There was a time in Travis Kelce’s career that the Kansas City Chiefs tight end could simply line up against a linebacker, or even a safety, and know that his speed and agility would be able to get him open downfield.
Kelce turned 33 this week, though, and those days are slowly slipping away. Yet what he has lost in athleticism Kelce has made up for in experience. You’ll see him slowly going in motion, or quickly moving across the formation, setting defenders up even before the snap and giving him just that extra bit of space to allow him to continually make plays.
“He’s just smarter as a player,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “That’s the biggest thing. He knows how to get himself open. He knows how to use other people and other parts of the concept to get himself open. And he’s smart about how he blocks, how he can pin guys and get us in the right position. I think he’s just continued to evolve.”
He’ll be a focal point Monday night for the Raiders in a key AFC West matchup (5:15 p.m., KLAS Channel 8). Kelce once again is among the best receivers among NFL tight ends, with 26 catches for 322 yards and three touchdowns.
It might be a stretch to say that Kelce has revolutionized the tight end position. That would be slighting those who came before him: Ozzie Newsome, Dave Casper and Keith Jackson in the day, and Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski in more recent years.
But it’s safe to say that Kelce has made what was long considered a decidedly unsexy position a lot more appealing, and in turn helped to make players such as Raiders tight end Darren Waller high-priced assets for their teams. Waller has 16 catches for 175 yards and three scores heading into Monday night’s game in Kansas City.
Make no mistake: Kelce still does plenty of down-in-the-dirt blocking, the stuff often overlooked and underappreciated, but that helped Kansas City run for nearly 200 yards in last week’s 41-31 win at Tampa Bay. But he also makes plenty of those spectacular catches and long, loping downfield runs that makes Kelce a regular on the highlight reels.
“Everybody kind of giggles and laughs when you see (Mahomes) throw an underhand pass to a fullback or a shovel pass, or Kelce lines up at quarterback in the red zone and then runs the ball in, or runs an option, or shovel pass — whatever it is,” Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said.
“What’s always impressed me is how precise they are and how detailed they are when they do those things. Look, players like to run things that are run. They enjoy that.”
Nobody seems to enjoy it more than Kelce, who could sometimes come off as surly early in his career, especially when things weren’t going his way. But while he still has a fiercely competitive streak, Kelce has matured as he aged, and what the Chiefs have now is a locker room leader who is just as good with fans and reporters as his teammates.
One who continues to etch his name in record books, too. Kelce has caught a pass in 130 consecutive games, one behind Gonzalez for the second-longest streak in franchise history and the second-longest active streak behind DeAndre Hopkins in the NFL. Kelce has 730 catches in all, putting him within shouting distance of Witten’s 806 for the most among tight ends over their first 10 seasons in the NFL.
Last week against the Buccaneers, Kelce had nine catches for 92 yards and a score, giving him 9,328 yards for his career and moving him past Gronkowski for fifth most among NFL tight ends. Next on the list is Shannon Sharpe with 10,060, with Antonio Gates, Witten and Gonzalez the only others ahead of him.
What about touchdowns? Kelce has 63 of those, one behind Jamaal Charles for fourth on the Chiefs’ career list. It’s not as if his production has tapered with age, either. The pride of Westlake, Ohio, finished with 92 catches for 1,125 yards and nine touchdowns last season, his sixth straight eclipsing 1,000 yards.
And considering Kelce has three more years left on his contract after this one, and he insists that he plans to play it to completion or beyond, there is no reason to think more records won’t fall. “He is getting up there,” Mahomes admitted. I’m going to try to keep him here as long as possible. I promise you. He’s not taking any screens like, 80 yards anymore, I don’t think. But he’s still going to make some production on the field.”