The Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, who has been in the N.F.L. for two decades, noted that even when the perfect pass coverage has been called, Kelce immediately sniffs it out and already has prepared an ingenious counterattack.
“You marvel at watching him play, because if there’s a big play to be had, somehow he finds a way to get open,” Bowles said.
He added that while Kelce clearly spends many hours studying opponents, it is more important that he knows what to look for. “He’s savvy,” Bowles said, “probably one of the best I’ve seen.”
The evolution of Kelce’s aptitude as a tight end, a position that calls for both blocking and receiving skills, goes back to his days as a high school quarterback in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Kelce, who had yet to fill out his 6-foot-5 frame, chose to attend the University of Cincinnati because it was the rare place that would let him play quarterback and because his older brother, Jason, now a center with the Philadelphia Eagles, was a starter at Cincinnati. Travis remained a quarterback, albeit often one in the wildcat formation, for much of his time at Cincinnati, but tight end was clearly where he belonged, especially as his body matured. By his senior year, that was where he lined up, leading the team in receptions.
Selected by Kansas City in the 2013 N.F.L. draft, Kelce was the fifth tight end taken that year, but the Chiefs coaches soon learned that his time spent in quarterback meeting rooms would be vital.
“It gave me perspective of what’s going on with the quarterback, the head man on the field — the guy who’s got the keys to the car,” Kelce said this week. “It helped me go from just being an athletic guy running routes to being a playmaker accountable on every single play.