Time for a quick flashback. Ozzie Newsome was reminded of the interview he conducted with Travis Kelce during the NFL scouting combine in 2013, when the prospect from the University of Cincinnati raised several red flags.
As the story goes, which Kelce once shared with GQ and recounted on his “New Heights” podcast, the draft prospect entered the room and Newsome, then the Baltimore Ravens general manager, gave him the cold shoulder.
Then Newsome turned on video with clips of one Kelce transgression after another – trash-talking, taunting, late hits after the whistle. Just unnecessary stuff that draws penalty flags. On top of that, Kelce had spent his entire sophomore season while suspended by the team for what was later revealed as a failed drug test due to his marijuana usage.
Newsome, like other NFL decision-makers, had reasons to be skeptical. Never mind that the kid from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, grew up as such a huge fan of the Hall of Fame tight end from his hometown Cleveland Browns that he had an autographed picture of Newsome at his parents’ home.
“Based on information from our scouts, I questioned his character,” Newsome recalled this week to USA TODAY Sports.
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After reviewing a handful of Kelce moments on the videotape, Newsome threw the remote control on the table and turned to face him. He asked Kelce, “Son, are you a (expletive) —hole?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened,” Newsome said this week. “It was part of the process.”
Newsome paused and reflected on his bottom-line question to Kelce.
“It was a little in jest,” he said, “but also a little fastball under the chin.”
It was a way for a man who built two Super Bowl winners with the Ravens to let Kelce know that he was paying close attention to a player whose talent and production on the college level fueled the potential to blossom into an NFL star.
A decade since that combine episode, it’s a chapter in the legend of one of the NFL’s biggest stars. Kelce, drafted in the third round by the Kansas City Chiefs, has blossomed into the NFL’s most prolific tight end and, as Patrick Mahomes’ wing man, played a huge role in winning two Super Bowls. Newsome, of course, is still paying attention – for different reasons.
A generation ago, Newsome was one of the key tight ends (along with Kellen Winslow and Todd Christensen) who expanded the impact of the position in the passing game. When the Browns drafted Newsome from Alabama with the 23rd pick in the first round, he was told they were selecting him to throw him the football. That much was proven with two 89-catch seasons, two 1,000-yard seasons and an All-Decade Team selection for the 1980s.
Now Kelce defines the evolution of position in the years since Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten left their marks. Kelce caught a career-high 110 passes for 1,338 yards and 12 TDs in 2022, and in the three years before that he averaged 98 receptions and 1,257 yards per season.
“He’s a playmaker,” said Newsome, who has remained with the Ravens as executive vice president since relinquishing day-to-day GM duties. “He finds a way to get open. He does very well with his RAC ability – run after the catch. He has great chemistry with Patrick.
“He’s one of those guys that you watch play. He’s going to bring the entertainment.”
Kelce certainly got beyond the issues he demonstrated in college, although he made headlines during training camp for incidents with teammates on consecutive days when he threw a punch in one case and got into a shoving match in another.
After missing the season opener due to a knee injury, he has notched 17 receptions and 2 TDs during the three-game winning streak that Kansas City (3-1) takes into Sunday’s game at Minnesota.
Kelce’s generated much more buzz this season due to his connection to pop star Taylor Swift, who has attended the past two Chiefs games while watching in a suite with Kelce’s mother. It’s no coincidence that Kelce’s jersey sales have spiked in recent weeks, given the pop culture crossover.
Yet it’s his brand of entertainment on the football field that underscores how the value of tight ends continues to escalate. As Newsome pointed out, a half-dozen tight ends were chosen during the first two rounds of the draft in April (one in the first round, five in the second). In 2021, the Atlanta Falcons chose Kyle Pitts fourth overall – the highest slot ever for a tight end.
No offense is complete without a legitimate tight end threat in the passing game, the examples including San Francisco’s George Kittle and Baltimore’s Mark Andrews.
“Our game has gone to that,” Newsome said. “They’re like athletic power forwards. They have great athleticism. They can make contested catches in the middle of the field. They can run after the catch. It can be a difficult matchup for a defensive coordinator.
“More and more are coming out of college, because of the way they’re used in the college game.”
Then there was the time when Kelce came out of college and met Newsome – with no sugarcoating.
“Every now and then,” Newsome said, chuckling, “you’ve got to throw a little heat.”