Fans of the Kansas City Chiefs have had the pleasure of watching tight end Travis Kelce develop and transform over the last decade, going from an uber-athletic hot head to a skillful, intelligent leader in his 10th NFL season.
I remember noticing the shift in his personality and demeanor as the franchise transitioned into the era of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but it’s not just the intangibles that Kelce had to change as his career rolled along.
Chiefs fans have been reminded this week — as Kelce turned 33 years old — that he simply can’t be the same kind of weapon he once was, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting up elite numbers so far this season.
Kelce has the most catches, yards, and touchdowns among all tight ends this season; he also has the most catches resulting in a first down (21), the second-highest mark among all NFL pass catchers. Through a quarter of the season, he’s on pace to total 1,368 yards and 12 scores by the schedule’s end — and the touchdown mark would be a career-high.
So how does he continue racking up this production if he isn’t the same caliber of athlete anymore? His quarterback detailed his answer when he was asked by reporters before practice on Thursday afternoon.
“I think he’s just smarter as a player, that’s the biggest thing,” Mahomes said. “He knows how to get himself open, he knows how to use other people and other parts of the concept to get himself open. He’s smart about how he blocks, how he can pin guys and get in the right position... he has just continued to evolve and be even better as a tight end.”
Kelce used to be known for his catch-and-run ability — taking advantage of the mismatches that occurred when defenses treated him like a traditional tight end. Now, a lot of Kelce’s damage is done at the intermediate level of pass coverage, using his high-football IQ to find throwing windows against zone defenders — or manipulate a man defender with head fakes and incredibly quick breaks out of cuts.
In fact, 10 of his 26 catches have come on passes 10 or more yards downfield; on those receptions, he has totaled 192 yards and two of his four touchdowns. The success in that area of the field speaks to his ability to win before the throw, not after.
It also speaks to Mahomes’ point about Kelce’s intelligence. He worked hard to become this good at beating coverage — and he’s had to, as Mahomes so lovingly put it to reporters.
“He is getting up there... He is definitely someone that isn’t taking screens 80 [yards] anymore, but he’s still going to have production on the field.”
Mahomes is right: Kelce won’t be catching screen passes and outrunning the entire defense for an 80-yard touchdown like he did against the Denver Broncos in 2016. The way he scores today looks different, and his first touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4 was a good example of how.
A great wrinkle to the pass offense to open up the scoring for #Chiefs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 3, 2022
It takes advantage of David's muscle memory early in the game. He's covered a simple sit route like that millions of times. Kelce's quick fake is all he needs to get a step on David going towards the middle pic.twitter.com/EAkGztn3bq
“If you look at the first touchdown last week,” Mahomes began to explain. “How he kind of motioned in and used those two guys that released to get himself some access, so that he wasn’t necessarily pressed up on. That’s stuff where maybe four or five years ago, we may just line him up in that spot and tell him to go win, whereas now we give him the freedom to motion a little bit and get himself open, so that he can go out there and put up numbers like he always does.”
That touchdown kicked off a great night for the offense, and Kelce was as much a centerpiece as ever. He led the team in targets, catches and receiving yards — something he has done each game outside of the Week 3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
It’s more of the same for Kelce — being the team’s go-to receiver in pretty much any situation. What isn’t the same is how he’s doing it: playing with intelligence and a feel for route spacing that is simply rare.
He’s elite in a different way than he used to be, but still elite — and Mahomes has been taking advantage of that this season.