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Travis Kelce And The One Year Wonder Falacy

Few people in the upcoming NFL draft have seen their stock rise as quickly as Travis Kelce has. Back in September no one had TK as anything other than a remote draft possibility. He existed on the very fringe of draft-ability. Fast forward four months and Kelce is considered a third round talent, at worst, by the prognosticators, some have him as a first rounder. Any time a consensus gathers on something; a movie, an album, a draft pick a backlash builds. For Kelce the backlash is simple, he is a one year wonder, and the stats scream it.


Travis Kelce Career Production

Catches Yards YPC TD
2009-11 14 153 10.9 2
2012 45 722 16.1 8

That is the basic story. A guy who never did much of anything in his first three years explodes for a monster Senior season capped with a dominating performance in the Belk Bowl. Traditional scouting wisdom says that guys with stat lines like that usually bust in the NFL. But there is good reason to think that Travis Kelce can fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

As fun as it may be to play the contrarian, context matters. For Kelce it is that he had a promising start to his career way back in 2009 as occasional Wildcat QB and tight end during his red shirt freshman year. That start was derailed when TK was suspended for the duration of the 2010 season for the ubiquitous violation of team rules. When he came back in 2011 he found himself splitting reps, though not the starting position*, with Adrien Robinson. He did break out in 2012, but that has more to do with the evolution of Mike Bajakian and his offense than with Kelce magically discovering that he is bigger, faster and more physical than everyone he played.

* That's why every reference to Kelce being "a first year starter" elicits a facepalm from me. Its not 1940 and this is not ironman football. The "starter" designation is essentially meaningless at every position save quarterback, along the offensive line and occasionally at running back.

With the benefit of hindsight one of the most interesting subjects of the Mike Bajakian era will be his failure in 2011 to use his two titanically talented tight ends as much more than sledgehammers in the running game. That season Robinson and Kelce were targeted 30 times, caught 25 balls for 333 yards* and 5 TD's. For comparison's sake Kenbrell Thompkins was targeted 75 times, D.J. Woods 81 and Anthony McClung 91 times. I am struggling to come up with an analogy for how big a missed opportunity that was. Whatever the analogy, it was a big one.

Jones, and most of the staff were steeped in the Rich Rodriguez offense at it peak, which used lots and lots of running backs and receivers and usually no tight ends at all. When Jones took the head coaching job at Central Michigan one of his first calls was to Mike Bajakian then a receivers coach for the Chicago Bears, a team and an offense remarkably resistant to the strain of tight end fever that was then only just starting to spread through the league.

When Bajakian took on the play calling duties in Mount Pleasant it was not all that surprising that the Tight End did not have a big role in his offense. In fact the only tight end to catch a pass during his first season as a play caller was a young freshman from Wisconsin named J.J. Watt, who caught all of 8 passes. After that season Watt left Central Michigan and the tight end position was never a big part of his offense. Flash forward two years and the same guy who had no use for tight ends other than as blockers has two NFL tight ends fall right into his lap, and Bajakian had no idea what to do with them. Though I suppose that isn't entirely right either.

Bajakian might have had an idea how to utilize them, but his quarterback wasn't the ideal player to do that. Kelce and Robinson are big, mobile threats in the vertical passing game perfectly suited to exploit the inherent holes in any zone scheme (save cover 4), the middle of the field between the hashes. Attacking that area of the field usually results in a mismatch, either because of size versus a safety, or athletic ability against most linebackers. Robinson and Kelce were both capible of exploiting those match ups, but the size of Zach Collaros prevented UC from consistently using the middle of the field in the passing game. That is a theme that has been hit time and again in this space so I will let it lay. Suffice to say that another QB would have been better at using the mismatches that Robinson and Kelce produced.

Its not a real stretch to say that either. Because Kelce put up those huge numbers this year, single season highs for a tight end in receptions, yards and TD's. He was the first TE to lead UC in those three categories ever. That happened despite Munchie Legaux and his scatter shot arm starting 8 contests. Kelce really dedicated himself in the off season to make his senior season a great one. The ability for him to turn in the kind of season he produced was always there, but he had to commit to making it happen, which he did, in spades. Mike Bajakian had to find a way to exploit the mismatches Kelce produced. More accurately he had to learn how to utilize the tight end again after five years of forgetting the position existed.

It is factually correct to say that Travis Kelce only has one big year of production. But it is just as correct to say that the reason that he only had one year of production come down to factors beyond his control; an offensive coordinator who struggled to find ways to utilize him; a quarterback who couldn't effectively attack the area of the field where was most effective. Both of those changed dramatically in 2012 and Kelce had a big year, why should that be held against him?