ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — All 89 other Chiefs players wrapped up practice, some stopping to sign autographs before heading to the locker room. Only second-year tight end Alex Ellis remained behind, a long figure hitting a blocking sled. When he finished there it seemed practice was over.
“I don’t know, I’ve got a lot to work on,” Ellis said.
He headed over to the Juggs machine, an assistant feeding footballs into the machine so Ellis can work on his. He finishes catching several line drives at close range with one hand. Some of his teammates probably finished their lunch before Ellis headed to the locker room.
“I think that’s just a coincidence,” Ellis said with a sheepish grin. “I’m just a guy trying to make it. I’ve got a lot people around me that are helping me and that make me better.”
If Ellis sounds humble it’s easy to understand why. The biomedical engineering major at Tennessee walked-on to Volunteers in 2011, serving as a squad member only for two seasons before redshirting during a injury-riddled 2013 season.
But as a redshirt junior in 2014, Ellis broke out. He caught six passes for 115 yards, including his first college touchdown, a 31-yard strike on a fake field goal versus Missouri.
Just before Christmas, the Vols awarded Ellis a scholarship for his senior season. He caught five passes for 43 yards during his last regular season. Tennessee routed Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl, and Ellis finished his career in style, hauling in three catches for 74 yards.
“(A) young man I am exceptionally proud of who has left his mark on Tennessee football is Alex Ellis,” former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said after the game. “Alex played his best game of his career, and it’s very fitting that he’d do so. He exemplifies a Tennessee Vol.”
Now he’s on the same field with Travis Kelce, from whom Ellis said he has learned much already.
“Just how he goes about ball,” Ellis said of the most important lesson Kelce has shared with him. “It is legit, one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in my sports run. He’s able to work the game like nobody else. That’s a gift, and he works his butt off for it too.”
Ellis entered the NFL with little fanfare. He didn’t receive an invite to the 2016 combined but showed enough during his pro day to get hook on with the Tennessee Titans. He was among the final cuts heading into the season.
Jacksonville signed Ellis to their practice squad shortly afterwards, and he later received a promotion to the active roster. He played six games, catching three passes for 11 yards.
He spent the offseason and 2017 training camp with the Jaguars before his release. He signed with the Saints, who placed him on waivers in May. The Chiefs claimed him after waiving running back Akeem Hunt.
Ellis ranks the youngest of tight end group that includes Kelce, Demetrius Harris, Jace Amaro and Tim Wright. He’s the sponge among the group, trying to learn as much as he can.
“I’m still young and I’ve got a lot to learn,” Ellis said. “You can learn so much from those guys and that’s what I try to do. I try to stick to their back pocket and see what I can pick up from them.”
Ellis at first appeared as a possible solution to the Chiefs’ need for a reliable blocking tight end.
“I love to stick my head in there, my face in there,” Ellis said, “but I’ve still got a lot to work on on the blocking side and the receiving side. Just being an all-around football player is where we’re trying to work to be.”
Ellis has proved just that in his short stint with the Chiefs so far. He impressed during offseason workouts with his ability to use his 6-4, 236-pound frame to find open space and consistently make catches. Proving no one-hit wonder, Ellis continues to impress with his ball skills and is moving up the depth chart.
During Sunday’s practice in shells only, safety Robert Golden leveled Ellis with a bone-rattling hit that drew a flag from the officials. Ellis popped up immediately, displaying a toughness and grit.
He also received a handful of snaps with the first-team offense. With typical modest, Ellis chalks up the recognition as a coincidence, that tight end coach Tom Melvin just rotated his tight ends. But it still put a small smile on his face.
“That’s always a confidence booster,” Ellis said. “But you’ve got to do the right thing and that’s what I’m trying to build on, picking day to day and staying on top of stuff. Sometimes you get behind, sometimes you get ahead. Right now it’s just building from day-to-day so hopefully we’ll keep working up.”
Behind Kelce, Harris appears the clear No. 2 tight end, but he must sit out a one-game suspension in the season opener against the Chargers. Amaro receives most of the No. 3 reps, but Ellis continues climbing. He’s taking nothing for granted, showing the same determination he did as a walk-on at Tennessee.
“If I can stick to what (Melvin’s) saying and go by what he’s teaching and then pick up what Travis and Dee and Jace and T-dub are doing then we’ll be all right,” Ellis said.