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Travis Kelce's ascension critical for Chiefs' Super Bowl LI hopes

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There's always a select group of players who are worth touting as future superstars every year. You can see them coming with each passing season, as their confidence grows and their skills blossom. They titillate imaginations with their possibilities for brilliance, the sheer way they make their destinies feel guaranteed. They represent exactly the type of foundation-building difference-makers that should include Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce this fall.

If this is the season when the Chiefs are going to make a strong push to reach the Super Bowl, it will also have to be the time when Kelce becomes one of the dominant tight ends in football. Don't misunderstand -- he's already a very good player, one who just appeared in his first Pro Bowl in February. However, the tight end position also has been defined in recent years by supreme, game-changing talents like New England's Rob Gronkowski, Dallas' Jason Witten and Seattle's Jimmy Graham (when he's healthy). That is where Kelce should be trying to take his game in the very near future.

The Chiefs see the promise in their 26-year-old tight end, as they signed him to a five-year, $46 million contract extension in January. That deal also gave Kelce one more reason to know there's a big difference between breaking out and being transcendent.

"Every single year comes [with] more accountability," Kelce said after a recent offseason training session with the team. "And the contract puts a lot more on my plate in terms of being a leader and being around the office and knowing that I have re-signed to where I'm going to be around for a while. It's definitely put a little more accountability, but just more of [an] understanding for me that I still have to go out there and play to make what I'm worth."

It's important to know that Kelce always has come across as a player who should have such expectations heaped upon him. He looks the part -- at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, he has the speed and agility of a much smaller man -- and he has the requisite oversized chip on his shoulder. This is a guy who came into the NFL as a third-round pick, who likely would've been drafted much higher if he wasn't saddled with baggage (he served a one-year suspension in 2010 for violating team rules at the University of Cincinnati). A knee injury also cost Kelce his first season in Kansas City.

So it's fair to say Kelce should have ample motivation for leaving a sizable footprint on the league. He's also never had an opportunity as great as the Chiefs could present this coming season. Kelce has been one of the team's top targets in each of the last two years, amassing a total of 139 receptions, 1,737 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's now starting his fourth season with the kind of confidence and savvy that should take his game to a different level.

That explains why Kelce spent a major part of his offseason trying to make his game even more intuitive. When asked what he's been working on this spring, he said, "Just the overall, being more physical and not trying to let my mind tie up my feet. Just going out there and letting loose. There were times where I feel like I was just out there thinking too much instead of just playing instinctual football. It's definitely something that I've been trying to work on here, just go out there and let it run."

Kelce also is poised to elevate his game because the Chiefs offer everything somebody at his position should crave. The West Coast Offense traditionally has been a system that creates plenty of opportunities for tight ends. Head coach Andy Reid likes utilizing tight ends, and quarterback Alex Smith revived his career in San Francisco by leaning heavily on former 49ers Pro Bowler Vernon Davis. The Chiefs also still only have one other dangerous presence in their passing game -- wide receiver Jeremy Maclin -- so it's likely that Reid and his coaches will ask even more of Kelce.

Just as importantly, the state of the game (and its pass-friendly rules) favor the likelihood of a Kelce ascension. Catching 70 balls for 800 yards per year is one thing. Moving into the neighborhood where 80 receptions, 1,100 yards and double-digit touchdowns are the norm is another. This is where a beast like Gronkowski typically resides and where a future Hall of Famer like San Diego's Antonio Gates made his mark in his prime. It's why they've been such critical components of their respective teams' offenses in years past.

Kelce already has increased the expectations upon himself, by the way. He spent the first half of his offseason filming a reality dating show in Los Angeles called "Catching Kelce," which is basically another version of the popular ABC show "The Bachelor." It's the kind of show that Kelce said he went "into blind and just enjoying the experience." But let's face it: There is no way he would do that project unless he'd earned a certain level of respect and trust from the organization.

Like many great players, Kelce has the personality to enjoy celebrity. You can see that much in his post-touchdown gyrations and the passion he brings to the game. But Kelce does understand that the more attention one craves, the more pressure comes with that yearning. As one team source said, "His focus is good and he's had plenty of time to get refocused."

That focus will be critical as the Chiefs will need Kelce to mature in an offense that is shifting its identity. Kansas City enjoyed an 11-game win streak last season after losing Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL, a stretch of success that resulted largely from quality depth and the rapid growth of unknown ball carriers like Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. Smith also proved he could help his team by being effective both as a runner and a passer. In other words, the Chiefs realized their offense didn't have to rely so heavily on Charles to succeed.

Still, it is important to note that the Kansas City offense wasn't dynamic. It was merely serviceable at a time when all seemed lost in the midst of a 1-5 start. It's now a safe bet that this team won't rise to a championship level unless other offensive skills players can raise their games to the elite level Charles enjoyed for some many years. There already is one man who looks ready in that regard, and he'll have to take the next logical step in an already promising career.

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