The Chiefs pick up the blitz, giving Smith a lane and time to throw. Looking at the matchups, Kelce was getting the ball from the start. Conley was facing Aqib Talib and Maclin drew Chris Harris Jr., a pair of Pro Bowl corners. Maclin (circled) is relatively open, but Kelce is the big-play target here.

Here’s the next screenshot, a quarter-second later. Look at the separation as Smith throws.

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Simmons is two yards away and looking out of the end zone.

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Here’s the third element of what makes Kelce dynamic. After winning the route and catching the ball three yards downfield, he turns up. Safety Darian Stewart is screaming in to make the hit, hoping to force a third down. Kelce, who earlier took a bubble screen 80 yards, showcases his speed.

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Kelce runs right past the diving Stewart, picking up 17 yards and a first down.

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