Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce are generally considered to be the two best tight ends in football, but as their two teams prepare to face off Sunday night, a growing number of people around the league are beginning to ask the question: In what order?
In recent years, it wasn’t much of a dispute. The question wasn’t if Gronkowski was the best tight end in the NFL at the moment, but whether he was the best tight end in the league — ever. However, as the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Patriots tight end enters his ninth season, some say his counterpart on the upstart Kansas City Chiefs has caught up and perhaps even surpassed him this season.
“No disrespect to Gronk, but Travis Kelce is the best tight end in football,” ESPN analyst Booger McFarland said during the Chiefs’ game last week on “Monday Night Football.”
It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed several times recently by other current and former players.
Through five games, Gronkowski has recorded 23 catches for 301 yards and one touchdown for the AFC East-leading 3-2 Patriots. Meanwhile, Kelce has hauled in 28 receptions for 407 yards and three touchdowns for his 5-0 AFC West team, which is one of the two remaining undefeated squads in the NFL this year.
McFarland’s ESPN colleague, Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, said during a WEEI interview last month that the almost equally sized Kelce, at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, had “snatched the top from Rob.”
“Rob is a bad boy, but Travis Kelce now can truly say he’s probably the best tight end in the league right now,” Irvin said.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who may be somewhat biased on the issue, also says he would rank Kelce ahead of Gronkowski.
“I know Gronk has been a great tight end for a long time,” Mahomes said on a conference call Wednesday. “I mean, I haven’t gotten to play with Gronk. I’ve gotten to play with Kelce, and I’ve never seen anyone be able to do the things that he’s done.”
Even some in Patriots world concur.
Former safety Rodney Harrison, who now works as an analyst for NBC, similarly praised Gronkowski during a conference call Wednesday, but ultimately said he would take Kelce.
“I love Gronk. He’s a big huge target, but Kelce brings something a little different. He brings that athleticism. He brings that fire,” Harrison said.
“I would say at this point in time, if I were a safety playing man-to-man coverage, I would probably have a little bit more trouble defending Travis Kelce as opposed to Gronk,” he continued. “[Gronkowski]’s a big guy. Obviously he pushes off and he uses his body well, but at this point in time, just the level of speed and athleticism, the youth factor, the fact that Kelce has been healthy, the quickness and his route running, I would say Kelce at this time is the better tight end.”
Both tight ends are 29 years old. However, Gronkowski has been in the NFL for three more seasons than Kelce, who has played in six, including his rookie season, in which he missed all but one game. Since then, Kelce has remained generally healthy, missing only one of his 69 games over the last four-plus years, whereas Gronkowski hasn’t played in all 16 games in any of his last six injury-riddled seasons.
On paper, the two pass-catchers have put up comparable numbers over the time that they’ve both been active NFL players.
Since the beginning of the 2014 season, Gronkowski has 271 receptions for 4,232 yards and 35 touchdowns, while Kelce has caught 335 passes for 4,307 yards and 25 touchdowns. That said, Gronkowski’s numbers come in 11 fewer games.
Additionally, at the tight end position, it’s not all about receiving statistics, according to “Sunday Night Football” color commentator Cris Collinsworth.
During the NBC conference call Wednesday, Collinsworth said the debate between Gronkowski and Kelce is “getting a little closer” for him than it once was, but that the Patriots tight end is still No. 1 due to his blocking ability.
“The big tiebreaker for me was Gronkowski’s ability to block,” he said. “We see him on some of those tight end wham plays where he just devastates defensive linemen. His pass blocking ability in seven-man protections are the keys in many ways to that offense and we know what he’s able to do.”
Collinsworth added that Kelce is a skilled blocker in his own right — but more when it comes to run blocking and open-field blocking, which is central to Kansas City’s explosive offense, where motion plays, reverses, and screens often require the tight end to “make an open-field block off and spring a big play.”
“It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” he said. “These two players really could not be any more different at the position. … Kelce is a little more new age and Gronk is a little more old school, but both are great players.”
For his part, Kelce weighed in on the debate last year during an interview on “The Dan Patrick Show.”
“Gronk is a hell of a player, but like I said, I feel like I’m the best tight end in the league,” Kelce said, after being repeatedly asked about the comparative differences between himself and Gronkowski. “Until everyone agrees with that, I’ll keep working my tail off.”
Kelce also said that he’s a “different type of athlete” with the ball in his hands.
“Gronk’s going to run around there like a Clydesdale, run through everything, like a big boulder,” he said. “I’m more a guy who can make people miss, break somebody down with a juke move or slide off tackles.”
Gronkowski was more reluctant to get into the debate this week. The Patriots tight end told reporters Wednesday that Kelce was “quick,” “shifty,” and good at getting separation from defenders, but was unwilling to provide any opinions about who is better.
“The rankings and all that, the comparisons, all that, I’ll just leave that up to you guys, whatever you guys say,” he said. “But I just try to do my best. I think he’s a great player, and I’ve just got to worry about what I can do to help out the team.”