KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- On one of his two touchdown passes during the Kansas City Chiefs' final preseason game, Patrick Mahomes could have thrown the ball to any of four tight ends -- all on the field at once on that one given play. He eventually opted for Blake Bell, resulting in a 5-yard score.
The Chiefs retained all four tight ends -- Bell, Travis Kelce, Noah Gray and Jody Fortson -- after their final cuts. They may not use them much together on the same play, but they didn't keep four to sit them on the bench either. The days of additional tight ends besides Kelce, once in vogue with the Chiefs, appear to be back.
"I'm not so sure since we've been here that we've had four guys like that," coach Andy Reid said. "They're all good football players, so we threw them out there and gave them a shot. They were all excited and looked all right."
The three tight ends other than Kelce are new to the Chiefs. Bell played for them in 2019, but left last season for the Dallas Cowboys before returning this year. Gray is a fifth-round draft pick and Fortson a former training camp and practice squad wide receiver who put on some weight, became a tight end and earned a roster spot in camp.
"We were already dangerous [at tight end] before I was activated," Fortson said. "I think we just got a little bit more dangerous, to be honest with you. I believe in my talents and obviously they do as well because I'm on the active roster now, but it gives us the opportunity to form a lot of looks and create so many mismatches.
"It's going to be fun. It's fun to be a part of it. I wish I was in the stands to see it: 'Wow, they've got four guys out there!" I'm a part of it so it's dope."
Gray is the first tight end drafted by the Chiefs since 2015. They've used him in a manner similar to Kelce in that he lined up during training camp in a variety of spots, including tight end.
The Chiefs appear deeper behind Kelce at tight end than they've been since he became the starter in 2014. General manager Brett Veach said he fielded a few calls from his counterparts with other teams asking about the availability of one of the backups in trade. Veach said that made it clear they couldn't expect either Gray or Fortson to pass through waivers if they cut one of them and tried to put him on the practice squad.
The Chiefs used a lot of multiple tight end formations during Reid's early seasons. From 2014 through 2017, they were in the NFL's top 10 every season in number of plays out with three tight end personnel groupings. They led the league in that category in 2016.
But the Chiefs since moved away from those formations as they improved at wide receiver, adding first Tyreek Hill and later Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. They used no three tight end formations in either 2018 or 2019 and though they did use two tight ends on occasion, Kelce was on his own a lot in terms of his position.
That will change this season.
"This offense has been growing and growing and growing since I've been here," Kelce said. "I don't see us stopping any time soon. We have great players. We have very smart players, which you need to have to expand the offense, and then on top of that we have high-caliber players, guys that can make plays in just about any position on the field."
Don't expect the Chiefs to use four tight ends at once on many plays. Doing that means, among other things, that a big-play threat like Hill comes out of the game. But near the goal line, it makes some sense, as on the touchdown against the Vikings.
"We can be very flexible," Mahomes said. "We can put all receivers on the field, we can put all tight ends on the field, kind of whatever it is. Being able to do that in this league, you want to be flexible, you want to be able to throw change-ups at the defenses. When we got all the tight ends out there, it turned into a touchdown.
"I think that having those tight ends on the field that can run, block and catch and then the offensive line that we've built here and how they've really been able to run the ball, I think it's going to put some defenses in some very tough positions. They either have to put a lot of big people on the field to stop the run or they have to find a way to stop those guys like Noah, Blake, Travis and Jody, who can all catch the ball like a receiver."