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From TEU to primetime, Tucker Kraft excited to share field with Travis Kelce

Packers rookie met Kansas City’s seven-time All-Pro at the annual Tight End University gathering

TE Tucker Kraft
TE Tucker Kraft

GREEN BAY – Tucker Kraft was just months into his NFL career when the Packers' rookie third-round pick trekked down to Nashville last summer to attend the fabled "Tight End University."

The summit event aims to bring tight ends, both past and present, together to bond, collaborate and share tips of the trade from arguably football's most unique position.

Kraft was making his way to the rooftop at one of the bonding events when an unexpected visitor hopped in the elevator: Kansas City's Travis Kelce, a seven-time All-Pro and one of the co-creators of the summit.

A student of the game, Kraft fought to contain his fandom.

"Me, rookie from small-town South Dakota, I'm like, 'Oh (shoot), you're Travis Kelce,'" Kraft said. "I thought that was pretty cool. My first time ever meeting him, dapping him up in an elevator, it was awesome."

An indication of how fast life moves in the NFL, the rookie Kraft and veteran Kelce will be their respective team's starting tight end when the Packers and Chiefs square off Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

Like Kraft, Kelce entered the league as a third-round pick, out of Cincinnati in 2013. The 34-year-old tight end has since become an all-time great, registering seven straight seasons of at least 80 receptions and 1,000 yards.

Kelce is well on his way to an eighth consecutive campaign with those numbers, leading Kansas City with 70 catches for 732 yards and five touchdowns this season. Among active pass-catchers, only receivers Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans have more career receiving yards than Kelce's 11,076.

As Kraft looks to get his own career off the ground, the 6-foot-5, 259-pound tight end has taken notes from Kelce's game – the way he gets off the line, finds openings in opposing secondaries and uses his experience to leverage defenders downfield.

"Travis will never run to get himself covered. He's really, really great at finding space," Kraft said. "He's just a natural. He moves really well, he does good things with the ball in his hands after the catch, I mean, I could go on and on. He's eventually going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer."

Conversely, Kraft is barely into the opening chapter of his NFL story. While it takes most tight ends a full year to begin making an impact, Kraft and fellow rookie Luke Musgrave were thrown firmly into the fire during their debut seasons in Green Bay.

That workload has only increased for Kraft in recent weeks after an abdomen injury landed Musgrave on injured reserve after Green Bay's 23-20 win over the Los Angeles Chargers two weeks ago. It's unknown whether the second-round pick will return this season.

Kraft hasn't backed down from the added offensive responsibility, even catching his first NFL touchdown in the opening quarter of last Thursday's 29-22 win over Detroit on Thanksgiving.

"He's got really good body movement, really good body control, and he really is a strong, thick player," said tight ends coach John Dunn of Kraft. "That's something that has benefitted him certainly, and then again as technique comes along with that, it can enhance and bring out your strengths as well."

With fourth-year veteran Josiah Deguara out with a hip injury, Kraft and fellow rookie Ben Sims were the only listed tight ends on the gameday roster in that win over the Lions and likely will have big roles to play in Sunday's meeting with the Chiefs.

To Kraft's credit, the 23-year-old rookie has made progress as the season has worn on. Without Musgrave, Kraft took it upon himself to elevate his game for a Green Bay offense that has started to hit its stride, injuries notwithstanding.

"Just my confidence," said Kraft of where he's grown the most in his 11 games as a rookie. "How I was saying Travis has developed his abilities so well by doing it thousands of times – the repetition also breeds confidence. Just getting a chance to rep something over and over and over again, and then knowing your rules that apply to that play, it builds confidence in your ability to execute."

Kraft lives in the present in everything he does and takes nothing away from any NFL player's success. Staying true to his smalltown roots, Kraft admits being in awe of a Pro Bowl quarterback like Russell Wilson during pregame warmups.

Once the game starts, however, it's a completely different story. As much as Kraft respects Kelce and his two-time MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, his gameday allegiance is to helping his quarterback, Jordan Love, steer the Packers' offense.

Because this isn't Tight End U anymore. It's primetime.

"They know what they're doing. They're very successful," said Kraft of Mahomes and Kelce. "But when that ball leaves the tee for kickoff, it's all eyes on '10.' Getting the play call in the huddle, lining up and executing."

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