The Kansas City Chiefs could be without tight end Travis Kelce for Thursday’s season opener against the Detroit Lions.
Coach Andy Reid announced Tuesday that Kelce hyperextended his knee in practice, though he said the severity of the injury wasn’t known yet.
If Kelce is unavailable, it potentially opens an opportunity for a few Chiefs to step into more prominent roles.
Here are three that might have a bigger impact should Kelce be sidelined.
Receiver Rashee Rice
Last week, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said Rice would start out as a “package” player on offense, meaning his snaps might be limited, but KC coaches would attempt to play to his strengths when he did get in.
What’s interesting, though, is that Rice’s preseason usage suggests he could serve a half-tight-end-type role for the Chiefs when he does get out there.
Rice, at 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, is a physical player. The Chiefs seemed eager to have him utilize this skill set in each of their last two preseason games.
For instance, against the Arizona Cardinals in Game 2, KC had Rice serve as a blocker on an edge rusher during a pass when they moved the pocket (as highlighted in our KC Star Details video).
Then, in the third game against the Cleveland Browns, the Chiefs lined up Rice in a tight split when he helped with two critical blocks on a La’Mical Perine 30-yard run.
Interestingly, the Chiefs were somewhat ahead of the NFL last season while increasing their usage of multiple tight-end sets. One could even surmise that a team like the Buffalo Bills — by drafting tight end Dalton Kincaid in the first round — might be attempting to mimic what the Chiefs did a season ago.
KC’s coaches this season, however, might be looking into getting tight-end production from some of the seven receivers they kept on the active roster.
One of those guys is Rice, who certainly could have an increased role if Kelce is out.
And there’s another player who could fall into that category as well.
Receiver Justyn Ross
If Rice is the “receiver-who-blocks-like-a-tight-end” guy, then Rice potentially fits the “receiver-who’s-a-red-zone-weapon.”
Veach mentioned last week that Ross’ role could be similar to previous tight end Jody Fortson regarding a close-quarters threat. Ross, at 6-4, is a jump-ball specialist, and his route-running ability also gives him a chance at success near the end zone.
It still was appropriate to wonder whether Ross would be active on gameday for Thursday’s game against the Lions. The Chiefs likely will have trouble utilizing all seven of their healthy receivers, and Ross isn’t a special teams standout like some of his teammates are.
Perhaps the Kelce news changes that, though. The Chiefs will need all the scoring targets they can get if their star tight end doesn’t play, and Ross appears to be the most capable on the roster to help fill that role.
KC could also promote tight end Matt Bushman from the practice squad for an additional tight end. But adding half-tight ends in Rice and Ross might be a more effective play while looking to maximize what each does best.
Tight end Noah Gray
This is somewhat obvious, but it’s worth mentioning all the same.
Tight end Noah Gray becoming TE1 would give him more opportunities. And though he’s not Kelce — and admitted in training camp he’s not trying to be him — a Kelce injury could allow the Chiefs to see whether Gray is ready for a more significant passing-game role.
Just over a month ago — on Aug. 4 — Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said Gray was “having a really good camp.” And the third-year Gray already took on more duties a season ago, going from seven catches for 36 yards in his rookie season to 28 receptions for 299 yards in Year 2.
There are underlying encouraging signs as well. Gray’s season “receiving” grade at Pro Football Focus went from 40.4 in 2021 to 63.7 in Year 2, while he also logged just one drop on his 34 targets last season.
Blake Bell and potentially Bushman could serve complementary roles if Kelce is out. If one tight end will be counted on to up his overall game and production at the position, though, it’ll be Gray, who should only be entering his prime at age 24.