Ranking the greatest tight ends of all time: Is Travis Kelce the GOAT?

Travis Kelce has already established himself as one of the greatest tight ends of all time, but is there an objective way to figure out who is the greatest?
Super Bowl LV
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If you want to get Kansas City Chiefs fans and New England Patriots fans worked up, get them talking about who the greatest tight end of all time is. Patriots fans will passionately argue that it is Rob Gronkowski, while most Chiefs fans will argue that Travis Kelce now deserves that title. Then there's the tight end who produced the most career receptions and yards: former Chief and Atlanta Falcon Tony Gonzalez.

To an extent, this argument is subjective, meaning some fans will never change their mind, regardless of what facts are presented. Despite that, I wanted to try to find a way to look at this debate. I know I have my own biases, and I wanted to make sure that wasn't impacting my outlook. So I set out to see if I could come up with a fair way to answer the question of who the GOAT NFL tight end really is.

My goal was to try and find a balance between career totals and how dominant a player was when they played. If you just go with career numbers, Tony Gonzalez is the hands down winner. The opposite of that argument is the one people often use for Gronk, which is how dominant he was when he played, even if his career was somewhat shortened by injuries.

We settled on 12 different categories to rank the best tight ends of all time in order to try and get a good mix of career production and a sense of dominance when they played. Here are the 12 categories I came up with.

  1. Career Receptions
  2. Career Receiving Yards
  3. Career Touchdowns
  4. Career Yards Per Reception
  5. Career Yards Per Game
  6. Career Receptions Per Game
  7. Career Touchdowns Per Game
  8. Average PFF Run Blocking Grade
  9. First Team All Pro Selections
  10. Pro Bowl Selections
  11. 1,000 Yard Receiving Seasons
  12. Super Bowl Wins

A couple of caveats or explanations for some of these categories: failure to include blocking in this would invalidate the list for some people, but the blocking part is also much more subjective than looking at pass-catching statistics. As a compromise, the Pro Football Focus run-blocking grades for seasons that were available for the players that had them were averaged in. It's an imperfect metric, but at least it puts some kind of number/score with which we can rank them. For the players that predate those rankings, the scores do not reflect that specific category. I also debated on if I should include Super Bowl wins as a category. I don't know if it directly reflects an individual player's ability, but fair or not, I feel it's often viewed as a key part of a player's legacy.

Then I poured over the career numbers of all the major tight ends in NFL history to try and narrow my rankings to the top 12 most productive players. When you are talking about passing statistics, something like this is going to favor the more modern players. With that in mind, here are the twelve I decided to include in these rankings (in alphabetical order).

  1. Vernon Davis
  2. Zach Ertz
  3. Antonio Gates
  4. Tony Gonzalez
  5. Jimmy Graham
  6. Rob Gronkowski
  7. Travis Kelce
  8. Ozzie Newsome
  9. Greg Olsen
  10. Shannon Sharpe
  11. Kellen Winslow Sr.
  12. Jason Witten

The last couple of spots that went to Zach Ertz and Vernon Davis were a judgment call. Older players like Mike Ditka or John Mackey will go down as better players, but they simply don't have the numbers to compete. A couple of other more modern players like Heath Miller, Dallas Clark, and Jared Cook weren't far behind Ertz and Davis, but a line had to be drawn somewhere and Ertz and Davis were standouts in a few categories. I should also point out that players like George Kittle and Mark Andrews don't have enough career stats yet to contend either, but their per-game averages are looking promising if they can maintain their production for several more years.

After ranking the 12 tight ends in each of the 12 categories listed and averaging the scores, each player's "GOAT Score" was calculated:

Average Ranking (GOAT Score)

  1. Travis Kelce - 2.917
  2. Tony Gonzalez - 3.333
  3. Rob Gronkowski - 3.5
  4. Antonio Gates - 4.417
  5. Jason Witten - 5.167
  6. Shannon Sharpe - 5.455
  7. Kellen Winslow - 6.636
  8. Jimmy Graham - 7.333
  9. Greg Olsen - 7.75
  10. Vernon Davis - 8.667 (tie)
  11. Zach Ertz - 8.667
  12. Ozzie Newsome - 9.0

Reflections on the Results

Travis Kelce is the clear current winner when it came to averaging together career totals, per-game averages, and other career achievements. However, the next few years could change these results. Should Kelce play several more years with a reduced role that brings his averages down, but he doesn't surpass guys like Gonzalez and Witten in career stats, he could see his score drop, potentially below those of Gonzalez and Gronkowski.

Also, I think Kellen Winslow is extremely underrated by today's NFL fans. His per-game averages were better than most modern guys in an era where passing numbers were well below today. I also think Newsome's ranking (like those of the Hall of Fame tight ends who didn't make the list) is more a product of his era.

If you would like to see where each player ranked in each of the 12 categories, here's a breakdown of the results for each category on the following slides. Reminder: this is not necessarily their rank among all tight ends (although the top handful in each category are the NFL leaders). These are their rankings amongst these 12 players.

Career Receptions

  1. Tony Gonzalez - 1,325
  2. Jason Witten - 1,228
  3. Antonio Gates - 955
  4. Travis Kelce - 907
  5. Shannon Sharpe - 815
  6. Greg Olsen - 742
  7. Jimmy Graham - 719
  8. Zach Ertz - 709
  9. Ozzie Newsome - 662
  10. Rob Gronkowski - 621
  11. Vernon Davis - 583
  12. Kellen Winslow - 541

Assuming he stays somewhat healthy, Travis Kelce should pass Antonio Gates for 3rd most receptions by a tight end this season. Depending on how much he plays, Zach Ertz also has a chance to move up a spot or two on the all-time list as well. Kellen Winslow sits low on these lists of career totals because he played significantly less games than most of the other players.

Career Receiving Yards

  1. Tony Gonzalez - 15,127
  2. Jason Witten - 13,046
  3. Antonio Gates - 11,841
  4. Travis Kelce - 11,328
  5. Shannon Sharpe - 10,060
  6. Rob Gronkowski - 9,286
  7. Greg Olsen - 8,683
  8. Jimmy Graham - 8,545
  9. Ozzie Newsome - 7,980
  10. Verson Davis - 7,562
  11. Zach Ertz - 7,434
  12. Kellen Winslow - 6,741

Travis Kelce should also pass Gates on this list this season. You might also notice that while Gronk was 10th on the last list for receptions, he jumps to 6th on this one for yards. When we get to the career yards per reception list, you'll see why.

Career Touchdowns

  1. Antonio Gates - 116
  2. Tony Gonzalez - 111
  3. Rob Gronkowski - 92
  4. Jimmy Graham - 89
  5. Travis Kelce - 74
  6. Jason Witten - 74
  7. Vernon Davis - 63
  8. Shannon Sharpe - 62
  9. Greg Olsen - 60
  10. Ozzie Newsome - 47
  11. Zach Ertz - 46
  12. Kellen Winslow - 45

Antonio Gates was a monster in the red zone. As was Gronk who is third on the list despite being 10th in career receptions. Once again, we'll see why when we get to the TD/Game category. It will be interesting to see if Kelce can make up ground in this category over the next couple of years. He is currently 15 TDs behind Jimmy Graham and 18 behind Gronk.

Career Yards Per Reception

  1. Rob Gronkowski - 15.0
  2. Vernon Davis - 13.0
  3. Travis Kelce - 12.5
  4. Kellen Winslow - 12.5
  5. Antonio Gates - 12.4
  6. Shannon Sharpe - 12.3
  7. Ozzie Newsome - 12.1
  8. Jimmy Graham - 11.9
  9. Greg Olsen - 11.7
  10. Tony Gonzalez - 11.4
  11. Jason Witten - 10.6
  12. Zach Ertz - 10.6

This is where you can see Gronk's dominance on a per catch basis. He's two full yards over the next guy on this list. Kelce is currently third, but the guys behind his are close enough that if his yards per reception drops some over the next couple of years he could slide several spot lower on this list. This is also where guys like Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten who have a ton of total production, aren't as strong. It's also worth pointing out how good Vernon Davis was in this area as well.

Career Receiving Yards Per Game

  1. Travis Kelce - 71.2
  2. Rob Gronkowski - 64.9
  3. Kellen Winslow - 61.8
  4. Tony Gonzalez - 56.0
  5. Antonio Gates - 50.2
  6. Shannon Sharpe - 49.3
  7. Zach Ertz - 49.2
  8. Jason Witten - 48.1
  9. Greg Olsen - 43.6
  10. Jimmy Graham - 43.4
  11. Ozzie Newsome - 40.3
  12. Vernon Davis - 38.2

As dominant as Gronk was in the yards per reception category, Kelce is here. His 71.2 yards per game is not only heads and tails the best all time for a tight end, it's in the top 30 of all time for wide receivers, just ahead of Randy Moss who averaged 70.1 for his career. Again, Kelce may see this number come down some as his career trails off, but he has a buffer that should keep him at or near the top of this list. This is also where Kellen Winslow's number should be turning heads, especially considering the era he played in.

Career Receptions Per Game

  1. Travis Kelce - 5.7
  2. Kellen Winslow - 5.0
  3. Tony Gonzalez - 4.9
  4. Zach Ertz - 4.7
  5. Jason Witten - 4.5
  6. Rob Gronkowski - 4.3
  7. Antonio Gates - 4.0
  8. Shannon Sharpe - 4.0
  9. Greg Olsen - 3.7
  10. Jimmy Graham - 3.6
  11. Ozzie Newsome - 3.3
  12. Vernon Davis - 2.9

Another standout area for Travis Kelce. I was also surprised to see that Kellen Winslow averaged more receptions per game over his career than Tony Gonzalez. This is a standout area for Zach Ertz as well.

Career Touchdowns Per Game

  1. Rob Gronkowski - 0.643
  2. Antonio Gates - 0.492
  3. Travis Kelce - 0.465
  4. Jimmy Graham - 0.452
  5. Kellen Winslow - 0.413
  6. Tony Gonzalez - 0.411
  7. Vernon Davis - 0.318
  8. Zach Ertz - 0.305
  9. Shannon Sharpe - 0.304
  10. Greg Olsen - 0.302
  11. Jason Witten - 0.273
  12. Ozzie Newsome - 0.237

This is another absolutely dominant area for Gronk. He's heads and tails above everyone else. Antonio Gates is still great in this area, but Gronk was on a different level. Kelce is still in an impressive third place, so it will be interesting to see if he can maintain that spot through the later years of his career. Once again, Kellen Winslow is pretty impressive for his era.

Average PFF Run Blocking Season

  1. Jason Witten - 75.9
  2. Rob Gronkowski - 72.25
  3. Tony Gonzalez - 72.13
  4. Greg Olsen - 66.66
  5. Vernon Davis - 66.24
  6. Travis Kelce - 65.07
  7. Antonio Gates - 63.63
  8. Jimmy Graham - 60.55
  9. Zach Ertz - 56.7

*No ratings available for Shannon Sharpe, Kellen Winslow, or Ozzie Newsome.

This is the category in which some people will have a problem since there weren't any rankings for Sharpe, Winslow, and Newsome and only about half of Tony Gonzalez's seasons. Still, it gives us an idea of where most of these guys rank. I knew Witten was a good run blocker, but I was surprised that his average season was graded even better than Gronk's. I'm sure New England fans won't have any issue with that. I also think people forget that Gonzalez was a technically sound blocker as well, even in the back half of his career.

First Team All-Pro Selections

  1. Tony Gonzalez - 6
  2. Travis Kelce - 4
  3. Rob Gronkowski - 4
  4. Antonio Gates - 4
  5. Shannon Sharpe - 4
  6. Kellen Winslow - 3
  7. Jason Witten - 2
  8. Ozzie Newsome - 2
  9. Jimmy Graham - 1
  10. Greg Olsen - 0
  11. Vernon Davis - 0
  12. Zach Ertz - 0

I'd like to take this space in this category to shout out John Mackey, Keith Jackson, and Fred Arbanas who all have three First Team All-Pro selections as well. They may not have the numbers to compete for the greatest of all time, but all three were clearly the best of their eras.

Pro Bowl Selections

  1. Tony Gonzalez - 14
  2. Jason Witten - 11
  3. Travis Kelce - 9
  4. Antonio Gates - 8
  5. Shannon Sharpe - 8
  6. Rob Gronkowski - 5
  7. Kellen Winslow - 5
  8. Jimmy Graham - 5
  9. Greg Olsen - 3
  10. Zach Ertz - 3
  11. Ozzie Newsome - 3
  12. Vernon Davis - 2

I think this is a good overall picture of how many seasons these players really were playing at a high level. Anything at five or over is pretty impressive for a career. Gonzalez's 14 is absurd.

1,000 Yard Receiving Seasons

  1. Travis Kelce - 7
  2. Tony Gonzalez - 4
  3. Rob Gronkowski - 4
  4. Jason Witten - 4
  5. Shannon Sharpe - 3
  6. Kellen Winslow - 3
  7. Greg Olsen - 3
  8. Antonio Gates - 2
  9. Jimmy Graham - 2
  10. Ozzie Newsome - 2
  11. Zach Ertz - 1
  12. Vernon Davis - 0

This is another category where Travis Kelce is king and nobody is even close. The fact that Kelce's 7 seasons were consecutive is even more impressive.

Super Bowl Wins

  1. 1. Rob Gronkowski - 4
  2. Travis Kelce - 3 (tie)
  3. Shannon Sharpe - 3 (tie)
  4. Vernon Davis - 1 (tie)
  5. Zach Ertz - 1 (tie)

All other players tied for 6th with zero.

Gronk, Kelce, and Sharpe are the three tight ends who get a real legacy bump because of their Super Bowl wins and appearances. It's not much of a factor for anyone else. Did anyone even remember that Vernon Davis was on the Denver Broncos Super Bowl team from the 2015 season?

Final Thoughts:

While an argument can be made for how dominant Gronk was with his yards per reception, touchdowns per game, and blocking prowess, Travis Kelce leads him in too many other categories. There isn't a weak part of Kelce's resume. His lowest ranking was sixth in run blocking. He was top five in the other 11 categories, and top three in 8 of those.

It will be interesting to see where his totals and averages end up when he retires, but at this point, there isn't another tight end who can match his combination of career totals, per-game averages, and career accomplishments. When you factor all those things in, it's hard to argue that Travis Kelce isn't the greatest of all time.

You can also check out my 2024 Consensus Team Power Ranking and 2024 Quarterback Power Rankings at the links below.