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Super Bowl LIV tight ends give Bills reminder of what they need

MIAMI – Super Bowl LIV gave the Buffalo Bills a vivid picture of what's been missing from their offense.

Never mind the wisecracks about Patrick Mahomes, the game's MVP who the Kansas City Chiefs chose after acquiring the 10th overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft in a trade with the Bills.

This is about the standout tight ends who did plenty to help the Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers reach the NFL championship game.

Travis Kelce, of the Chiefs, and George Kittle, of the 49ers, are the position's gold standard among active players.

The Bills, who have never had anyone approaching their talent level at tight end, had to be watching with envy. Last season, their tight ends combined for 604 receiving yards. Five individuals, including Kelce and Kittle, had more.

"I just think the tight end position's so incredible," Kittle told reporters last week, before his team's 31-20 loss Sunday. "Just the greats that have done it, and then I think there are so many great tight ends in the game now and the fact that you have two very good tight ends in the Super Bowl that get to compete against each other and against our teams' defenses, it's just really fun to see that."

"It's a unique position and that's why I love it," Kelce told reporters. "It presents challenges all over the field and it presents mismatches all over the field for the offense."

Although neither Kelce nor Kittle was a huge factor in the Super Bowl, each routinely does exactly that against opponents.

Kelce has had more than 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last four seasons. Since joining the Chiefs in 2013 as a third-round pick from the University of Cincinnati, he has caught 507 regular-season passes for 6,465 yards and 37 touchdowns. He has averaged no fewer than 12.2 yards per catch in any season in his pro career.

"Travis is just probably the most dynamic athlete I've coached in my 20-year career in the NFL," Chiefs tight ends coach Tom Melvin said. "His vision is really what sets him apart. He understands the all-22. He knows where the pieces are supposed to be, how they're influenced, what's going on, somebody made a mistake, our side, their side. It all clicks in game speed.

"There are a lot of people that can tell you after the play, 'Ah, something happened.' But he says, 'I saw this happening and I did this.' And it's not coached. It's inherent. Those are things you can't measure when you evaluate somebody and he's got whatever 'it' is, kind of what you would say with Patrick Mahomes. He's a step ahead because he's got 'it.' "

Kittle, who the Niners made a fifth-round choice from Iowa in 2017, has had 1,000-plus yards in catches in each of the last two years. For his career, he has 216 regular-season receptions for 2,945 yards and 12 TDs.

Kittle also is known for his exceptional blocking skills.

"A lot of it's come from my dad because he was a left tackle at Iowa; I followed in his footsteps," he said. "Back when I was in fourth grade, he had a blocking sled for me. He tried to trick my entire fifth-grade team into playing offensive line, like little kids. He said, 'Hey, this is the best position in football. You're all going to practice offensive line drills.' I knew there were other positions, but I've always just loved run blocking and it's just a way for me to connect with football and my dad."

Kelce and Kittle are the complete tight ends all teams want but can't always find.

Ask the Bills, who used third- and seventh-round draft picks last year on Dawson Knox, from Mississippi, and Tommy Sweeney, from Boston College. They also signed Tyler Kroft in free agency.

Knox showed promise, leading all Bills tight ends last season with 28 catches for 388 yards and two touchdowns, but he also had a significant issue with dropped passes. His receiving yards ranked 23rd in the NFL among tight ends. Kroft missed five games with a broken foot he suffered on the first day of offseason workouts. Sweeney was a nonfactor.

ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported that veteran tight end Greg Olsen, who the Carolina Panthers released, plans to visit the Bills, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks this week. Olsen has history with Bills General Manager Brandon Beane, a former Panthers executive, and coach Sean McDermott, a former Carolina defensive coordinator. Olsen, who ranks fifth in NFL history in catches and receiving yards for tight ends, also has a connection with Redskins coach Ron Rivera, who was fired as the Panthers' coach during last season.

"I feel like there's a lot that goes into having a complete tight end," said Kelce, who caught six passes for 43 yards in the Super Bowl. "You have to have the athletic ability to be able to run with the fast guys and still the ability, the physicality, to either be able to grind out a block or to be able to block the front four on the D-line."

Charles Clay was the Bills' leading receiver in 2017 with 558 yards on 49 receptions, but his production fell to 21 catches for 184 yards in 2018 and he was released.

The last impactful tight ends for the Bills were Pete Metzelaars and Keith McKeller, as part of the K-Gun offense (named after "Killer" McKeller) during their Super Bowl run of the 1990s. Metzelaars was an outstanding blocker who used his background as a college basketball player to his advantage as a receiver.

Since then, the NFL has had some exceptionally talented players at the position, such as Hall of Famers Tony Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe, as well as Dallas Clark, future Hall of Famers Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten. Todd Heap and Heath Miller also made significant impacts in the last 15 to 20 years.

Besides Kelce and Kittle, other current standout tight ends include Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles and Jack Doyle of the Indianapolis Colts.

"I'm going to go ahead and try and keep the legacy," Kelce said. "I'm definitely feeding off of what guys like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten have been starting for years. But it's definitely something I want to keep going in the league and making the tight end position known."

Watching the great tight ends before him is what Kelce credits for convincing him to switch to the position after playing quarterback in high school.

"You can't watch enough Gronk," said Kittle, who had four catches for 36 yards Sunday. "I like watching guys that I see a little of myself in, guys who like to have fun, guys that do the dirty work 24/7. I love watching Jack Doyle. I just kind of like what he does in the run game. I love watching Zach Ertz at the top of routes, catching the rock. There's just so many guys that do it so well and no matter who you're watching, you can get something great from each and every guy."

Kittle said if he had scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl, which he didn't, he would probably have celebrated with a spike "as an ode to Gronk, because he's the best."

When Kittle began watching Kelce when Kittle was in college, the "one thing that stood out right away" was the personality he showed in games.

"He wasn't scared to hide it and I think that helped him play to such a high level and I that's why he's played at such a high level for so long," Kittle said. "He's an incredible player and one of the best red-zone threats in the NFL. What he does in his routes, he has such a good feel."

Kelce shows an equal amount of respect for Kittle.

"I love watching him play just as much as anybody else," Kelce said. "His tenacity, his approach to the game, it's relentless. Every single play, his energy, his ability to get after the defender, whether it's run or pass, I think everybody in football can appreciate that. And then, when he gets the ball in his hands, he's a crazy man."

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