Noah Gray’s first start could not have been set up much better. But, how would he fill the All-Pro-sized shoes of Travis Kelce?
On game day, there was much speculation about Kelce rejoining the team. The NFL had changed some health protocols in response to several players being out on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Alas, Kelce did not clear protocols and remained out of action.
Game time came, and saying it was smooth sailing was an understatement. The Chiefs easily defeated the Steelers, led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, wide receiver Byron Pringle, and running back Derrick Gore. Gore had an extremely productive game, leading the Chiefs in yards from scrimmage in only 19 offensive snaps. Pringle, a former undrafted free agent from Kansas State, led all receivers with six catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Mahomes did Mahomes things, throwing for 258 yards and three scores. He ended the game with a 135.1 quarterback rating, according to Pro Football Reference.
Notice how Gray was not on that list?
It was not a productive game for Gray, certainly not one that some fantasy owners were hoping for. He recorded two catches for 12 yards from two targets. This was his first NFL game that he recorded more than one catch, but there is a more important stat. Gray saw 50 offensive snaps, good for 72% of the Chiefs’ offensive plays. That doubled Bell’s snap count, despite Bell’s primary run-blocking role for the Chiefs. That alone shows the coaching staff’s confidence and trust in Gray filling in for Kelce.
Gray seeing the field so much gave fans something to look forward to regarding his future. He ran a crisp pivot route on his first catch of the day, getting clear separation in a one-on-one matchup.
That catch by Gray led to the Chief’s first touchdown in the game, an angry run by running back Clyde Edwards-Heilare. On the Chief’s third drive, Gray recorded his second catch. While it was just a five-yard reception, that catch kept the chains moving on a drive where debuting kicker Elliot Fry later made it a 17-0 ballgame. His two receptions were important plays that led to early scores for Kansas City. Gray was continually an option in the passing game, albeit not a targeted one.
All in all, Gray was often near the ball or running crisp routes much like Kelce. Notably, he was an open option in a first half thrid down situation. Ultimately, Mahomes targeted wide receiver Josh Gordon did not make the catch. But, watching Gray stay near the first down marker and a clear check-down option for Mahomes shows Gray’s on-field awareness.
Lastly, Gray had a key pancake block on a screen play with wide receiver Mecole Hardman. Even though Hardman goes around Gray’s block, Gray completely negates the defender while Hardman was able to pick up the first down. This was a block fans are used to seeing from rookie right guard Trey Smith, but Gray did his best impersonation.
Gray’s starting debut did not look great in the box score, sure. But, he did do great at things Kansas City expects from its tight ends: solid blocking, crisp routes, and always being an option. While Kelce is hopefully back next week against the Cincinnati Bengals, this performance may have elevated Gray to TE2 for the remainder of the season. At the very least, he proved capable and did not fold under the starting pressure. Fans should eagerly watch his growth, during this season and beyond.