ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler spoke to over 50 league executives, coaches, scouts, and players to stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions, and on Tuesday, they started with tight end. You know these rankings are subjective when someone lists Rob Gronkowski No. 1, and he didn’t play football in 2019.
The battle came down between San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle and Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce. These are the two best, and third place is a distant third. Kittle gets the nod from the NFL as the No. 1 tight end, though:
Kittle’s edge isn’t quantifiable by sheer numbers. It has to be felt. “Be on the field, and see how he elevates the play of everyone in the offense. It’s tangible,” one NFC coordinator said. “He lifts everyone up.”
Kittle and Kelce were nearly co-No. 1s as part of the closest race of any position. Consecutive 1,000-yard seasons make Kittle a top contender, but his blocking and intensity helped earn him nearly half the first-place votes. Where Kittle beats everyone is at the line of scrimmage and with the ball in his hands, as he forced a league-high 20 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
“The passion on tape is unmatched,” one AFC exec said. “He’s got that dog in him. More competitive than Kelce.”
Another exec said Kittle is “not nearly the fluid runner Kelce is” in routes, but he does everything else equally well or better. Kittle is basically an offensive lineman for a top rushing attack as well as a tight end, and no one else can say that.
“Unreal passion, energy, toughness, blocking,” the exec said.
One Kelce-Kittle tiebreaker is scheme flexibility. As one veteran coach sees it, “Kyle [Shanahan] schemes him open a little bit,” whereas Kelce has the route savvy to get open in any scenario. But as one veteran NFL quarterback sees it, Andy Reid’s offense creates more opportunities for Kelce, and Kittle’s offense passed the ball 478 times in 2019, less than that of all but three teams. Even in Shanahan’s run-dominant set, Kittle has produced 56 catches of 15 or more yards since 2018.
As the first coordinator said, it’s tough to quantify Kittle’s value in numbers alone. He brings so much to the table from an energy standpoint where you have no choice but to raise your game if you’re playing next to him. Kittle’s impact truly is tangible. When you do go back to numbers, instead of looking at sheer volume stats, take into account what each player did with the ball in their hands. Kittle averaged three yards more after the catch than Kelce did. He also avoided five more tackles on 24 fewer targets.
The part where an exec calls Kelce more fluid in his routes is fair. I’d say Kelce is a better route runner and better at playing the ball in the air. The route running is the only clear-cut trait I’d give Kelce the advantage over Kittle. Even when it comes to ball skills, Kittle is right there with Kelce.
I’m interested in seeing how these two develop as they get older into their careers when they’re not as athletic. Kittle’s game seems like it would translate better into his 30s. I can’t say the same for Kelce. The way Kittle plays, with his aggression, it’s hard for me to think he won’t be dominant throughout his career.
The rest of the top-10 tight ends were:
2) Travis Kelce
3) Zach Ertz
4) Rob Gronkowski
5) Darren Waller
6) Mark Andrews
7) Evan Engram
8) Hunter Henry
9) Austin Hooper
10) Jared Cook