Hail to the Chief: Is Kelce the greatest TE of all time?

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Travis Kelce has played his way into the GOAT tight end conversation, but how high? (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Travis Kelce has played his way into the GOAT tight end conversation, but how high? (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The question of who’s the greatest tight end ever originally had one of only two answers: Tony Gonzalez or Rob Gronkowski.

Gonzalez has most of the statistical records, while Gronkowski played a key role in the extension of New England Patriots’ dynasty into the 2010s and owned a multitude of postseason records.

But after Travis Kelce posted his seventh consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season and passed Gronkowski for the second-most playoff touchdowns in NFL history during the Kansas City Chiefs’ second Super Bowl title in the past four years, he entered the GOAT conversation.

Gronkowski told Yahoo Sports via email that while Kelce should be included in the debate, his production shouldn’t necessarily vault him to the top of the list at the position.

“There are so many circumstances that play into it,” Gronkowski wrote. “For example: What type of system you are running or what type of skills do you need for that system? How well did the player adjust to what the team was dependent on and how they used their skills?

“I believe Travis Kelce will always be up there at the top for the debate along with myself and a few others. We all have different skill sets at the position and we all utilized our different skills to the best we could and that’s what makes the debate tough.”

Kelce ranks fourth in receiving yards, fifth in receptions and sixth in receiving touchdowns among tight ends in NFL history as he heads into his 11th season months before he turns 34. He is 4,783 receiving yards and 511 receptions away from Gonzalez’s records and 47 touchdowns away from the Los Angeles Chargers’ Antonio Gates.

So when Kelce’s career is done, he has a shot to hold most of the statistical records for his position. And if that happens, 14-year veteran tight end Greg Olsen said it’ll be time to call Kelce the greatest of all time.

“I never thought in a million years anyone would be able to catch Tony [Gonzalez],” Olsen said on the “Sports Seriously” podcast in June. “[But] when you factor in Travis’ consistency, his production of where he is now on the all-time rankings and now you throw in he’s won multiple Super Bowls, he holds so many playoff records … he’s just as well-rounded productivity-wise as any player who’s ever played the position.

“In another year or two I think we could be having the conversation that Travis sits atop that whole list, which is saying a lot when you start thinking of some of the names that have played tight end over the years.”

What Travis Kelce has going for him in the GOAT debate

Kelce has three things going for him in this conversation: His age, his playoff production and the offense he plays in.

Kelce hit 10,000 receiving yards very quickly in his career — only 140 games — while it took Gonzalez 177 games. Gonzalez was about a year younger than Kelce when they both hit those milestones.

Kelce has consistently produced during his career. It’s why he currently leads all tight ends with 71.8 receiving yards per game. That trajectory puts Kelce on a runway to break Gonzalez’s all-time receiving yards mark in about four seasons.

That would put Kelce at 38 years old. Gonzalez played until he was 37 and Gates played until he was 38, so while it would be tough — and replicating even last season’s production would be unprecedented — it seems possible for Kelce. Especially since he’s missed only one game due to injury in his career and will continue to play at least one more regular-season game each season than his predecessors.

Kelce is arguably the most accomplished playoff tight end ever, too. He already has more receiving yards, receptions and touchdowns than Gronkowski, as well as 22 receptions for 257 yards and two touchdowns in three Super Bowl appearances, two of which the Chiefs won.

“When you think of just clutch catches with 100 million people watching — I think that is what will kind of push Travis Kelce into the conversation more than just eclipsing a yard number or a touchdown number.” Tyler Dunne, who wrote “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football,” told Yahoo Sports. “It’s like, how are we gonna remember this player for the rest of time? Because he is already on that top-10, probably top-five list.”

The Chiefs’ offense also predominantly features Kelce and lends itself perfectly to his skills as a pass-catcher. Kelce led the team in targets in six of the nine seasons he played at least 15 games and is 596 yards behind Gonzalez on Kansas City’s all-time receiving yards list. Kelce consistently and almost effortlessly finds gaps in the defense to leverage his size and strength and haul in passes despite an imposing 6-foot-5, 256-pound frame.

One area where Kelce significantly lags

Kelce’s production is also a basis for the reasons he might not be considered the greatest tight end of all time.

There is no doubt Kelce is a fantastic pass-catcher, but that’s not all his position requires. A key component of an NFL tight end’s job is as an in-line blocker on the line, either in pass protection or in the run game.

All four tight ends ahead of Kelce statistically also blocked more than him. Gronkowski blocked on 42% of his career offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, while Gonzalez did it 41.9% of the time. Former Dallas Cowboys legend Jason Witten, who ranks second in receptions and fifth in touchdowns among tight ends, blocked on 48.2% of his snaps. Even Gates blocked on 37.5% of his snaps

Kelce has been a blocker on 36.4% of his career snaps and hasn’t eclipsed a 30% block snap rate since 2020. Kelce’s career in-line tight end snap share is also below 50%, whereas Gronowski’s was 60%, Gonzalez’s was 53% and Witten’s was 70%.

This is where, perhaps, one could question Kelce’s claim to the GOAT tight end title. How can you compare Kelce’s numbers with Gonzalez and Gronkowski, if the latter had similar production but also played tight end more literally and frequently?

As Gronkowski alluded to earlier, Kelce’s lack of blocking snaps shouldn’t necessarily be a knock against him. It’s just simply not what Andy Reid’s offense calls for him to do on the Chiefs.

But the lack traditional tight end roles certainly diminishes his case as a better player than Gonzalez and Gronkowski.

The verdict

It would be disingenuous to categorically anoint or deny Kelce the title before he takes his final snap in the NFL. For now, the consensus remains Gonzalez or Gronkowsk as the greatest tight end of all time.

Former San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos tight end Vernon Davis told Yahoo Sports that Gronkowski is still the GOAT because of how he played the game and how many championships he won with the Patriots. Gronkowski said he’d put current 49ers tight end George Kittle in the “same category” as Kelce in terms of active players.

But Davis agreed Kelce has the components to reach the GOAT level.

“Tight end is a well-rounded position,” Davis said. “You have to be able to block, you have to be able to get in the backfield. You have to be able to do everything. And I think Travis Kelce fits that mold. He’s just everything that you want in the tight end. Because you can do so much with him. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong. He understands the game. So he’s like that ideal tight end that every team wishes they had.”

Gates, meanwhile, told Yahoo Sports he looks at the debate more as a relay team of players than a leaderboard. Where Gonzalez passed the baton to Gates, who passed it to Gronkowski, who will pass it to Kelce, who will pass it onto the next generational tight end.

“If you watched [Kelce] play, his skill set — he probably has more skill set than Tony [Gonzalez] if you watched the game,” Gates said. “So how do you make that comparison? I don’t know. I just believe that he would go down in history as one of the best tight ends, and I’m sure he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”

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