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Ranking the Chiefs’ 2014 training camp battles: No. 4 — backup tight end

07/17/2014 10:51 AM

07/18/2014 2:20 AM

As a lead-in to the Chiefs’ training camp in St. Joseph, which begins when rookies report on July 20, The Star will rank the 10 most interesting position battles.

4. No. 3 Tight end

The tight end position has always played a significant role in the offense of Chiefs coach Andy Reid, so it was hardly a surprise when the team went out and added a reliable target in veteran Anthony Fasano only a few months after he was hired.

Fasano, a nine-year veteran, has never been regarded as a big-play threat, even when he is younger. But he is big, at 6 feet 4 and 255 pounds, and has long held a reputation as a tough guy with good hands.

On the instances Fasano got a chance to play last season, when he caught 23 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns, he showed glimpses of being that guy. Problem is, he was nicked with injuries practically all season long, and was limited to only nine games.

In his absence, second-year-pro Sean McGrath — a waiver wire pickup from a loaded Seahawks team — filled in admirably. McGrath isn’t a great blocker, but he has soft and reliable hands, and proved to be a capable player while catching 26 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games.

Still, neither McGrath or Fasano have the overall talent of Travis Kelce, a third-round pick in 2013 who quickly became a forgotten man when a serious knee injury wiped out his entire rookie season. The Chiefs took Kelce because of his 4.6 speed, athleticism and hands, and Reid was clearly banking on him becoming a big part of the offense before his injury.

Kelce displayed some of that smooth athleticism during organized team activities this month, when he started to earn a handful of reps as he works his way back from offseason microfracture surgery on his knee. Kelce is one of those guys who looks the part — he’s big and fast and plucks the ball out of the air well. The big test for him will come in training camp, when he finally gets back in pads and has to adjust to being hit again. If he can stay healthy, he is the only player I could see legitimately challenging Fasano for his starting job, though the last player in the race — second-year pro Demetrius Harris — rivals Kelce when it comes to athleticism.

Harris, 22, played basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for four years before he decided to make a living in football. At 6 feet 7 and 230 pounds, the Chiefs were intrigued enough by his size and athleticism to sign him as an undrafted free agent after the 2013 draft. Harris made a few highlight-reel catches in OTAs last year but his rawness came through during training camp, so the Chiefs opted to sign him to the practice squad.

Now, one year later, Harris looks like a different player. He gained roughly 25 pounds in over a year, which he hopes will help him block better, and he seems to have maintained all his quickness and agility, as he routinely made highlight-reel catches during OTAs this year. Seriously, he might have been the breakout star of camp.

Now, it’s time to see whether Harris has really gotten better. Funny things happen when the pads come on; sometimes guys who look unguardable don’t look as fast and starting dropping passes. The Chiefs are obviously hoping Harris isn’t one of those guys. In my opinion, he has the talent to be a really good player in this league, and has a higher ceiling than McGrath. He will need to prove it in camp to beat him out for the third tight end spot behind Kelce and Fasano, and it certainly isn’t a given. At least with McGrath, the coaches know what he is — a reliable, adequate football player. If everyone stays healthy, this will be one of the most hotly-contested battles of camp. If Kelce or Fasano go down, there’s a good chance could both stick. Considering the injury histories of both, this scenario cannot be ruled out.

Another player competing for playing time is veteran tight end Richard Gordon, a third-year pro who boasts some physical gifts but needs to be more consistent. He had a nice showing in OTAs, as he caught a fair amount of passes that came his way, but will probably need a breakout camp to make the roster.

In all, if Fasano is healthy, he is a good bet to make the team and start. Kelce will probably make the team too, even if he gets hurt again. If he doesn’t, he could start. Expect a fierce battle between McGrath and Harris for the No. 3 job.

Next up: Slot receiver

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @TerezPaylor.

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