The Kansas City Chiefs moved up 13 spots in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL draft, swapping picks with the New York Jets in order to select Duke TE Noah Gray at pick No. 162.
Gray marks the first tight end drafted by the Chiefs since TE James O’Shaughnessy was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL draft. Generally speaking, the team hasn’t had a lot of success finding players at the tight end position behind Travis Kelce. Demetrius Harris, James O’Shaugnessy, plenty of free-agent signings and few have offered a long-term depth solution.
Part of what made Gray an appealing option to the Chiefs — one worthy of trading up for — is because they believe he can be that player. They feel that he has the skill set to do some of the things that Kelce does in the receiving game.
“We as a staff weren’t sure that the tight end class was super deep,” Veach said. “Certainly everyone had Pitts there at the top of the board. I think that there was talent, though, throughout the draft. These guys were a little bit more — some guys were primarily blockers and some guys had a receiving skill set. Early on, we took a liking to Noah Gray and just saw him as a really unique inside slot receiver, H-Back, fullback. He’s a little undersized for being an in-line player, but it’s so hard to replace Travis (Kelce) when he’s not in the game because he has such a unique skill set. Noah has a similar— again you don’t want to compare anyone to Travis Kelce— but Noah has a unique skill set as a slot, bigger tight end, receiver.”
Despite a career year in 2020, Kelce played his fewest snaps in a season since 2017. He’s getting some wear and tear after years of being a workhorse in the offense. When Kelce’s not on the field, the Chiefs found they didn’t have a suitable replacement for him given what he brings to the receiving game.
Enter, Noah Gray.
Area scout David Hinson called Gray a “kind of a hybrid receiver-tight end.” Gray obviously doesn’t have the same size as Kelce and won’t be blocking in-line, but as a receiver, Hinson says he, “knows how to set defenders up and create separation.” That’s something that Kelce does very well, perhaps better than any other tight end in the game.
So once they identified Gray as a player they wanted, how exactly did the trade and move up come together for Kansas City? According to Veach, the Chiefs began targeting Gray as soon as they welcomed fourth-round pick Joshua Kaindoh to the team.
“Looking at the board and kind of working through that,” Veach said. “Josh Kaindoh was a guy we were interested in and once we fulfilled that kind of need there at defensive end with Josh, we quickly looked at the board and we knew that we wouldn’t be able to get up all that high. So once we got into that range where we felt we could do a flopping of picks that would get us up, we were going to be aggressive. So we just had to wait. So we were literally waiting for 15, 20, 25 picks to go by. We had two different deals in place, we actually had the Jets, at first they weren’t committing to the move. I think there was a team behind them that said they would commit to the move. We had just said that if our guy was still on the board, we’d be interested. Once the Jets got on the clock, they called us back and said that they would be interested.”
Veach was willing to trade up for Gray, but he also made it clear that it was only to a certain extent. The team wasn’t interested in surrendering a pick to ensure that they could move up and get Gray. Ultimately, they wanted to have that sixth-round pick to see what type of value was available. That was the right call, seeing as they were able to land a player considered to be a steal in Trey Smith.
“But we were really identifying that trade about 20 picks ahead,” Veach explained. “We were just waiting, we couldn’t get into that range because we didn’t want to surrender a pick. We could have moved up even higher by just surrendering a flat pick, but we wanted to work in volume and we identified a few teams that were willing to swap picks. And we were OK with shifting down later and allowing a team to come up higher later if we could move up a little in that fifth.”
Only time will tell if Gray can live up to the expectations of the front office staff, but he’s someone that they specifically targeted because of his skill set. They put a lot of work in to ensure that they got a shot to work with and develop him behind Kelce, an opportunity that Gray himself relishes.
“That was a guy, again as soon as we selected Josh Kaindoh, we had our eyes locked on,” Veach concluded. “We called Josh and we welcomed him to the Kingdom and as soon as we got off the phone we were back in the draft room, on the phone, calling every team to see how we could flop picks with them to get back up there and get Noah.”