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Pumping the Brakes on Travis Kelce

TravisKelce

From time to time, we here at RotoViz enjoy playing the contrarian. Whether it’s Kelvin Benjamin, rookie draft picks, or the Dallas running back situation, nothing is safe from our desire to poke holes in the consensus and see if value comes pouring out. Hell, we even have an established ombudsman that flies under the banner of George Costanza…that’s how serious we are about taking a second look at things other people are taking for granted.

Which brings me to Travis Kelce. One of the offseason’s biggest darlings, Kelce has seen his stock take off over the last few months. The departure of tight end Anthony Fasano, combined with Kelce’s continued recovery from 2013 micro-fracture surgery have fueled a narrative that’s ready to break out as a bona fide superstar. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising since many have long wondered if Kelce is the next Rob Gronkowski.

Fantasy players have definitely taken notice, as Kelce’s ADP has similarly climbed as of late:

Kelce ADP

 

Looking at the latest MFL10 ADP data we can see that he is now firmly entrenched as the TE3; on average he’s going 12 picks ahead of Greg Olsen and 27 picks ahead of Julius Thomas.1

The narrative that Kelce is due for a big-time breakout makes sense. He’s an incredibly efficient athletic specimen, and is presumably in line for an increase in usage. However, upon closer examination and with the help of the Fantasy Efficiency App, we can see some cracks in that narrative.

In general, there are a number of reasons why a pass-catcher might break out. Some of the major ones might be a new quarterback or offensive scheme, an increased workload, and increased efficiency. Let’s examine all three with regard to Kelce.

New QB/Offensive System

Let’s start here since it involves the least guesswork: Alex Smith and Andy Reid aren’t going anywhere.

And that’s a problem when you’re talking about Kansas City pass-catchers. Smith is the ultimate ball-control QB, generally lauded for his ability to win and inspire hope for mediocre QB prospects everywhere, but hardly the engine for fantasy greatness. He’s finished 17th in the NFL in Adjusted Net Yard per Attempt for the last two seasons, actually improving his ANY/A in 2014 to a gaudy 6.14 that put him just behind Drew Stanton and Mark Sanchez and just ahead of Brian Hoyer.

Meanwhile, perhaps not so coincidentally, in Reid’s two seasons in KC the Chiefs have finished 24th and 28th in total passing attempts.

Remember that horrible, piercing scream you heard on March 9? That was the collective shriek of Jeremy Maclin owners, who by now are no doubt somewhere between stages two and three in the five stages of grieving.

Sure, TE and wider receiver are different positions, but bottom line: the Chiefs have a low-volume and risk-averse passing attack, and if you’re writing epitaphs for Maclin’s value but barely containing your unbridled enthusiasm for Kelce, there’s some cognitive dissonance going on there that you should probably examine.

Increased Workload

The quickest and most effective way Kelce could break out is through an increased workload. And at first glance it seems like there is plenty of room for growth; Kelce had only 87 targets in 2014, good for 15th among TEs. However, as we just saw above, he’s in an offense in which raw volume is very hard to come by.

Since the pie is so small, Kelce’s breakout will depend largely on him conquering a much greater percentage of that pie. The problem with that is there’s less room for growth; His target market share of 17.9 percent was in the top ten among TEs in 2014 and better than Antonio Gates’ among others.

The absence of Anthony Fasano will certainly help, but could be partially offset by the addition of Maclin, easily the best WR that Kelce has shared the ball with and a player to whom the Chiefs just signed to an $11 million per year contract. And for what it’s worth,2 most draftniks still project the Chiefs taking a WR in the first three rounds, which could make Kelce’s road to target market share dominance that much bumpier.

So to sum up: Kelce is in a situation where we know he won’t be seeing lots of raw volume, and it’s not clear that he’ll be able to dominate the relatively low amount of targets that will be distributed.

Ultimately I’m expecting an increased workload for Kelce in 2015, just not a dramatically increased workload. Something in the 110 range seems fairly likely in terms of targets, which is good but certainly not great.

Increased Efficiency

A common way that any player can break out is with a sharp uptick in efficiency. The problem for Kelce is that there doesn’t appear to be anywhere for him to go.

Turning to the Fantasy Efficiency App, we can see that Kelce recorded an reFPOEPT of 0.53 in 2014. That means that he exceeded expectation by over half a point per target. Hopefully I don’t have to explain how insane that is, but what the hell, I’ll do it anyway:

In 2014, Kelce was more efficient on a per target basis than Rob Gronkowski.

In 2014, Kelce was more than twice as efficient on a per target basis as Jimmy Graham.

If you’re staunchly pro-Kelce and harbor dreams that he might finish 2015 as the TE1, this is your siren song.

But I look at that and ask: Do we think he’s going to be MORE efficient in 2015? Even maintaining an reFPOEPT above 0.5 with a presumably increased workload would be a tremendous feat that I would put into the realm of “possible” but not “likely.”

To me, the smart money is on that efficiency regressing some, which in turn could offset whatever progress he makes in terms of usage.

Conclusion

In a vacuum, there’s plenty to be excited about with Travis Kelce. Let’s say I’m wrong to doubt his efficiency and he maintains an reFPOEPT of 0.53 while adding an additional 25 targets. In that scenario he’s going to have a VERY nice year.  But even then, he’d be putting up Gronk-level efficiency while only seeing about 75 percent of Gronk’s usage. In other words, if Kelce is the next Gronk it’s going to be hard to tell, because it seems pretty clear that he won’t be getting Gronk’s workload anytime soon.3

KC has a restrictor plate on Kelce’s ceiling. The problem from my perspective is that his ADP is right up against that ceiling. It’s easy to see him finishing as TE3, but a lot harder to see him significantly outperforming his ADP.  Meanwhile, another flashy but ultimately middling season in the TE5 range is on the table, and I’m not seeing any of that downside priced in.

I actually like Kelce quite a bit as a player, but thinking purely in terms of value I’m happy to sit tight and grab Greg Olsen a full round later.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

  1. Based on MFL10 ADP data from 3/25/15 to 4/8/15.  (back)
  2. Potentially very little.  (back)
  3. To say nothing of the difference between Tom Brady and Alex Smith.  (back)

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