How do Travis Kelce’s numbers compare to other great tight ends?
On Thursday, word broke that the Kansas City Chiefs had signed their star tight end Travis Kelce to a contract extension that would keep him in K.C. for the next six seasons.
Kelce’s stats through the first seven years of his career are some of the best that the NFL has ever seen. As Matt Conner pointed out in his piece, the discussion around Kelce is no longer if he is one of the best tight ends in the NFL right now, but where does he belong amongst the best tight ends of all time.
His new deal will make him a Chief until he is 36-years-old, so this week I thought I would look at both how Kelce compares to the most productive tight ends ever at this point in his career. How did those same tight ends fare as they played into their thirties?
When I say that Kelce has been one of the best tight ends of all time through the first half of his career, that isn’t hyperbole. He’s the only tight end to put up four straight seasons of over 1,000 yards receiving. He got to 500 career receptions in less games than any tight end in NFL history, and his 6,465 career receiving yards is the most by a tight end through 7 seasons in NFL history (which is insane because he didn’t play at all in his first season).
Basically, Kelce has been a clear Hall of Fame talent in the six seasons that he has played, and now he is signed up to play another six with the Chiefs.
The tight end position has been revolutionized in the modern NFL and, because of that, most of the NFL’s top 10 tight ends are recent players. In fact, when you look at the lists of career leaders in receptions and receiving yards amongst tight ends, the top six players are the exact same (and in the exact same order), and Ozzie Newsome is the only one that didn’t play the majority of his career in the 2000s.
Before I get into the age aspect of this post and expectations for Kelce as he plays out this contract, I want to be clear that I am thrilled that the Chiefs locked up Kelce long term. He’s one of my favorite players and, as I just stated, he’s been Hall of Fame-caliber so far in Kansas City. That doesn’t change the fact that most players see their production decline as they get older. It’s natural.
Before we look at how the best tight ends of all time performed after the age of thirty, let’s directly compare how they did at the same age as Kelce thus far. Kelce’s first six seasons of statistics came from the seasons at age 25-30. During those years Kelce averaged:
- 84.5 receptions
- 1,077.5 yards
- 12.8 yards/reception
- 6.2 touchdowns
Now let’s compare that to the six seasons of ages 25-30 of the four most productive tight ends in NFL history.
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Age 25-30 Seasons:
- Tony Gonzalez: 76.7 rec., 944.8 yards, 12.3 yards/reception, 6.2 TD
- Jason Witten: 92.3 rec., 1,018.3 yards, 11.0 yards/reception, 5 TD
- Antonio Gates: 70.7 rec., 942 yards, 13.3 yards/reception, 9 TD
- Shannon Sharpe: 74.5 rec., 949.7 yards, 12.7 yards/reception, 6.7 TD
When you compare Kelce’s numbers to the four most productive tight ends in NFL history at the exact same age, Kelce is right up there with them in every single category. How did those same tight ends produce after their age 30 season? Let’s take a look.
The following is the average yearly production of those same four tight ends in their age 31-36 seasons. Witten and Sharpe both retired (Witten has since unretired) after their age 35 season, so their averages are only for five seasons instead of six.
Age 31-36 Seasons:
- Tony Gonzalez: 86.8 rec., 926.3 yards, 10.7 yards/reception, 7 TD
- Jason Witten: 69.2 rec., 700 yards, 10.1 yards/reception, 10.1 TD
- Antonio Gates: 61.3 rec., 697.8 yards, 11.2 yards/reception, 7 TD
- Shannon Sharpe: 57.2 rec., 660.2 yards, 11.5 yards/reception, 3.6 TD
Even amongst the four most productive tight ends of all time, there was a noticeable drop as they played into their 30s in three of the four. Only the ageless wonder, Tony Gonzalez, was able to maintain his production at that age, even increasing his receptions and touchdowns. It would certainly be reasonable to expect a drop off at some point for Kelce. It’s just a matter of how long he can make it before it happens.
Outside of the top four tight ends of all time, the drop after age 30 is even more dramatic. Take a look at some of these numbers.
Greg Olsen is fifth all time in both tight end receptions and yards, but has been unable to stay healthy as he has gotten older. Because of that, in his four seasons at ages 31-34 he has averaged: 50 receptions, 534.3 yards, 10.7 yards/reception, 5 touchdowns
Ozzie Newsome is a a Hall of Famer and ranks sixth in both receptions and yards for tight ends. In his final four seasons ages 31-34 he averaged: 30.25 receptions, 320.5 yards, 10.6 yards/reception, 1.25 touchdowns
Jimmy Graham was on pace to be one of the most productive tight ends of all time at one point, but he has also seen his numbers drop after age 30. He may already be in the top ten all time in receptions and yards, but in his three seasons post 30 he has averaged: 50 receptions, 534.3 yards, 10.7 yards/reception, 5 touchdowns
Vernon Davis has had a long and productive career that currently has him in the top ten in both receptions and yards for tight ends as well, but his averages in his five seasons after age 30 haven’t been great: 32 receptions, 423.2 yards, 13.2 yards/reception, 1.6 touchdowns.
The bottom line here is that when you look at all the most productive tight ends in the history of the NFL, only Gonzalez put up numbers in his 30s that would warrant a contract the size of the extension that Travis Kelce just signed. I would argue that the averages for every other tight end on this list during that career span would be seen as a disappointment for Kelce. That’s quite the challenge for the Chiefs tight end to overcome.
Again, I’m thrilled that the Chiefs locked up Kelce long term. He’s one of my favorite players on the team and he has a chance to go down as one of the greatest players at his position of all time. I believe that Kelce has several more years of prime production left in him. However, make no mistake, he is going to have to fight history to stay this productive for the length of this deal. I’m looking forward to watching him try and will be cheering for him every step of the way.
What do you think Chiefs fans? Are you excited about Kelce’s extension? Do you agree that he is definitely on a Hall of Fame pace that is every bit as good as the most productive tight ends in NFL history? Are you worried at all about the lack of tight ends that have maintained their elite production into their 30s? Do you think that he’ll join Gonzalez as an exception to that rule?
I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.