A group of the NFL’s best tight ends held the inaugural “Tight End University” in Nashville, Tennessee this past weekend. The event was organized primarily by retiree Greg Olsen, San Francisco 49ers George Kittle, and the K.C. Chiefs own Travis Kelce. From all appearances, the event was a spectacle and replete with videos of the group sharing their trade secrets.
The debate still rages as to who is the best tight end in the NFL, with Kelce’s and Kittle’s names at the forefront. Most Chiefs fans, including myself, have strong opinions on this argument. With both objectively in their prime, it’s unlikely this debate will be settled any time soon.
Despite that, Travis Kelce has been on an absolute tear the last five seasons and could be approaching some historic milestones if he continues. He was the first tight end in NFL history with four straight 1,000 yard receiving seasons and followed that up with his best season yet. In 2021, he set the all-time receiving mark for a tight end in a season with 1,416 yards.
Travis Kelce is 31, and while he is objectively getting better, it makes sense at this juncture of his career to wonder whether he will ultimately climb the Mount Everest of tight ends and end his career as the greatest to ever play the position.
While there are a number of great tight ends throughout the 101 year history of the NFL, for this purpose I’ll focus on the handful who are considered the most prolific in the passing game. There’s an argument to be made this doesn’t appreciate the other elements of the position enough, but objectively speaking, most of the players usually considered in this conversation were/are dynamic receiving threats.
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For comparison, here are the tight ends I’ll compare Travis Kelce’s career and future prospects to:
- Tony Gonzalez – 17 seasons, 1,325 receptions, 15,127 yards, 111 touchdowns
- Shannon Sharpe – 14 seasons, 815 receptions, 10,060 yards, 62 touchdowns
- Antonio Gates – 16 seasons, 955 receptions, 11,841 yards, 116 touchdowns
- Jimmy Graham – 11 seasons, 699 receptions, 8,339 yards, 82 touchdowns
- Jason Witten – 18 seasons, 1,228 receptions, 13,046, 74 touchdowns
- Rob Gronkowski – 11 seasons, 566 receptions, 8,484 yards, 86 touchdowns
Kelce has some notable serious competition to scale the summit. His current stats of seven seasons (he sat out his first with a knee injury), 612 receptions, 7,881 yards and 48 touchdowns place him well behind the retired leaders and a couple active players in Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski.
To perform this exercise to it’s fullest, we have to make some assumptions. The retired players on this list all played to an average age of 37 years old. If we assume the three active players would play to this average Jimmy Graham will play three more seasons, Rob Gronkowski will play five more seasons, and Travis Kelce will play six more seasons.
We could argue precise details all day long, but this is actually a fairly believable scenario given the ability of players today to play late into their thirties. If we then assume each player will play at 90 percent of their average productions for the rest of their career (to account for physical decline) we have some tangible ranking scenarios:
- Tony Gonzalez – 17 seasons, 1,325 rec., 15,127 yards, 11.42 yards per reception, 111 TD
- Travis Kelce – 13 seasons, 1023 rec., 13,173 yards, 12.88 yards per reception, 80 TD
- Jason Witten – 18 seasons, 1,228 rec., 13,046 yards, 10.62 yards per reception, 74 TD
- Antonio Gates – 16 seasons, 955 rec., 11,841 receptions, 12.4 yards per reception, 113 TD
- Rob Gronkowski – 16 seasons, 741 rec., 11,106 yards, 14.99 yards per reception, 116 TD
- Shannon Sharpe – 14 seasons, 815 rec., 10,060 yards, 12.34 yards per reception, 87 TD
- Jimmy Graham – 14 seasons, 801 rec., 9,552yards, 11.93 yards per reception, 94 TD
What this hypothetical tends to show is that Kelce may not finish first in any major category, but he’d be near the top in all the ones that mattered. In this scenario he’d finish third in receptions, second in yards and sixth in touchdowns relative to this list.
Yet where he truly shines is his average season. If these numbers are even close to accurate Kelce would finish first in receptions, first in yards (nearly 15 percent more than Gonzalez in second place), and tied for second most touchdowns in a season. He’d be the only player on this list to average 1,000 yards per season, with none of the other players coming close.
If this played out, is Kelce the best tight end to ever play? There are elements of this discussion we haven’t addressed, such as the fact that yesterday’s 4,000 yard passing season is today’s 5,000 yard passing season. That could have made a decent difference in the production of the inactive players on this list, but the variables in that discussion are likely endless.
What this does show is that Travis Kelce is assuredly on track for the NFL Hall of Fame, even if he begins to decline. Chiefs Kingdom is witnessing one of the greatest to ever play at the position regardless of quarterback and we should cherish it while it lasts.