George Kittle versus Travis Kelce: Who’s the best tight end in the NFL?

Niners tight end George Kittle put pen to paper on a 5 year, $75 million contract on Thursday. The deal sees Kittle earn around $15 million per year and suit up as a Niner for the foreseeable future. Shortly thereafter, Kittle’s peer, adversary and rival – Travis Kelce – followed suit and signed a 4-year $57.25 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.

For the past two years, Kittle and Kelce have constantly been compared to each other, and with good reason. Both are offensive juggernauts who epitomise everything necessary in a modern NFL tight end. The two have great size – Kittle being six foot four inches tall, Kelce six foot five inches tall. The two tight ends move insanely fast for their position group – Kittle ran a 4. 52-second 40-yard dash, Kelce 4.63 seconds. And both are integral cogs in the well-oiled machines that are the respective offences. Trying to figure out who is better is an incredibly tough task since both possess similar physical qualities and statistical achievements.

Let’s use three different categories to compare the two. We’ll compare the two’s statistical achievements, how they play on the field and their surrounding talent to find out – Kittle or Kelce: who is better?

The numbers

Following a steady rookie year, Kittle made himself a household name in 2018 after breaking the single-season tight end receiving record, finishing the 2018 season with 1377 yards. The 49ers finished 4-12 in 2018 and Kittle’s emergence was a giant, 250lb ray of light.

Kittle kicked on in 2019 to become the 49ers number one target in the passing game and their de facto X type receiver. What Julio Jones is with the Falcons or what Calvin Johnson was the for the Lions, George Kittle is San Francisco’s equivalent to that. While missing two games with a painful ankle injury, Kittle still broke over a 1000 yards for the 49ers to go along with five touchdowns and 85 receptions, per Pro Football Reference.

The slight dip in numbers could be attributed to one of two things; the injury Kittle sustained on Halloween night forced him to miss two games and affected his play for the rest of the year. Or, the 49ers’ improved play on offence, particularly their running game, meant Kittle was having fewer opportunities to make big plays.

While Kittle does boast strong face stats, receiving yards, touchdowns, receptions, it is in his yards after the catch (YAC) numbers where his talent truly shines. Per Jeff Deeney on Twitter, Kittle has the most receiving yards after contact of any player from the last two years (790), the most YAC out of any WR/TE over the last two years (1494) and the most forced missed tackles receiving last year (20).

To sum up, Kittle is the best player in the NFL when the ball is in his hands. Better than Lamar Jackson, Ezekiel Elliot or Julio Jones. Now that’s a tough challenge for Kelce to overcome.


In true uncanny fashion, Kelce finished the 2018 season with only 41 receiving yards fewer than Kittle with 1336 yards. A testament to how close the two are in terms of skill.

In 2019, Kelce finished with 1229 yards receiving on 97 receptions and five touchdowns. When you compare Kelce’s and Kittle’s 2019 it’s extremely close. Kittle finished with 1053 yards on 85 receptions and five touchdowns. I reiterate it’s truly strange how close these two guys are statistically year after year.

However, when it comes to Kelce’s YAC numbers, Kittle is truly ahead. While Kittle has the most YAC count out of any WR/TE in the last two years, Kelce has the second most. While that doesn’t sound too bad, Kelce’s YAC counts for 977 yards. That’s 517 yards of difference between the two. Kittle is a full season ahead in YAC. Moreover, Kittle’s YAC per reception (7.3) is higher than Kelce’s (4.8), per Sports Info Solutions.

So while Kittle and Kelce are pretty much inseparable on the base statistical stats of touchdowns, receiving yards and receptions, the difference in YAC (a factor that has become huge in today’s NFL) is too big to ignore.

On the gridiron

Watching the tape, it’s clear that Kittle stands out over Kelce. That 4.52-second 40-yard dash shows itself on gameday as Kittle consistently torches linebackers then runs over safeties with his six-foot four-inch frame. The quintessential Kittle play came in Week Fourteen away to New Orleans.

It’s 4th & 2 for the Niners on the final drive of the game. A first-round bye is on the line. So, of course, Jimmy G goes to Kittle when the game is on the line. If this is Mahomes, he’s looking for Hill. Kittle runs an out route like a wide receiver and proceeds to break a tackle then carries three Saints defenders for 31 yards of Y.A.C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And although Kittle can run like a wide receiver, he can block like a lineman as well. Take a look at this clip from Week Thirteen against the Baltimore Ravens. Kittle motions over to the strong side and takes on Matthew Judon, the Ravens starting OLB/DE, one on one. Kittle ends up putting Judon on his backside with ease. Simoutenously opening up the gap for Mostert to complete an 18 yard gain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So Kittle runs like Julio Jones and blocks like prime Rob Gronkowski. But Kelce is capable of high-level play himself. You don’t become one of the most elite pass-catchers in the NFL for no reason.

The tight end is commonly referred to as the quarterback’s safety valve. And that’s particularly true for Kelce and Mahomes in Kansas City. The rapport between the two athletes is of the highest order. Time and time again when Mahomes is performing his magic behind the line of scrimmage, Kelce is there to catch a fifty-fifty ball or to find the soft spot in the coverage for the catch.

Just look at this example that came in Week Thirteen against the Raiders. Mahomes starts back peddling off the bootleg and throws a fifty-fifty ball to Kelce. Kelce high-points the ball and makes the grab, in mid-air, whilst being tackled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, Kelce has a catch percentage of 71.3% which sees him rank seventh out of all tight ends (with minimum 60 targets) in the NFL. Also, Kittle ranks first with a catch percentage of 79.4%. Not fantastic reading for Kelce when compared to Kittle.

With that mind, in this year’s postseason, that rapport between Mahomes and Kelce came up clutch. Kelce caught three consecutive touchdowns in the remarkable comeback by the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round game against the Texans. Each time Kelce worked his way into space and made the crucial catches to bring the Chiefs roaring back against the Texans.

Comparing their quarterbacks

In the quest to determine whom out of Kelce and Kittle is better, it is of the utmost importance to take into consideration their respective quarterbacks.

First, let’s take a look at Kittle’s quarterback in the Bay Area, Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo approaches the role of quarterback methodically. Opting to pick apart a defence play by play, often emulating the old Bill Walsh Niner offences. In 2019, Garoppolo had the second-lowest average throw depth in the NFL (6.3), the lowest air yards percentage (44.8%) and the fourth-highest yards after catch (Y.A.C.) total (2,196 yards).

Next, let’s take a look at Kelce in KC and his quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Compared to Garoppolo, Mahomes is tied-8th out of all starting quarterbacks when it comes to average throw depth (8.3). However, that is where the differences end. In both air yards percentage (22nd to Garoppolo’s rank of 32nd) and Y.A.C. (sixth to Garoppolo’s fourth), Mahomes ranks similarly to Jimmy G. Thus, Mahomes may have the stronger arm and be more willing to take shots further downfield, but the playstyle and system between the two quarterbacks (and, as a result, their tight ends) are similar.

So while Eric Bieniemy‘s offence in Kansas City is not drastically different from Kyle Shanahan’s in San Francisco, the difference in the quarterback play has enough of an impact to affect Kittle’s and Kelce’s play. Garoppolo is more methodical and works between the numbers; Kittle excels at YAC. Mahomes throws further down the field more often, doing most of the work for Kelce yardage wise. This is backed up by Kelce’s 2019 completed air yards being 801 yards. Kittle’s in 2019 was 430. Almost half of Kelce’s.

Splitting hairs

When it comes to comparing Kelce and Kittle, it is a case of one player being 1A and the other being 1B. Kelce is a terrific player – make no mistake about that. It’s only unfortunate timing that saw Kelce play in an era with Rob Gronkowski and George Kittle,  two generational talents at their position.

With that in mind, Kittle is just too good of a player to be shifted off the top spot at the moment. The combination of blocking ability, speed, toughness and safe hands has made Kittle the perfect tight end. He’s like Mark Bruener, Dave Casper and Tony Gonzalez moulded into one. It’s uncanny.

To sum up, Kittle’s blocking, YAC totals and on the field play just edges him out at tight end 1A. However, if this Kelce and Mahomes partnership is to continue to collect Championships, don’t be surprised to see Kelce considered the top tight end in the long run.

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About Matthew Bowen 141 Articles
Matthew is an MA history student at Swansea University. He is an avid supporter of the San Francisco 49ers and Liverpool FC. Twitter: @MatthewJBowen7

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