KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Chiefs’ aerial attack experienced first-year woes in a new system last year, sputtering through the first half of the regular season averaging 208.8 yards passing per game.
While the passing game improved during the second half, an important piece of coach Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense never left the starting line.
But look for that to change as the tight ends enter a second season in the scheme.
“At this time last year I thought we were in pretty good shape at the tight end spot,” Reid said, “and then we had injuries. It’s not much different with the things that we’re doing. Some of the guys are a little bit older now and getting the hang of things.”
Considered a strength on offense heading into the 2013 regular season, the Chiefs’ tight ends finished with the worst production in Reid’s system since his former Philadelphia Eagles tight ends recorded 49 catches for 552 yards and three touchdowns in 2007.
Injuries in Kansas City played a role, as Reid pointed out. Travis Kelce, the first of two third-round draft picks in 2013, suffered a preseason knee injury before landing on injured reserve following an early October microfracture knee surgery.
The Chiefs signed Anthony Fasano to an offseason free-agent deal, but he missed six combined games with an ankle injury and a concussion. As a group, Fasano, Sean McGrath, Richard Gordon, Kevin Brock, and Dominique Jones combined for 53 catches for 541 yards and five touchdowns.
Nevertheless, there’s more reason for optimism from last season to the current organized team activities (OTAs) and beyond.
A majority of the current Chiefs coaching staff have been through the growing pains before from being on Reid’s staff in Philadelphia, including tight ends coach Tom Melvin.
Melvin, who has been with Reid since 1999, understands the learning curve for tight ends to fully grasp what is required of them within the scheme.
“First year you’re trying to figure out what you’re doing,” Melvin said. “Now we’re to the point – with the younger kids, mostly – where we’re trying to affect the defense. Now they’re figuring out how they fit in with the rest of the route concepts, with the rest of the coverage, how they can set up the defense.”
McGrath, who led the tight ends with 26 catches for 302 yards in 2013, echoed his position coach on the biggest difference a year has made in an offensive system designed for tight ends to shine.
“Having a whole year under your belt,” McGrath said, “it just gives you that much confidence to go out there and worry about what the defense is doing as opposed to what you have in that particular play, your assignment. It lets you play a lot faster. Tight ends are a big part of Andy Reid’s offense, so the more we can be involved, the better.”
The Chiefs currently have five tight ends on the roster: Fasano, Kelce, McGrath, Gordon and Demetrius Harris. With Kelce still sidelined, each player had moments to shine during the recent six OTA workouts.
Fasano, a ninth-year pro, hauled in a deep pass from quarterback Alex Smith during an 11-on-11 segment on the first day of OTAs. He appears to be 100 percent healthy, and can be the dependable receiver and blocker the system needs.
McGrath and Gordon have been consistent with their route running and receiving during team-related OTA workouts.
For his part, McGrath said lining up against a defense that produced a league-high six Pro Bowl selections doesn’t hurt the maturation process.
“There’s so much to do in this system,” McGrath said. “I’m really focused on running my routes and making everything crisp. Our defense isn’t too bad out there. It’s great to go against them every day. It makes everyone better.”
Meanwhile, Harris, who spent 14 weeks on the practice squad last season before landing on the practice squad/injured list on Dec. 15, has looked especially sharp throughout OTAs.
He started slow during the rookie minicamp, but has turned it on with an attention-grabbing athletic reception on an almost daily basis even as he adjusts to learning to play tight end while transitioning from another sport.
“He had the physical part because in basketball the muscles you use are different than in football,” Melvin said of the former 6-foot-7 power forward. “He had to kind of develop them, so now he’s physically able to compete. He has to translate that to now playing fast on the field and you’ve seen that. He’s playing with a lot of confidence because his physical ability to do it is there.”
The Chiefs are expected to be at 100 percent strength when training camp arrives, as Reid said Kelce should be available when the team reports to St. Joseph, Mo.
“He’s getting close,” Reid said. “He’s been working his tail off. He and (athletic trainer) Rick (Burkholder) have been spending a lot time together.”
Adding Kelce to the veteran presence of Fasano, steady play from McGrath and Gordon, and the emergence of Harris provides options for a passing offense looking to fire on all cylinders.
And the Chiefs should be fine picking among the tight ends, all of whom gained valuable experience from playing time or learning in a classroom environment.
“I’ve got a great group,” Melvin said. “And these guys that have been with us now, all the guys are playing fast. They know what they’re doing. It’s really fun when you get to that point because you can do a little bit more with them than we tried to do.”
Related articles on tight ends in Reid’s West Coast offense
• Signs point to TE involvement, success in Chiefs offense, via Pro Football Weekly on Jan. 29, 2013.
• Healthy tight ends the key to Chiefs offense, dated April 4, 2014.
• Understanding microfracture helps with timeline, dated April 21, 2014.