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From erratic to reliable: The evolution of Travis Kelce

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The All-Pro tight end (and fan favorite) has become a veteran leader — a transformation that looked impossible just a few years ago.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In this golden era for the tight end position, the Kansas City Chiefs have one of the best in the game.

Two-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler Travis Kelce has cemented himself as the front-runner among the elites at his position. He has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons; no other tight end has accomplished that feat more than once in that span. He has caught 80 or more passes in those three seasons; none of his counterparts have been able to match that. He leads all tight ends with 22 touchdowns in that three-year stretch.

During Week 3, he also reached a historic milestone.

In 2019, he is continuing his elite play. He is the only tight end to accumulate 80 or more receiving yards in each of the four weeks this season — he leads his position with 92.3 yards per game — and is one of only two tight ends to have three games with seven or more receptions. He also has the fifth-most receiving yards among all receivers — not just tight ends.

Those statistics emphasize how consistent Kelce has been. He has proven himself to be the receiver that quarterback Patrick Mahomes can rely upon every week. He is the team’s leader in receptions — and the only Chiefs receiver to see eight or more targets in each game so far this season.

But reliable and consistent were not always words you could use to describe Kelce.

Kelce burst onto the scene in 2014 after missing his rookie year with a knee injury. Head coach Andy Reid took advantage of his unique skill set by using him like a receiver and exploiting the mismatches that occur when defenses cover him like a traditional tight end.

His speed and quickness made for exciting plays — and both were on full display during his coming-out party on Monday Night Football against the New England Patriots. He accumulated 93 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions during the Chiefs’ 41-14 blowout victory.

New England Patriots Vs. Kansas City Chiefs At Arrowhead Stadium Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Travis’s elite ability was fueled by big-time energy that was apparent in his play. A touchdown was always accompanied with a fresh dance move. A first-down catch was usually followed by a fist pump and an audible yell. These plays can excite teammates and the crowd — but early in his career, Kelce had trouble filtering those emotions.

In his first five seasons, there were multiple instances where Kelce’s energy and passion got him into trouble.

  • In 2014, he drew an unnecessary roughness flag for throwing a Pittsburgh Steelers defender to the ground well after the play. Coincidentally or not, he had one of his worst games of the year that day with four catches on seven targets for 31 yards. That Week 16 loss dashed the Chiefs’ playoff hopes.
  • In 2015, a 1-4 start had the Chiefs in desperation mode against the Minnesota Vikings. Kelce had a productive game, but reacted poorly to a late-game fumble by a teammate and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. While the defense forced a three-and-out following the turnover, the 15 yards given up from the flag could have helped the offense start in better field position on the next drive. The team fell to 1-5 after the 16-10 loss.
  • In 2016, Kelce lost his cool in the fourth quarter of a close game with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was penalized for complaining to the official about the lack of a defensive pass interference call — and then, after blatantly mocking the referee, disqualified from the game.

While he did admit after the Chiefs’ 19-14 victory that he had made a “terrible decision,” he still showed a lack of maturity in handling his wrongdoing. “I can’t throw my flag at the ref,” he said, “but he can throw his all day long.”

  • Late in the 2016 divisional round playoff game against the Steelers, Kelce inexplicably shoved a Pittsburgh defensive back to the ground after he dropped a pass. In his post-game media availability, he then went on a detailed rant criticizing the head referee in the 18-16 loss. He was fined for both incidents.
  • In the 2017 season, Kelce was charged with a taunting penalty in each of the first two games.

These incidents show a lack of emotional control — and the fact that they were still happening in his fifth NFL season could be (and was) interpreted as selfishness.

Those two traits do not correlate with leadership.

But as the team moved into a new era with Mahomes as the team’s quarterback, they also got younger. Kelce quickly became one of the oldest players on the offense.

And he responded by becoming the veteran leader that the team needed.

Before the 2018 season began, Kelce acknowledged that he could become a leader in the locker room. “If that’s what we need out of me, yeah, without a doubt,” he said. “It’s whatever the team needs me to do and that’s my kind of focus on it.”

But it wasn’t just lip service. His on-field style began to change.

Divisional Round - Indianapolis Colts v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Kelce has not committed one of those costly penalties since Week 2 of 2017. It’s apparent that he does not waste energy on negativity and trash-talking his opponents any more — choosing instead to use it to motivate his colleagues. He is constantly the first one running to celebrate with a teammate that just made a good play. You can see him on the sideline talking and getting the offense hyped-up before (and after) offensive drives.

When Kelce talks to the media, you can also hear support for his teammates. He moves away from talking about his own performance, shifting the subject to players around him who performed well.

Kelce has become not only a team leader but also a better player. He fumbled six times during his first three seasons in the league but has only coughed up the rock twice since the start of the 2017 season. After four consecutive seasons of dropping a pass on 5.8% or more of his targets, he has only one drop this year — a career-best drop rate of 3.1%.

There’s no doubt: both on and off the field, Travis Kelce has taken his value to another level. No matter the situation, he has shown that he can be relied upon for every play. Some of the credit should go to the MVP quarterback who is throwing him the ball, but Kelce’s transformation to a consistent, reliable performer (and leader) deserves our notice and praise.

The soon-to-be 30-year-old still has the heart of a kid playing in his backyard, but his maturity — and his embrace of his role as a veteran leader — has taken him from being an exciting playmaker to the most important weapon in the Chiefs offense.