ESPN: Kittle, Kelce, Waller Lead Top 10 NFL TEs Ranked by Execs, Players, Coaches

Tim Daniels@@TimDanielsBRFeatured Columnist IVJuly 15, 2021

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) warms up prior to an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

The San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle narrowly edged out the Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce as the NFL's top tight end in a poll of over 50 league executives, players, coaches and scouts.

ESPN's Jeremy Fowler provided the results Thursday, highlighting the "tight race for the top spot" and the Las Vegas Raiders' Darren Waller "knocking on the door of the Kittle-Kelce class."

Here's a look at the complete top 10:

  • 1. George Kittle (49ers)
  • 2. Travis Kelce (Chiefs)
  • 3. Darren Waller (Raiders)
  • 4. Mark Andrews (Baltimore Ravens)
  • 5. T.J. Hockenson (Detroit Lions)
  • 6. Dallas Goedert (Philadelphia Eagles)
  • 7. Hunter Henry (New England Patriots)
  • 8. Evan Engram (New York Giants)
  • 9. Jonnu Smith (Patriots)
  • 10. Zach Ertz (Eagles)

Kittle only appeared in eight games last season because of knee and foot injuries, and the Niners offense felt the effects as it dropped from fourth to 15th in total yards with its three quarterbacks (Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard) combining for 25 touchdowns and 17 interceptions without the league's ultimate safety-value and one of the team's best blockers available for half the campaign.

"He moves after the catch better than anyone, he's the toughest on the list, the best blocker and he can catch 100 passes in the right offense," an AFC scout told Fowler.

Kelce may have led the NFL in receiving yards in 2020 if he didn't sit out Week 17 to rest ahead of the Chiefs' playoff run. He finished with 1,416 yards, which was 119 behind Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (1,535). The Chiefs star had four games with over 120 yards.

The presence of receiver Tyreek Hill on the outside limits opponents' ability to double team the six-time Pro Bowl tight end, who's a nightmare matchup in one-on-one coverage.

"I'd still take him over Kittle because there's nobody better at getting open and making tough catches look easy," an NFC executive told ESPN.

Waller proved his breakout 2019 campaign was no fluke with a second straight season over 1,100 receiving yards for the Raiders last year, and his 107 catches ranked fourth in the NFL.

The 28-year-old Maryland native said there's still a lot to work on despite his recent uptick in performance.

"Realizing this game isn't going to give me anything, I'm not entitled to anything just because I've put a couple of years together," Waller told ESPN's Paul Gutierrez in June. "Like people say, 'Rent is due every day.' I still have to show up and work just as hard just to put myself in positions because I still can't control the results at the end of the day."

The voters also gave high rankings to both of the Patriots' offseason additions at tight end, Henry and Smith. It'll give New England the ability to create some unique matchup issues for opposing defenses.

Five tight ends were also named honorable mentions: Rob Gronkowski (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Noah Fant (Denver Broncos), Mike Gesicki (Miami Dolphins), Austin Hooper (Cleveland Browns) and Robert Tonyan (Green Bay Packers).

Gesicki in particular appears poised for a standout season that could push him into next year's top 10 if Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can take a step forward in his second NFL campaign.