Travis Kelce's unique place in NFL history: Why he's one of the most valuable players of his generation (2024)

  • Travis Kelce's unique place in NFL history: Why he's one of the most valuable players of his generation (1)

    Bill Barnwell, ESPN Staff WriterDec 12, 2022, 08:15 AM ET


      Bill Barnwell is a senior NFL writer for He analyzes football on and off the field like no one else on the planet, writing about in-season X's and O's, offseason transactions and so much more.

      He is the host of the Bill Barnwell Show podcast, with episodes released once a week. Barnwell joined ESPN in 2011 as a staff writer at Grantland. Follow him on Twitter here: @billbarnwell.

Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce added a pair of round numbers to his Hall of Fame résumé Sunday. During Kansas City's unexpectedly close 34-28 win in Denver, he crossed both the 1,000-yard barrier for the seventh straight season and became the fifth tight end in NFL history to rack up 10,000 career receiving yards. It was a relatively ho-hum week by Kelce's standards, with four catches for 71 yards, but it's a sign of his dominance that the 33-year-old could have a quiet day and still finish fourth in the league in receiving yards at his position for the week.

Knowing that Kelce was likely to hit those markers this month, I've been reflecting on his career and think we're selling him short. You won't get many arguments against him as the league's premier tight end or as a player whose future involves a bust in Canton, Ohio. He already has done (and won) enough in his career to earn a trip to the Hall of Fame.

Even those accolades, though, don't really capture his unique career. In many ways, Kelce is a tight end unlike any other in the history of the NFL. There are few players at any position who have dominated, relative to the demands of their particular position, quite the way he has over his 10 years as a pro. It's clear he still has plenty of juice as he continues his career, but I believe Kelce's résumé makes him one of the most valuable players of his generation.

Jump to a section:
The milestones Kelce has hit so far
His underrated strength: Staying on the field
How Kelce's run compares vs. other stars
The arguments against him as an all-time great
Is Kelce the greatest tight end ever?
Will he ever fade? What's next

Travis Kelce's unique place in NFL history: Why he's one of the most valuable players of his generation (2)

Kelce at 1,000 and 10,000 yards

Let's start with those round numbers, since they do a great job of contextualizing how different Kelce's performance has been from even the best players at tight end. I mentioned earlier that Kelce became the fifth member of the 10,000-yard club at tight end. The other guys in that group are legends. Tony Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe are in the Hall of Fame. Antonio Gates and Jason Witten are likely to join when they become eligible.

Merely being in this club would be impressive enough, but Kelce has managed to make it there much quicker than the competition., hitting 10,000 yards in just 140 games. It took Gonzalez 177 to hit five digits. Gates got there in 179, Witten came in at 180 and Sharpe arrived at 203.

To put this another way, none of the other tight ends in the 10,000-yard club were close to hitting that mark when they played their 140th game. Gates, who had 8,141 yards by the end of his 140th game, was the only player within 2,000 yards of the figure. Witten was at 7,739 yards. Gonzalez was just behind him at 7,642, while Sharpe trailed the pack at 6,806 yards. Even compared to Hall of Fame-caliber competition, Kelce is way ahead of his peers.

Consider the 1,000-yard figure instead. Kelce just hit 1,000 yards for the seventh consecutive season. The list of pass-catchers with seven consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns consisted entirely of wide receivers before the Cincinnati product joined Sunday. He was the 11th player to make it into the club with seven consecutive seasons.

Even if the accomplishment hadn't been consecutive, Kelce's steadiness stands out from the pack. He has seven 1,000-yard seasons. No other tight end in NFL history has more than four, a mark reached by Gonzalez, Witten and Rob Gronkowski. He is one more 1,000-yard campaign away from having twice as many of them in his back pocket as any other player at his position in league history.

Kelce is afforded the advantage of playing in what is now a 17-game season, representing a significant boost from the 14-game schedule Mike Ditka played under during his career with the Bears, Cowboys and Eagles in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, Kelce hasn't typically needed the full 16- or 17-game slate to make it past 1K. He just hit 1,000 yards in the 13th game of the 2022 season, earning the nod with four games to spare. The last time he really came close to missing was 2017, when he made it over 1,000 in Week 16 before resting in Week 17.

What's even more impressive to me is a stat I mentioned earlier this season. Using the Dec. 31 method to assign each player's season an age, Kelce is in the middle of his age-33 season, having turned that age in October. Tight end is a position in which some excellent players don't even make it to 33; stars such as Gronkowski, Ben Coates and Todd Christensen were out of the NFL altogether before their age-33 campaigns.

This might not sound true, but I promise you that it is: No tight end age 33 or older since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 had racked up a 1,000-yard season before Kelce topped the mark Sunday. The last time a tight end 33 or older hit quadruple digits was when Pete Retzlaff of the Eagles did it in 1965, 57 years ago. Gonzalez was the only other tight end to top even 900 receiving yards in his age-33 season before Kelce, who accomplished it with four games to spare.

Staying on the field

Kelce is unique among the vast majority of his peers in another way. Tight end has an incredible attrition rate, and even many of the best players at the position are slowed by injury or miss a game or two here and there. It's a pleasant surprise to see any star tight end stay on the field for the entire season.

Kelce is the exception among this generation. As a rookie, he underwent microfracture surgery on his knee, missing the entire season except for one lone snap on special teams against the Cowboys in Week 2. Undergoing what was still a relatively controversial procedure at the time, there were worries whether he might ever end up making an impact for Kansas City.

Since returning from the knee surgery at the beginning of the 2014 season, Kelce hasn't looked back. Over the ensuing eight-plus seasons, he has missed exactly one game due to injury, which came when he tested positive for COVID-19 last season. The 2013 third-round pick has battled knee irritation and underwent shoulder surgery in 2017, but outside of being rested for a couple of meaningless Week 17 games, he has been able to answer the call.

This is uncommon. Consider the other tight ends at the top of the league at the moment. George Kittle has topped 14 games in a single season just once. Darren Waller has played just 16 games since the start of 2021 because of various injuries. Mark Andrews, used in a much smaller role earlier in his career, missed two games because of COVID-19 in 2020 and another via injury this season. T.J. Hockenson missed four games as a rookie and four more a year ago. Kelce missed his entire rookie season, but he has since been as reliable as any tight end.

Historically great tight ends have a way of staying on the field. Gonzalez, a converted basketball player, missed two of 272 games as a pro. Witten missed the fifth game of his career and then proceeded to play every single game over the ensuing 16 seasons. Kelce's raw percentage is worse because of the missing rookie season, but few tight ends have been able to run off so many consecutively present seasons as him, let alone how good those seasons have been.

Comparison to other positions

While it's an imperfect measure, one way to consider how highly regarded a player is across positions is to see how many Pro Bowls and All-Pro appearances he has made in his career. Kelce obviously didn't receive any nods during his injury-hit rookie season or in the following campaign, but he has made it to the Pro Bowl in each of the ensuing seven seasons. He's a lock to make his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl in 2022, and he would be a huge favorite to make his fourth first-team All-Pro appearance.

How impressive is that feat? Kelce will be tied for the most Pro Bowl appearances across his first 10 seasons alongside Gates, Gonzalez and Witten. Likewise, in terms of first-team All-Pro nods, his four will be in line with the previous record-holders over their first pro decade, a group which includes Gonzalez, Gronkowski, Sharpe and Dave Casper. Kelce will try to chase down Gonzalez's six first-team All-Pro nods, as Gonzalez is the only tight end with more than four.

Taking seasons three through 10 in each player's career into perspective, Kelce will become the 31st player in league history to make a Pro Bowl in each of those eight campaigns. The 30 other players in this group might as well be a list of Hall of Famers. Twenty-five already have made it in, with Lawrence Taylor, Barry Sanders and Jerry Rice as notable examples. Gonzalez and Joe Thomas will enter as soon as they're eligible. Kelce and Bobby Wagner are active. Just one player of that 30-man group is eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame without being enshrined, and it's guard Walt Sweeney, who played a position the Hall has typically (wrongfully) ignored and spent most of his career in the AFL.

Let's measure this another way. Since recovering from his surgery in 2014, Kelce has racked up 10,045 receiving yards. The second-most productive tight end over that span is Eagles and Cardinals tight end Zach Ertz, who has 6,778. Ertz has 67.5% of Kelce's total, a figure which will drop over the rest of the season, as Ertz is recovering from a torn ACL. The only other tight end above 5,000 yards over that stretch is Gronkowski, who is retired and won't add to his 6,031 yards.

The most dominant stretch for any single player in league history still likely belongs to Jim Brown, who led the league in rushing eight times across his nine seasons. Brown played a very different game and spent half his career in an era in which teams played only 12-game seasons, but we can compare his production to his contemporaries to see where he compares.

Brown racked up 12,312 rushing yards between 1957 and 1965. The only other running back in the league with more than 6,000 yards over that same time frame is Jim Taylor, who managed 7,502 rushing yards for the Packers. Taylor racked up just under 61% of the rushing yards Brown generated during his time with the Browns.

I'm not surprised Brown was more dominant than the other running backs of his era than Kelce was versus the tight ends of his generation. There are also other factors that make this comparison a little more complex than a simple comparison like yards versus the field would suggest. The fact that we can even draw plausible comparisons between the two or that the conversation is even close, though, tells you just how dominant Kelce has been during this stretch of nearly uninterrupted football.

Let's go to another GOAT. Rice led the league in receiving six times between 1986 and 1995, culminating in a 1,848-yard campaign during the final season of that run. That run includes the legendary 1987 season, when the 49ers star caught 22 touchdown passes in 12 games before and after the players' strike. This was the peak of arguably the best player, relative to his position, in the post-merger NFL.

Rice generated 14,196 receiving yards over that 10-year window. The second-most productive receiver behind Rice was Henry Ellard, who starred for the Rams and Washington over that same stretch. Ellard managed to rack up 10,462 receiving yards, which is 73.7% of what Rice accomplished. Kelce has more thoroughly dominated tight ends (by receiving yardage) over his peak than Rice did against wide receivers during his. Again, there are issues here, since there are many more wide receivers to compete against than there are tight ends, but you get the idea: Kelce is beating his competition at a historically impressive rate.

The arguments against Kelce

Naturally, no argument is airtight. There are a few arguments you can make to suggest Kelce's production isn't quite as historically impressive as it might seem, so let's evaluate them here.

One is the presence of an impressive quarterback. Sunday wasn't Patrick Mahomes' best game of the season, but the MVP favorite undoubtedly has been a welcome sight for the tight end. Leaving aside his rookie year, Kelce averaged 1,052 yards and six touchdowns per 17 games before Mahomes took over as Kansas City's starter. Since 2018, when Mahomes ascended into the lead role, Kelce has averaged 1,374 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns per 17 games.

It's reasonable to suggest Kelce was able to take his game to the next level by linking up with Mahomes. Of course, many other legendary tight ends in the league were able to play with legendary quarterbacks, too. Gronkowski spent his entire career with Tom Brady. Gates was in Southern California with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. Most of Sharpe's run was with John Elway under center. Kellen Winslow spent his career with Dan Fouts. Gonzalez and Ozzie Newsome are the exceptions here.

At the same time, Mahomes has only been in place for half of Kelce's career. Alex Smith was under center for the first four seasons of Kelce's run, and Kelce was in a near-dead heat with Gronkowski to lead the league in receiving yardage over that span when the Patriots star had the better quarterback of the two. Jimmy Graham, who was also in that conversation before suffering a serious injury in Seattle, spent his first decade in the league with Brees, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers as his quarterbacks.

I would also point out that Kelce has made life a whole lot easier for Mahomes, too. Even with Tyreek Hill before this season, Mahomes has been noticeably less explosive without his tight end. Kelce has been active for every game except for one during Mahomes' career, but the Chiefs still take him out for stretches and plays, even when they were nearing the goal line during the final sequence in regulation of the AFC Championship Game last season.

The offense as a whole gets less explosive without Kelce. With the tight end on the field, Mahomes has posted a 78.0 QBR and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt. On 288 dropbacks without Kelce, Mahomes' QBR has dropped to 69.7. He has averaged just 6.9 yards per attempt without Kelce, which is below league average. Kelce can sometimes come off the field if the Chiefs want to go with a heavy personnel package near the goal line, which would influence that mark, but the gap between Kelce and non-Kelce plays grows even bigger if we leave red zone plays out of the equation.

Next is the explosion in passing yardage. While passing has taken a bit of a step backward over the last two seasons, teams throw the ball more effectively in this era than they ever have. Rules favor passing attacks more than they did in prior generations, and Kelce is more protected running over the middle than tight ends were in decades past. He has the biggest season in tight end history on his résumé with a 1,416-yard campaign in 2020, but does that hold up after you try and adjust for era?

It does. One way to measure this is to calculate what percentage of the total receiving yards across the entire league a receiver has captured. You have to adjust this for the number of teams in the league and games played, but you can get a sense of how productive each player was in his given season, relative to the other receivers playing amidst the same rules and the same schematic tendencies.

Kelce loses his No. 1 spot after we adjust for era. Jackie Smith's 1967 season with the St. Louis Cardinals takes the cake, in what was the lone 1,000-yard season for a player who would eventually make the Hall of Fame. Just behind him are Winslow's 1980 campaign and the aforementioned Retzlaff season from 1965. Christensen and Ditka aren't too far back.

Kelce's ongoing 2022 season ranks fifth on the list, though, and it isn't his only appearance. To pick a simple cutoff, there are 31 seasons when a tight end captured at least 1% of the available receiving market since 1960. Kelce has four such seasons, the most of any tight end over that time frame. Gonzalez and Winslow have three, Christensen and Gates have two and nobody else has more than one. Even after you account for era, he continues to stand out.

The other issue is blocking, which is a meaningful part of the job at tight end. We don't have route data stretching far into the past, but Kelce likely runs more routes and blocks less often than the vast majority of tight ends from prior generations. Gronkowski and Kittle are on a different planet as blockers, with Gronkowski earning a reputation as one of the best-blocking tight ends in league history. If you prefer a more evenly rounded tight end, given his blocking skills and incredible aptitude in the red zone, Gronk might stand out as a better tight end than Kelce.

Kelce is not typically a liability as a blocker, however. I didn't cover the NFL for most of Gonzalez's career, but Graham comes to mind as a tight end who was more of a glorified wide receiver when it came to both receiving and blocking. That's not Kelce. While he's not going to be a dominant in-line blocker at the point of attack on run plays like Gronkowski, he's a willing blocker, and his physical tools play up when coach Andy Reid calls screens and gets his playmakers out on the edge.

Where does Kelce stand?

In the context of how the league values different positions financially, tight end is seen as one of the least important positions. If we're comparing players across positions, as good as Kelce is, he's going to be overshadowed by less impactful players at more significant spots.

If we're measuring how players compare to other players at their respective positions, though, Kelce has to be considered one of the best players in the league, and has been for some time now. Other players who are sufficiently far ahead of the rest of their competition over the past two seasons include Justin Tucker at kicker, Trent Williams at left tackle, Aaron Donald at defensive tackle, Myles Garrett on the edge and Micah Parsons in whatever position Parsons wants to play. Kelce, Donald and Tucker have been at that same level for at least four years.

Gronkowski's blocking is unquestionably valuable, but given how often the Patriots and Buccaneers star missed time with injuries, it would be difficult for me to argue that he was a more productive tight end as a pro than Kelce has been so far. Kelce entered the league in Gonzalez's final season, and I believe the torch as the best tight end of a generation was passed from one Chiefs legend to another. We'll look back on Kelce as the best tight end of this era.

Is he the greatest tight end of all time? We're getting there. Nobody has been better through the first 10 seasons of their career than Kelce has through his, which gets him ahead of Winslow and Newsome, who were either retired or in lesser roles by the time they entered their second decade in the league.

It's difficult to make comparisons when other players had what would amount to entire careers after their first decade in football. Gonzalez and Witten, each of whom played 17 seasons, enjoyed spectacular longevity and were useful deep into their late-30s. Kelce probably needs to run off at least one or two more seasons as a top-five tight end to top them and have an airtight case as the greatest tight end in league history. Given that he just accomplished something we haven't seen since 1965, I wouldn't bet against him.

Will Kelce ever fade?

I'm not about to short Kelce stock. In addition to staying remarkably healthy, he plays with the best quarterback in football and for the league's most creative playcaller. His instincts for finding space are impeccable, and while I don't think he's going to win a 40-yard dash against the league's top wide receivers, I just saw him shake Jalen Ramsey for a 39-yard touchdown catch two weeks ago. If Kelce has lost a step, it's not much of one.

It wouldn't surprise me if the Chiefs get more judicious about using Kelce as he hits his mid-30s. His snap rates have fallen each season since peaking at 95% in 2018, with him taking about 80% of the offensive snaps this season. Taking him out in garbage time situations and saving him for extended work in the red zone, on third down and in the postseason is an obvious way for Reid to extend his career.

Because this is football, the unlikely is always worth considering. Kelce could suffer some sudden, unexpected injury. He could choose to retire alongside his older brother, Jason, who reportedly was considering retirement each of the past two offseasons. The Eagles center is also playing at a high level, and there's a decent chance they could play against each other in this season's Super Bowl. Travis has given no hints of retirement, but I'm sure it's something the Chiefs worry about.

Having traded away Hill last offseason, the Chiefs have to be thinking about what the future of their receiving corps will look like. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman are both free agents after this season, while it will be easy to move on from Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The Chiefs used a second-round pick on Skyy Moore and traded meaningful draft capital to the Giants for Kadarius Toney, so those two should figure into the starting mix in 2023 with Kelce at tight end.

As I mentioned in writing about the T.J. Hockenson trade, smart organizations are going to look toward tight end as a place for bargains. Kelce makes a pittance relative to the league's top wide receivers, and he's nearly as productive. If the Chiefs go into the veteran market to add playmakers in the short term, I wouldn't be surprised if they went out and made a Valdes-Scantling-size investment in a second tight end to take some of the pressure off of Kelce and allow Reid to play more snaps out of 12 or 13 personnel. Noah Gray and Jody Fortson have been useful contributors in those roles this season.

If the Chiefs were going to draft a tight end, though, this might be the time. General manager Brett Veach can't count on landing the next Kelce, but 2023 is regarded as an excellent draft class for tight ends, with Notre Dame's Michael Mayer leading the way. The Chiefs haven't used a pick higher than the fifth round on a tight end since drafting Kelce in 2013, but taking one next April would give that player time to develop behind Kelce while preparing an option to help take over if he does slow down or eventually retire.

Until then, though, the Chiefs will enjoy one of the greatest competitive advantages in football. Kelce tilts the field in their favor each and every week, combining with Reid and Mahomes to flummox opposing defenses. He's finishing off the best decade we've ever seen from an NFL tight end, and given how slowly he seems to be aging, it's only a matter of time before we regard him as the greatest tight end in league history.

Travis Kelce's unique place in NFL history: Why he's one of the most valuable players of his generation (2024)
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