In college, Brate had chosen Rob Gronkowski, who became his teammate this past offseason, for that kind of close review. Then Gronkowski’s body started to betray him, and his skills diminished.
“Once I got into the NFL, he was no longer my favorite tight end,” Brate said this week. “It was Travis Kelce.”
As he prepares for his second Super Bowl after catching a touchdown in last year’s game, Kelce occupies a rarefied place in the NFL’s ecosystem. He has become the engine of the Chiefs’ relentless offense, both bulldozer and security blanket for Patrick Mahomes. In the AFC championship game, he caught a championship-game record 13 passes, two for touchdowns. The only thing in Kansas City more certain to satisfy than burnt ends at Q39 is Kelce on third down.
Provided room to operate across the middle by Tyreek Hill’s explosive speed on the outside, playing in an era that asks tight ends to catch more than block and placed in Coach Andy Reid’s heaven of an offense, Kelce has become the most prolific pass-catching tight end in league history. He gained 1,416 yards receiving this year, a record for a tight end, despite sitting out Week 17 because the Chiefs had secured the AFC’s top seed. It was his fifth straight 1,000-yard season, an unprecedented streak for a tight end. Kelce snared 105 passes, making him the first tight end with two 100-catch seasons.
Kelce will be one of the best players on the field Sunday. He might be among the very best players in the entire NFL, on the shortlist of contenders for most valuable non-quarterback. He does not have the supernova ability of Mahomes, the glamour of Tom Brady or even the speed of Hill. But he has an uncommon blend of grace, force, instinct and spirit that has won him admiration among peers. He might be your favorite NFL player’s favorite NFL player.
“He’s the best player on the Chiefs’ offense,” said Gronkowski, a likely Hall of Famer. “He gets the drives going. He makes the big plays. He’s very reliable. He’s been there for a while. He knows the system in and out. … He’s very smooth with his routes. That’s what helps him get open. He’s a pleasure to watch, just how he’s improved and evolved every single year to get better and better. It’s something special.”
Ask a Super Bowl participant about Kelce, and the same theme arises for varied reasons. The veneration remains static, but the details change.
Buccaneers cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross said Kelce moves like future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates but in the body of Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. “He’s crafty,” Ross said. “He’s sneaky. He’s got a lot of tricks he uses, and he uses them very well.”
Mahomes cited Kelce’s selflessness. For all the passes he catches, Kelce will sometimes run a route in a way that will attract a safety toward him so another receiver can break free. “He does a great job of not caring who gets the ball,” Mahomes said.
“He can pick up the ball like no one I’ve ever seen,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienieny said. “He just has a way of tracking the football.”
Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White tackled Kelce several times during their regular season meeting. Getting up from the ground, Kelce shouted at White, “We out here working!” White took it as a sign of exuberance for the game and respect. It made White hold a player he already viewed as elite in higher regard.
“When his quarterback scrambles, he’s always the first outlet that he’s looking for because you know he’s a for-sure catcher and he’s going to find a way to get open,” White said. “That’s what I respect about his game. Him compared to other people, I don’t know. Travis Kelce, he’s the best tight end in the game if you ask me.”
Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins, once a top-five draft pick, said Kelce’s game reminds him of his own. Watkins can tell Kelce understands route running like a wide receiver. Good tight ends present matchup problems because of their size against defensive backs or speed against linebackers. Kelce has both, but he can also change tempo to set up cuts and gain a slight advantage on defenders.
“He does a lot of stuff that’s outside of tight ends, more of a wide receiver standpoint,” Watkins said. “He just knows the pace of the game. He knows the defenses. He got it figured out.”
Kelce’s deep understanding of coverages traces to the start of his football career. He played quarterback in high school and when he arrived at the University of Cincinnati, until coaches moved him to tight end. Sitting in quarterback meetings enabled Kelce to understand not only his position but what a defense wanted to accomplish and how he needed to react.
“If you want to be great, you have to know the other side of the ball,” Kelce said. “You have to play that chess match with the defensive coordinator and the defensive players out there on the field on how they want to defend you.”
“He’s just got a real knack for that, finding space in tight areas and then at the same time being patient enough to work a man coverage knowing the depth of the route at which to run it at,” Reid said. “He and the quarterback have a pretty special bond there and relationship. The quarterback trusts him to get open on time.”
At the line of scrimmage before every pass play, Kelce completes a visual checklist. He peeks at the safeties. He reads the linebackers to determine what kind of leverage they would have on the route he is running. He glances at the defensive linemen to see whether they will offer any clues about who might be blitzing behind them. He blends the information with his film study to determine how he needs to move within a play.
“Always building instincts,” Kelce said. “You have to have those instincts, and you have to be able to use them precisely and quickly to be on time.”
Brate, the Bucs’ tight end, can tell the Chiefs allow Kelce to “freelance” based on how he reads a defense. It works only because of the uncanny bond he has with Mahomes. Their connection is built on their shared vision. Kelce can see the field like a quarterback because he used to be one. When the Chiefs need a play, Mahomes trusts Kelce. He hauled in 79 passes that went for a first down, most in the league.
“The way he’s able to read coverages on the move and have an understanding for what the defense is doing and what we want as an offense, how to get himself and others open, is what makes him so special,” Mahomes said. “The quarterbacking in his history is what gives him that understanding of how to run routes.”
His athletic ability helps, too. When Brate studies Kelce, he sees skills that neither he nor most any tight end could replicate. While his mind processes a play, his body can follow instructions in unusual ways.
“He’s got these crazy loose hips,” Brate said. “So he can push off and create separation, stick his foot in the ground from all these weird different angles. But his standout trait is just his feel for the game. He could always find a way. Teams know Mahomes is going to go to Kelce. Any big third down, any big moment of the game, he’s looking for 87 across the middle. And he still finds ways.”
The worst kind of player to coach, Reid said, is one with talent who doesn’t bother to unlock it. Kelce’s love for football did not come until a few seasons into his NFL career. Playing for Reid provided him a new appreciation for the sport and a motivation to keep building instincts. At 31, already among the best to ever play his position, Kelce still attacks every practice.
“He’s not in his mind the best player, but he is the best player,” Watkins said. “That makes him even better. That’s why he is in this position to be the best tight end to ever walk this Earth.”