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Is Travis Kelce Passing Gronk as the Best TE of His Era?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 4, 2021

FILE - At left, in a Dec. 30, 2018, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski runs during the second half of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass. At right, in an Oct. 7, 2018, file photo, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce carries the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Kansas City, Mo. Brady and Mahomes get plenty of attention, but they can’t do it alone. Patriots running back James White tied Darren Sproles’ postseason record with 15 catches in their 41-28 divisional victory over the Chargers, while Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman remain dangerous threats. The Chiefs counter with the pass-catching trio of speedy Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and sure-handed Travis Kelce. (AP Photo/File)
Uncredited/Associated Press

The consensus for some time has been that Rob Gronkowski is the greatest tight end of his generation, if not the best in NFL history at that position. And while Gronk's reputation still inarguably towers over all of his elite positional peers from the 21st century, it's worth pointing out that Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs is making a heck of a run at Gronk's legacy on paper.

After setting a new record at the position with 1,416 yards to go along with 11 touchdowns in 2020, the 31-year-old is positioned to leapfrog a slew of legendary tight ends—possibly including Gronk—in 2021.

The three-time first-team All-Pro needs 1,105 yards next season to jump from 12th to fifth on the all-time tight end receiving yardage list, ahead of Hall of Famers Harold Carmichael, Ozzie Newsome and Jackie Smith as well as modern-day stars Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham and Gronkowski (who currently leads Kelce by 603 yards but had 793 fewer yards than Kelce in 2020).

Considering he's averaged 1,229 yards per season over the past five years, that shouldn't be a problem so long as Kelce stays healthy for the juggernaut Chiefs and their superstar quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. And not to jinx things, but he hasn't missed a game because of injury since becoming a regular in 2014.

Steve Luciano/Associated Press
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That's right, Kelce has only been an NFL starter for seven years. He turned 24 as a rookie and missed practically that entire year with a knee injury, so his age-25 campaign was his first full-length professional season. And while that late start might make it hard for the 2013 third-round pick to catch cumulative record-holders Tony Gonzalez (1,325 catches compared to 612 for Kelce and 15,127 yards compared to 7,881 for Kelce) and Antonio Gates (116 touchdowns compared to 48 for Kelce), it also likely means he has more tread on his tires than your typical 31-year-old tight end.

With a handful more seasons in the range of 100 receptions, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, Kelce would be right there statistically with Gonzalez, Gates and Jason Witten and likely far ahead of Gronkowski, who simply isn't as large a factor with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as he used to be with the New England Patriots.

Among modern tight ends with at least 4,000 career receiving yards, only Gronkowski and Kelce have yards-per-target averages above 9.0. Only Kelce, Witten and Heath Miller have catch rates above 70 percent (Gronk is at 65 percent), and only Kelce has averaged more than 70 yards per game (Gronk is second at 64.8).

Where Gronkowski and others have a sizable edge over Kelce is the touchdown category. Kelce is tied for 18th on the all-time tight end scoring list, mainly because he corralled just 14 touchdowns prior to his age-28 season. But he's made up for that to a degree with 35 scores (including a rushing touchdown) the last four years.

Gronk has caught 86 touchdown passes in 131 career games, which puts him on track to fly by Gates (116) and Gonzalez (111) if he can stick around long enough. If Kelce (who has 48 touchdown grabs in 111 games) can maintain his pace from the last four years, he'd only have 91 career touchdown catches in five years' time. So while he's likely to surpass Gronkowski in a lot of other areas, it will be tough to beat him where Gronk might argue it matters most.

Steve Luciano/Associated Press

Another area many will argue takes precedence? The playoffs and the Super Bowl.

Obviously, it matters that Gronkowski has four rings compared to one for Kelce, but Kelce has nearly as many catches (83 compared to 89), yards (992 compared to 1,273) and touchdowns (nine compared to 14) in 12 playoff games as Gronkowski has in 20. He's caught 77.6 percent of the passes thrown his way for a yards-per-target average of 9.3 in the postseason, as opposed to just 61.8 percent and 8.8 for Gronkowski.

And although he's only a few months younger than Gronkowski (both were born in 1989), his trajectory indicates he'll have more playoff and Super Bowl opportunities than Gronk in the years to come.

In other words, the path is there for Kelce, and all he and the Chiefs have to do is maintain their current momentum for a few more seasons. He's already made more Pro Bowls (six) than Gronk (five), and he's just one first-team All-Pro honor behind Gronk's four.

That doesn't change the fact that many will continue to view Gronkowski as the more dominant player, and it would be fair for those in his corner to point out that we might not even be having this conversation if injuries didn't wear Gronk down in his prime. He missed a combined 17 games in 2013 and 2016 and retired for a year in 2019.

But fair or not, durability is part of the equation when we're assessing all-time greats.

There's still plenty of work to do, but considering Gronkowski's place atop the tight end totem pole for much of the last decade, it's rather amazing Kelce has turned this into a legitimate debate.

           

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.

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