No matter the outcome of Super Bowl 55, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski will be forever known as Super Bowl winners — and in a few years, Pro Football Hall of Famers.
There are only nine tight ends enshrined in Canton and even with the group expanding to at least 11 with Antonio Gates and Jason Witten getting in soon, it’s still an exclusive club. Neither Kelce nor Gronkowski, both 31, would need to play another down to ensure that all-time great status. Now the question is, who will end up going down in NFL history as the more accomplished receiver at the position?
Since former Chiefs and Falcons legend Tony Gonzalez retired in 2013 — the same year the Chiefs drafted Kelce in the third round — Gronkowski has been seen as the standard for the modern pass-happy game. The Patriots’ second-round pick in 2010 has been a dominant receiving and blocking force when healthy for his two teams.
Kelce, a terrific athlete as a converted quarterback, has developed into a strong blocker over the years. He also has been an ironman at a mentally and physically demanding position, a consistent, healthy part of Kansas City’s offense since becoming a starter in his second season.
Kelce is about five months younger than Gronkowski. He didn’t start producing at a high level until 2014, or when Gronkowski was into his fifth season. Kelce wears No. 87 like Gronkowski, but that’s not the only way in which Kelce emulates him.
“I know we’re about the same age. He got into the league two years before me. When I moved to tight end, he was the staple. He was up-and-coming and made his mark in the NFL as a young player,” Kelce said during Super Bowl 55’s first day of media availability on Monday. “His dominance fueled me to be able to have that much impact in a football game. Seeing where I can translate bits and pieces of his game and translate it into having success in my game — I’ve been doing that for years.”
Kelce has paid attention to the little things, down to how Gronkowski changes tempo when running routes to get open. Because of that, Kelce has evolved into a unique receiving weapon for the Chiefs, further raised by Andy Reid’s play-calling and Patrick Mahomes’ passing.
Through the final few seasons of his Patriots tenure, his one-year retirement and 2020 return with the Buccaneers, Gronkowski has paid close attention to Kelce’s own brand of dominance.
“I have nothing but major respect for Travis Kelce. He has helped transform the tight end position and he has helped put the tight end position on the map,” Gronkowski said. “I’ve never really seen this with any other player, but Kelce gets better every single season I’ve seen him play in the NFL. Ever since he’s been on the Chiefs, he has progressed his game. That’s mad respect, right there.”
Although Kelce and Gronkowski see each other as inspiring equals, it’s time to examine the numbers to see who will end up closest to Gonzalez, who will remain tight end’s Tom Brady-like GOAT because of his prolific longevity.
As documented here, Kelce, by posting tight end records for receptions (105) and receiving yards (1,416) in 2020, now has the position’s best individual season over Gronkowski, who set the tight end record for total TDs (18) in 2011.
Let’s then compare Kelce’s career to Gronkowski’s career. In 111 regular-season games for the Chiefs, Kelce has caught 612 of 860 targets (71.2 percent) for 7,881 yards (12.9 yards per catch, 71.0 yards per game) with 49 total TDs. In 131 regular-season games for the Patriots and Buccaneers, Gronkowski has caught 566 of 871 targets (65 percent) for 8,484 yards (15 yards per catch, 64.8 yards per game) with 87 total TDs.
In 11 playoff games before Super Bowl 55, Kelce has caught 73 of 94 targets (79.3 percent) for 859 yards (11.8 yards per catch, 78.1 yards per game) with 9 total TDs. In 19 playoff games, Gronkowski has caught 83 of 137 targets (60.6 percent) for 1,206 yards (14.5 yards per catch, 63.5 yards per game) with 12 total TDs.
Kelce has the edge in catch rate and yardage per game, while Gronkowski holds the advantage with his scoring rate and yards per catch. As good as Gronkowski has been in the playoffs, Kelce is the one who has better raised his level of impact when the games count more.
Kelce has been rested twice over the past seven seasons, playing in 110 of 112 regular-season games. Before taking 2019 off and before staying healthy for all 16 games with the Buccaneers, Gronkowski missed 26 regular-season games in his previous seven seasons. Durability and availability are in Kelce’s corner, something that also was a key trait for Gonzalez.
Gronkowski, unless he plays a few more seasons in Tampa Bay, will catch neither Gonzalez (111) nor Gates (117), who are Nos. 8 and No. 7 on the list for all-time receiving touchdowns across positions. He’s No. 15, while for now, Kelce is tied for 150th.
Among those many tight ends between Kelce and Gronkowski in TDs are Jimmy Graham (82), Fred Biletnikoff (76), Jason Witten (74), Vernon Davis (63), Shannon Sharpe (62) and Greg Olsen (60). But Kelce, if he remains with Mahomes for four seasons — he’s under contract through 2025 — should add 40-50 scores to his regular-season total, and a good chunk to his playoff TD total, too. That would allow Kelce to get to around’s Gronkowski’s current number and also flirt with 100 TDs.
Neither Gonzalez nor Gates got a Super Bowl ring. Gronkowski is tied with another Hall of Famer, Sharpe, with three. Either he will break that tie as a member of the Buccaneers, or Kelce will get a second ring with the Chiefs to get one behind both.
Gronkowski’s resume is strong should he walk away again before playing in the 2021 season, but the facts Kelce is pacing better in key categories and TDs aren’t the most definitive stat, he has time on his side to string together several more prolific efforts as the centerpiece of the NFL’s best offense. Like Gronkowski did with the Patriots, Kelce will get to compete for Super Bowls in almost every season because of Mahomes.
At one point, there was a considerable gap between Gronkowski and Kelce as receiving tight ends, but the latter has caught up in a hurry with the exponential improvement Gronkowski pointed out. Calling Kelce “Baby Gronk” because of forced comparisons with playing style and personality is lazy. Instead, it’s time to focus on the aspect that Kelce has the same kind of talent, football intelligence and work ethic Gronkowski does — assets that have him on track to surpass Gronkowski.