Travis Kelce dealt with the nickname “Baby Gronk” for years. It was a backhanded compliment that let Kelce know he was good, but he wasn’t Rob Gronkowski good.
Tom Brady’s best buddy is often cited as the best tight end ever, but the Gronk is now the weak link in any comparison with Kelce. Neither Gronkowski nor any other tight end in NFL history can match what Kelce has achieved with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kelce entered the record books in Week 13, during KC’s harder-than-it-looked 22-16 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday night. He added eight catches for 136 yards and a touchdown, to an already historic haul:
Travis Kelce has his 5th career 1,000-yard receiving season, the most in Chiefs history and most ever by a Tight End.
Kelce has done so in 5 consecutive seasons as well. pic.twitter.com/WlSjVVRHzu
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 7, 2020
The lines between tight ends and wide receivers have become increasingly blurred during football’s modern era. Yet Kelce’s achievement is still remarkable.
Answering the question, who is the greatest tight end ever inevitably leads you to the modern NFL. It’s the time when those playing the position were liberated from traditional in-line alignments and expectations to be punishing blockers.
Superior athletes were allowed to focus more on making plays in the passing game. Crossover stars like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, both sharing a background in Basketball, took their new freedom and ran with it.
The plethora of modern greats often makes it easy to forget those who blazed a trail for the likes of Gronkowski and Kelce. Any discussion of the tight end position has to also include legends such as John Mackey, Mike Ditka, Kellen Winslow Sr., Mark Bavaro, and my personal favourite, Ben Coates.
Kelce has surpassed them all and yet he doesn’t compare to any. His closest stylistic comparison is Jay Novacek, the often forgotten playmaker in those great Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1990s.
The Cowboys won three Super Bowls during the decade thanks largely to the ‘Triplets,’ quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and wide receiver Michael Irvin. All three have a place in the Hall of Fame.
Aikman could handoff to Smith or find Irvin on a deep crossing pattern, but his go-to move in times of trouble was to look for Novacek underneath. The former H-Back with the Phoenix Cardinals was a demon on third down.
Novacek specialised in catches between two defenders to keep the chains moving. Kelce has the same traits.
Patrick Mahomes has a host of big-play targets to aim for in Kansas City. Tyreek Hill leads the superbly named Legion of Zoom, a group of speedy wideouts also including Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman.
Le’Veon Bell and rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire are two running backs who thrive on the ground or as receivers out of the backfield. Even with all these riches, Kelce is Mahomes’ primary target.
Kelce’s averaging 14.2 yards per catch on third down, according to ESPN. That’s called making big plays in the clutch.
Mahomes looks Kelce’s way so often because he knows the tight end has reliable hands and will make the tough grabs. Kelce will also treat every catch as an opportunity to bludgeon would-be tacklers:
Travis Kelce is a BAD MAN 😤
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) December 7, 2020
Novacek didn’t have the same size or appetite for destruction, but he did have the same soft and trustworthy mitts. He had the same awareness of where the sticks were, the same ability to get open from a variety of positions.
Andy Reid loves to move Kelce around the way Norv Turner used to shift Novacek across formations. Of his 82 receptions, 35 have come from formations when Kelce hasn’t been on the edge of the line. Kelce’s flexed into the slot split out wide or set in the backfield more often.
Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels never moved Gronkowski off the line as much for the New England Patriots. The Gronk splitting out wide was an in-emergencies-only tactic for when Tom Brady needed a big play. That same pattern is repeating itself now both are with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gronkowski’s a throwback to the era of in-line tight ends. A more explosive bruiser than Ditka or Bavaro.
Kelce’s not “Baby Gronk.” He’s a quicker, more flexible version of the man himself. A more effective, short-range weapon and a more versatile matchup problem for defenses.
Kelce is essentially Gronkowski playing H-Back. Nobody’s combined classic tight-end size with the athleticism and guile needed for the modern requirements of the position like Kelce.