Image Credit: Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports
When the question "Who had the greatest single season from a tight end of all time?" is asked, the usual answer is Rob Gronkowski's 2011 campaign, and how could it not be? For a while his 1,327 yards receiving that year was the single season record among any tight end in the NFL, and he's currently the only tight end in NFL history to lead all receivers in touchdowns (17).
But simply put, Gronk's combination of fluid athleticism and freakish physicality won him millions of fans across the league, and he's widely accepted as the game's greatest tight end. Much like Shaq in the NBA, Gronk brought a level of play to his position that surpassed those of the past, and quite frankly I don't see anyone eclipsing him either.
So with the future Hall of Famer's retirement in March, the obvious question is: who is the best tight end in the league now?
The answer could debatably be San Francisco's very own George Kittle. A fifth round pick in 2017, Kittle had an impressive rookie season (becoming the rare fifth-round tight end prospect to collect over 500 yards receiving), but even then I'm not sure any of us expected a season where he would break Gronk's single season record for yards receiving from a tight end.
But it happened. Kittle’s 1,377 yards receiving (which actually broke Travis Kelce's record from the same week, Week 17. Kelce finished 2018 with 1,336) are the single season record from a tight end. His 88 receptions are also a team record for a tight end, and he added five touchdown catches to the mix.
Kittle's all-around ability as a tight end makes him a perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan's offense. In a scheme that sets him up for success, he's taken that foundation and has transformed himself into one of the game's top pass catchers at the position, if not the very best now that Gronk is retired.
As you probably guessed correctly, Kittle's route running ability is outstanding. I realize using a clip against the Raiders defense probably isn't the most opportune thing in the world, but this is still a really impressive play from the then second-year-pro.
Kittle's footwork sells his route sensationally here. What initially looks like an out route is actually a slant, as Kittle's cut back outside is beautiful. The one-handed catch, the yards after the catch, and the touchdown are all well-earned bonuses on this play.
Continuing the theme of route-running, I love the quickness and burst shown by Kittle on his cut outside. This is just barely a first down, but Kittle's quickness on his turn is extremely appealing.
Kittle has enough speed in his game where it's helped create more yards after the catch. In said category, he led every receiver in 2018 with 870 YAC. The route combinations Shanahan uses definitely props up Kittle, but the tight end's athleticism is also a heavily contributing factor into this.
Now, in regards to debating if Kittle is now the best tight end going into the 2019 season, two of his peers have been endlessly compared to him: Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz. We will also look at both tight ends in this piece so that we can come up with a more reasonable conclusion when all is said and done.
First up is Travis Kelce. Kelce experienced a career year in production in 2018, catching 103 passes for 1,336 yards and 10 touchdowns, all career highs. In terms of his skill set and consistency, this is the tight end you'd usually only be able to dream of. Kelce was already a top-two tight end before 2018, but with Patrick Mahomes' ascension into one of the top quarterbacks in the league, his numbers are skyrocketing.
Much like Kittle with Shanahan, Kelce is set up for success by Andy Reid's scheme. Reid's heavy borrowing of play concepts from the college level combines all sorts of options plays, misdirection, and vertical shots to make for an explosive, thrilling offensive scheme.
That said, Kelce isn't close to being dependent on Reid for success, as he's displayed one of the greatest peaks from a tight end we will ever see.
Much like Gronkowski, Kelce is extremely fluid and fast for a receiving tight end, combining the versatility and dexterity of a wide receiver with his toughness and frame as a TE. Take this sensational catch against the 49ers in Week 3 for example. On his route Kelce makes an impressively quick stop and turnaround on his route, which in theory should allow Mahomes to throw to him on his back shoulder.
However, Mahomes' pass is too inside, forcing Kelce to adjust, which he does in spectacular fashion. He makes the one handed catch and somehow snags it in without the ball anywhere close to being jarred loose. It's an excellent combination of ball skills and ball security from the veteran.
And yes, that's Reuben Foster getting toasted.
Kelce is the best route running tight end in the league, and his ability to create separation in any area on the field lends himself a diverse route tree, and in Reid's scheme that just makes him all the more enticing.
Here, Kelce works the slot on a second-and-long. It's a simple slant route and the separation he creates off his rapid feet would normally be taken for granted upon casual viewers if he were a traditional wide receiver. But Kelce's fluid athleticism for his position makes him a game changer for the Chiefs offense.
Now it's Zach Ertz's turn. Drafted in the same year as Kelce (2013), Ertz took his game to a new level in 2017 in terms of consistency, solidifying himself as one of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL. In 2018 he himself enjoyed a career year, catching 116 passes (an NFL record for a tight end) for 1,163 yards and 10 touchdowns.
As a receiving tight end, Ertz is a brilliant part of the Eagles offense, and as such he's a favorable target for Carson Wentz.
On this play Ertz is lined up as the H-back working against zone coverage on first-and-long. His route is designed to the inside, and Ertz runs it well, but what impresses me is how he's able to cut inside without breaking down mechanically. The well-run route results in a Philadelphia first down.
Ertz is motioned into the slot on this play. Much like Kelce and Gronk, he's also dangerous as a wideout, but for this play in particular, he's motioned inside. And again like Kelce (a lot of comparisons in this piece, I know), his ball skills stand out.
As he breaks outside, Nick Foles' throw leads him a little too far on third-and-8, but Ertz dives for the ball, hauling it in and securing it as he goes to the ground, completing the convoluted process of a catch.
As a blocker, Ertz is nowhere near as good as Gronk, Kelce or Kittle, but as a receiver he is worthy of being compared to those three.
Ultimately, I would have to say that Travis Kelce is the best tight end in the league. Kelce is a solid blocker and his ability as a receiver is as complete as you'll see from the position in terms of active players. His impressive athleticism and route tree gives him the edge here.
Ertz is in the same ballpark as a receiver, but his blocking ability remains a weak point. It's not like it matters though, as he's consistently dominant enough as a receiver to offset this issue.
Even though I consider Kelce slightly better than the 49ers player, George Kittle is still an incredible tight end. His blocking ability is superb, and his ability to stretch the field and impressive route running make him an insanely valuable player. Not bad for a guy that was picked in the fifth round.
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