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Project to preeminence: Travis Kelce’s unlikely path to become the NFL’s best tight end

After six seasons, Travis Kelce is ready to stake his claim as the best tight end in the league

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AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Draft season brings out different types of NFL hopefuls — all of them on the brink of achieving a dream that for most have been in their minds since before they could tie their cleat laces (or even stay outside after dark).

Among the various player prototypes that are analyzed, graded and picked apart in the weeks and months leading up to the draft, you’ll find prospects who are categorized as The Stars, The Up-and-Comers, The Sleepers and The Projects.

But no matter how these players are categorized, there is one thing of which we can be certain:

You never really know what you’re going to get.

One project player whose future in the NFL was unclear when he was selected 63rd overall in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft was Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

Pittsburgh v Cincinnati Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Standing tall and strong at 6 feet 5, 255 pounds — and coming off of a record season his senior year at Cincinnati in which he tallied a career-best 722 receiving yards and eight touchdowns — Kelce’s size, skill and athleticism weren’t necessarily the biggest concern for the coaches and general managers who considered drafting him.

Instead, it was his unpredictable attitude on the field and his tainted history — which included a drug violation during his redshirt year as a quarterback at Cincinnati — that had teams seeing him as more of a piece of work than a work in progress.

Ozzie Newsome — then-general manager of the Baltimore Ravens — saw Kelce as the former.

In a 2017 GQ article, Kelce reflected on the unusual meeting he had with the former NFL tight end for the Cleveland Browns — Kelce’s hometown team — during the pre-draft interview process.

As the NFL hopeful sat with Newsome — following a short, rigid introduction — the GM grabbed a nearby remote, directed it towards a TV monitor and pressed play.

Suddenly, images of Kelce getting in opposing players faces, roughing after the whistle calls and other unusual college highlights — all drawing a slew of yellow flags — played across the screen.

Son, are you a f*cking asshole?” Newsome asked. It was as more of a statement than a question.

As you know, the Ravens didn’t draft Kelce. The Chiefs did — but only after head coach Andy Reid did his due diligence, making sure that Kelce had the right mindset, and wouldn’t be the piece of work Reid was afraid he could be.

In an interview with Colin Cowherd, Kelce recalled Reid’s stern words in the draft day phone call with his prospective coach.

“He said, ‘Listen, shut up, are you going to mess this up? Are you going to screw this up for yourself and this team? Can I count on you?’”

Shocked at the tone of the call that could potentially change his life, Kelce did his best to offer all of the reassurance he could. But it wasn’t enough.

Reid wanted to hear from the Kelce he knew best: Travis’ older brother Jason, who had played for Reid while he was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

“He said, ‘All right, yeah, put your brother on the phone.’ My brother is on the phone with him and I hear my brother saying, ‘OK coach, I got you,’ and I guess he told him make sure this kid doesn’t screw this up for me blah, blah. I get back on, and he says, ‘All right, we’re gonna take you — but the minute you start to go astray I’m gonna kick your ass.’”

Six seasons later, Travis Kelce, The Project, has not only exceeded the expectations that Andy Reid and the Chiefs had for him, but shattered them: back-to-back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, four Pro Bowl honors, two selections as a first-team All-Pro, and another as a second-team All-Pro.

Sure... his NFL career has shown a fair amount of the kind of behavior that GMs like Newsome were afraid of: on-field outbursts, ejections, taunting penalties, outlandish touchdown celebrations and the like.

What it’s also shown, though, is a player who could become the best tight end in NFL history. But his success has had a lot to do with the atmosphere Reid has created, and the other players around Kelce — particularly quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

When the Chiefs decided to hand the starting quarterback job to Mahomes by trading Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins, Kelce admits that he didn’t totally buy in to the decision at first — even describing the move as “awkward.”

“I wasn’t fully on board until that first game (in 2018),” Kelce told Dan Patrick. “It might sound a little bad. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a great guy and he’s a hell of a teammate, so I was always going to go out there and give my best for the guy, and I had confidence that we could win with him, but in terms of 13 touchdowns in three games? I didn’t see that one coming.

“It was cool to see him go out to that first game with confidence, sling the ball around, know where he’s going with the ball and just being able to be composed throughout the entire game — ups and downs and everything — I was looking at it and [was] really surprised, and hats off to the guy. He’s the real deal.”

Just as Kelce exceeded the Chiefs’ expectations, Mahomes exceeded Kelce’s — resulting in a relationship on the field that is a match made in quarterback-receiver heaven.

While Mahomes gives Kelce a cannon of an arm that can reach him on the run 70 yards down the field — along with an uncanny ability to find small windows and keep plays alive — Kelce gives Mahomes a large, dynamic target who is smart, able to trick opposing defenses and blow past seven-man coverages to make big plays — especially on his out routes.

On a minimum of 10 targets, Kelce’s wide receiver rating on out routes was 139.4, which comfortably surpassed the league-wide average of 92.5 in 2018.

According to Pro Football Focus, Kelce hauled in 12 of 15 targets on his 2018 out routes for 182 yards, seven first downs and a touchdown. His average of 4.92 yards per route run on the route was fourth-highest mark among 59 offensive players who ran at least 10 out routes.

But this unique chemistry between Mahomes and Kelce goes beyond their physical capabilities on the field; it’s a connection that’s rooted in a deep understanding of the quarterback position — the position Kelce grew up playing.

Green Bay Packers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

“He’s another QB on the field,” Mahomes said of Kelce’s in-game presence and ability during 2018’s training camp. “He really knows his offense, he knows what he needs to get open and he knows what he needs to do to get other people open — I think that’s a really underrated aspect of his game. He knows how to move defenders in order to get other people open and he’s someone I know that will be in the right spot whenever I need him to be.”

Kelce could have made a living playing quarterback in the NFL. But somewhat ironically, it was his behavior during his redshirt year in college that put him where he belonged; Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones mandated Kelce’s move from quarterback to tight end as part of his negotiated return to the team all those years ago.

And now, Kelce is exactly where he needs to be with the Chiefs.

This past season, Kelce put up a career-best 103 receptions for 1336 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, which eclipsed two major records set by former Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez in single-season receiving yards (1258) and receptions (102), and putting him within just one touchdown of tying Gonzalez’s single-season record of 11.

The Chiefs organization isn’t the only place where Kelce was breaking records last year. In Kansas City’s 35-3 blowout victory over the Oakland Raiders in Week 17, Kelce did what many wondered he’d ever be able to do: surpass New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end.

Entering the game with 1,274 yards through 15 games — and trailing Gronkowski by just 53 yards — Kelce caught a 25-yard pass from Mahomes in the fourth quarter to end the game with 62 receiving yards, putting him ahead of Gronkowski’s 2011 record.

Just an hour later, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle broke Kelce’s new record.

But 2019 is a different story.

Now that Gronkowski has announced his retirement, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Kelce — who’s been compared to Gronk ever since the 2013 draft — will replace him as the NFL’s best tight end. Many believe he already has.

In a sport where you never really know what you’re going to get, in Travis Kelce the Chiefs got — arguably — the best tight end in the league. And his story isn’t over.

With Patrick Mahomes and a high-powered offense around him, there’s no telling what records Kelce could break, or milestones he could reach in 2019 and beyond.

Travis Kelce is The Project that’s always in the works.

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