Where do Travis Kelce and George Kittle fit in among the great NFL tight ends? – The Athletic

By Dan PompeiFeb 11, 2024

The Chiefs beat the 49ers in overtime to win Super Bowl LVIII. 

This Super Bowl showdown between Travis Kelce of the Chiefs and George Kittle of the 49ers is a clash of styles.

It’s Kelce’s tight fade versus Kittle’s straggly, anyone-know-a-good-barber? look.

Kittle’s pregame routine includes meditation, visualization and a salt bath. Kelce spends three hours selecting what he will wear.

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Kelce pulls up in a Rolls-Royce Ghost, whereas it’s a classic Mustang for Kittle.

They are as different as Heath Ledger (Kittle has a tattoo of him) and Chris Farley (Kelce watches his movies repeatedly).

Kelce is a Burger King Whopper kind of guy; Kittle goes for the orange chicken at Panda Express.

And there’s more.

The opposing tight ends come from different branches of the same tree.

Kelce, with his confounding feel for understanding football’s intersections of time and space, is the representative of the receiving branch.

Kittle, the hit man who gives defensive ends tastes of turf, comes from the blocking branch, or perhaps we should call it the two-way branch.

Appropriately, Kittle is the son of a one-time left tackle and offensive line coach. That is not to say he catches as if he’s wearing boxing gloves, however. He once had 210 receiving yards in a game. Kittle led NFL tight ends in receiving yards this season — it was his third 1,000-yard season.

In 2018, he had 1,377 yards, which was the most by a tight end in NFL history. Two years later, Kelce outdid him by 39 yards. Since Kittle came into the league in 2017, Kelce is the only tight end with more receiving yards.

Kelce has seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons — more than any tight end ever (he missed his eighth this season by 16 yards after sitting out the regular-season finale). In his career, he has averaged 71.2 receiving yards per game — highest among all tight ends.

Without Kelce’s 11 catches for 116 yards against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs are not in Las Vegas this week. And without Kittle’s 1,020 receiving yards during the regular season, the 49ers might be sitting this one out, too.

More than an opportunity to buy squares and dip wings, Super Bowl LVIII is a forum to consider Kittle, Kelce and their places among the greatest of tight ends.

Travis Kelce, left, has more 1,000-yard seasons than any tight end in NFL history, but George Kittle led the league’s tight ends in receiving yards this season. (Kevin Terrell / Associated Press)

Football’s first tight end was supposed to be a linebacker.

At least that’s what many teams thought. But Bears coach George Halas, head scout George Allen and assistant coach Luke Johnsos saw something in Mike Ditka that no one else did. They selected him and invented a new position, moving him a few yards from the offensive tackle on the line of scrimmage so he could have a two-way release, inside or outside the pressing defender.

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Ditka caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaged 19.2 yards per catch and was named the league’s rookie of the year. He wasn’t fast by today’s tight end standards, but he could get open with physicality and was as difficult to tackle as any player ever. What’s more, he set a standard for blocking.

“You had to watch him for 60 minutes because he’d take your head off,” Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones told NFL Films.

“Ditka defined the position,” says Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf, who scouted Ditka in person in the early 1960s.

In the 1963 championship game, the Bears trailed the Giants 10-7 late in the third quarter and faced a third-and-9 on the Giants’ 15 when Johnsos suggested Halas call “Ditka Special,” in which Ditka ran a shallow crossing route. Ditka caught the pass just past the line of scrimmage and took it to the Giants’ 1. The Bears scored the winning touchdown on the next play.

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That same season, John Mackey made his debut for the Baltimore Colts. For most of his time at Syracuse, Mackey was a fullback who blocked for Heisman winner Ernie Davis. But as a senior, he led his team in receiving. Colts coach Don Shula envisioned another Ditka, and Mackey subsequently averaged 20.7 yards per reception as a rookie and became the second great tight end.

“Mackey had a little more speed than Ditka,” says Dale Lindsey, who played against both as a linebacker with the Browns and Saints and later coached in the NFL for 21 years. “In coverage, Mackey gave you more problems. But he wasn’t as physical as Mike was. In the running game, Mike was head and shoulders above everybody else — a tough, physical guy.”

In a move that would have momentous implications for the tight end position, Steelers coach Chuck Noll hired former Georgia Tech coach Bud Carson as a defensive backs coach in 1972, then promoted him to defensive coordinator the following season. Carson brought the Cover 2 defense to the NFL, which made the middle of the field vulnerable to attack. Offensive minds looked for ways to counter with players who could exploit the open spaces in the zone defense.

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Dave Casper had been an All-America offensive tackle at Notre Dame in 1972. The following year, he was an All-America tight end. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis chose him in the second round in 1974 and helped Casper become a tight end who made legendary plays.

“They lined him up on the left side with Art Shell and Gene Upshaw and ran every play to the left,” says one-time NFL defensive back, Hall of Fame coach and NBC commentator Tony Dungy, who played against Casper. “They didn’t care if you knew it. Dave became what everybody was looking for, a guy you could run behind on third-and-1 and also outrun a safety and make the catch to win the game.”

But the Steelers were having so much success with Carson’s Cover 2 that the NFL made a change in 1978 to try to help offenses. The “Mel Blount rule” limited contact between defenders and receivers to the 5-yard area just beyond the line of scrimmage. Before 1978, defenders could jostle receivers all the way downfield without penalty.

For offenses, this was seismic, and an opportunity for innovation.

At 6 foot 2 and maybe 215 pounds, Ozzie Newsome was a big wide receiver at Alabama. He wasn’t big enough to be a tight end in the way Ditka, Mackey and Casper were, but Newsome could run and catch like few before him or since. With the Browns, he became a different kind of tight end, and when Newsome retired 13 years later, he was the all-time-leading tight end receiver.

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The year after Newsome entered the league, San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell and offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs were looking for an explosive playmaker who could create matchup problems. They found one like no other when they drafted Kellen Winslow in 1979.

“Gibbs and Coryell said, ‘If I have that talent, why leave him at the tight end position?’” Dungy says. “‘I’ll move him and create mismatches.’ So Winslow did everything Ozzie did, but he lined up as a tight end, a wide receiver, in the backfield and in the slot. He was hardly ever asked to block.”

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Winslow led the NFL in receptions twice and finished second and third in two other years.

“He was the first big, athletic guy who could run, jump, block,” says former Commanders coach Ron Rivera, who played against Winslow as a Chicago linebacker. “And he had really good hands.”

Tony Gonzalez led a new wave of athletic tight ends in the 1990s, many of them with basketball backgrounds. (Photo by Al Tielemans / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

After Winslow, the emphasis became more on versatility and less on physicality. In 1990, the Denver Broncos drafted a small-school wide receiver in the seventh round and made him a tight end. Shannon Sharpe became a latter-day Newsome and was the first tight end to have 10,000 receiving yards.

Tight ends up to that point got open mostly with speed, size or scheming. Then came a wave of players — Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham among them — who got open with savvy. Each of the aforementioned had a basketball background.

According to Tyler Dunne’s book, “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Saved Football,” Gonzalez didn’t run routes like most. Instead of exploding out of his stance, he slow-played the defender until he got near him, then created separation with a subtle shove.

“That little split right there is all he needed,” former Jets and Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “He nudges you on the hip with the elbow and then he bursts full speed for an out route. Now it’s too late. There is nothing you can do.”

Gonzalez, who has the flashiest statistics of all the tight ends, wanted to be considered a receiving tight end and clashed with coaches who wanted him to embrace the more muscular aspects of his job.

Defenders often thought they had Gates smothered only to see him make a catch. He had more touchdown receptions than any tight end and is seventh in touchdown catches among all players. Former NFL safety Eric Weddle, who played against Gates, Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, Kelce and Kittle, says Gates was the most difficult to cover.

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“Knowing how to position his body is what made him special,” Rivera says. “I think it came from his basketball background. For him, a catch was a rebound. He was the best underneath target I ever saw.”

Amid positional evolution, Gronkowski was a throwback — more Ditka and Mackey than Gonzalez and Gates.

“The thing about Gronk was Gronk could also block like a tackle,” former teammate Julian Edelman said in “The Blood and Guts.” “Nowadays, you’re getting tight ends who are just receiver tight ends. They don’t put their head in the mix. Gronk was an elite — an elite — blocker.”

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But Gronkowski was a special weapon as a receiver, as well. He had five seasons scoring at least 10 touchdowns, more than any tight end in history.

“He wasn’t going to run away from you or route you up,” Weddle says. “But he would create so much separation with his first two steps. You would be able to get back in phase with the next three, four steps because you’re faster. But then he would body you up. He was so big and had such a big wingspan. If the ball was anywhere close to him, he was catching it.”

Ditka, Mackey, Casper and Gronkowski led to Kittle.

Newsome, Winslow, Sharpe, Gonzalez and Gates led to Kelce.

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Nine tight ends have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Casper, Ditka, Gonzalez, Mackey, Newsome, Charlie Sanders, Sharpe, Jackie Smith and Winslow. Gates is a semifinalist in his first year of eligibility and will likely join the others, as will the not-yet-eligible Gronkowski and Jason Witten.

In 2019, the NFL assembled a panel of dignitaries to name a 100th anniversary team. It included five tight ends — Ditka, Mackey, Winslow, Gonzalez and Gronkowski.

The Athletic published “The Football 100” before the 2024 season and included the same five tight ends among its top 100 players. Gronkowski ranked 47th, Mackey 57th, Gonzalez 81st, Winslow 82nd and Ditka 97th.

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Most historians agree those are the five best tight ends, though the order of the five comes down to which style is preferred. Whether Kelce or Kittle can crack the five remains to be seen.

In 1988, Ditka became the first tight end inductee, which says something. Some who saw Ditka and Mackey play remain convinced the first were the best.

“The best tight end in the history of pro football is Mike Ditka,” Wolf says. “Right on his tail is John Mackey. These other guys are just guys compared to them. They wrote the book. I can’t believe anybody who’s watched Ditka play could think anyone was better.”

Ditka, perhaps out of modesty, disagrees with Wolf.

“I don’t believe I was the greatest tight end,” he said. “I think John Mackey was. He had more speed than me and was a little better receiver than me. I couldn’t do all the things he could, and he couldn’t do all the things I could. But we were probably two of the best in our time.”

Some — including the panel that selected “The Football 100” — favor Gronkowski. While he may be the beneficiary of recency bias and playing with Tom Brady, there is no arguing that his impact was phenomenal.

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Gronkowski ran through many tackles. Similarly, Kittle’s business card is yards after the catch. Since he came into the league, he has led all tight ends with an average of 7.3 yards after the catch, according to TruMedia.

“Kittle is like a rhinoceros when he’s running with the ball,” Weddle says. “I wouldn’t say he’s that hard to cover with his route running, but when he gets the ball in his hands, it’s a tall task to bring him down. That and the way he blocks separate him from everybody else in today’s game.”

Kittle has already been voted to five Pro Bowls. That pales next to Gonzalez’s 14, but Kittle has played only seven seasons and could enhance his legacy for many years.

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Gonzalez is the only tight end elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Hall of Fame front office executive Gil Brandt once ranked Gonzalez the greatest tight end ever for NFL.com.

Kelce is 34 years old, has played 11 seasons, has been voted to nine Pro Bowls and has secured a place among the greatest. He already has more postseason catches than any player ever and Sunday he will tie Gronkowski for most postseason games by a tight end with 22.

Kelce also has the highest profile of any tight end in history. He leads the league in TV commercials, co-hosts one of the most listened-to podcasts in the country and canoodles with someone with many more downloads to her credit.

Maybe he is the lucky one.

Kelce is reminiscent of Winslow in that both were the beneficiaries of their circumstances. Winslow had two Hall of Fame coaches guiding him and a cutting-edge scheme. He had a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing to him and played with three wide receivers who were All-Pro at one time or another.

Kelce plays for one of the greatest offensive minds and head coaches of his era, is thrown to by football’s best quarterback and lined up with one of the league’s best wide receivers until the 2022 season.

Kelce’s numbers dwarf Winslow’s partly because his Chiefs, like all teams today, are throwing the ball more — a trend for which Winslow’s teams were partially responsible. But Kelce arguably has been more important to the Chiefs than Winslow was to the Chargers. In his career, Winslow accounted for 18 percent of his team’s receiving yards; Kelce has accounted for 25 percent. Kelce has led the Chiefs in receiving yards six times, including in 2024; Winslow led the Chargers just once.

Opponents looked at Winslow and thought, “How can I guard this guy?” They look at Kelce and say, “How does he make plays?” He’s not as physically gifted or imposing as Winslow was, but he is no less effective. Rivera says Kelce plays faster and bigger than expected.

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Kelce approaches his position with the understanding of a quarterback, which he believes he could be after playing the position in high school and his early college days.

“He thinks like a quarterback, understanding the passing game and coverages,” Dungy says.

Route running is his superpower.

“In how he changes speeds, manipulates defenders, stresses your leverage, I’d put him in a category with Keenan Allen as a receiver,” Weddle says. “He’s not a burner by any means, but he’s always open because of that. All the things that are challenging in route running, he has.”

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Weddle and Dungy point out the Chiefs rarely run to Kelce’s side and count on him to clear a path for a ball carrier. So Kittle can help the 49ers win in more ways. But Kelce can make more big plays.

One of them almost assuredly is going to do something that helps his team bring home the Lombardi Trophy.

It will be a victory for one conference, one team and one style of tight end.

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(Top photos: Dustin Bradford / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)

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Dan Pompei is a senior writer for The Athletic who has been telling NFL stories for close to four decades. He is one of 49 members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the Seniors Committee. In 2013, he received the Bill Nunn Award from the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting. Follow Dan on Twitter @danpompei

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