Travis Kelce and the Year of the Tight End

Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Divisional - Call it quits, quarterbacks. Take a walk, wideouts. Hit the road, running backs. This is 2023, the year of the tight end, and Travis Kelce is cementing his legacy as the best playoff tight end of all time.

Kelce caught 14 passes for 98 yards and two scores in the Kansas City Chiefs' divisional-round win over Jacksonville, but despite all that volume, he doesn't make our list of top receivers this week because of opponent adjustments; the Jaguars were dead last in coverage against the position. But the top four players on our list are tight ends, not wide receivers. That includes San Francisco's George Kittle, who had five catches for 95 yards against Dallas, as well as Cincinnati's Hayden Hurst (5-59-1 against Buffalo), Philadelphia's Dallas Goedert (5-58-1 against the Giants), and Buffalo's Dawson Knox (5-65-0 against Cincinnati).

Plenty of tight ends had big games in the wild-card round too. Dalton Schultz qualified for Quick Reads with 95 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Tampa Bay, and elsewhere, the Chargers' Gerald Everett went over 100 yards with a touchdown (again, against the Jaguars), Minnesota's T.J. Hockenson had 10 catches for 129 yards against the Giants, and Jacksonville's Evan Engram had 93 yards and a touchdown against L.A.

None of those games are threatening any Football Outsiders records (Kelce's 10-catch, 134-yard, three-touchdown game against Houston in the 2019 wild-card round remains the most valuable tight end game in our database, regular-season or postseason), but in terms of pure volume, we have never seen postseason production like this from the position. After this weekend's games, tight ends are averaging 11.1 standard fantasy points, 17.1 PPR points, 17.5 DraftKings points, and 14.1 FanDuel points per team per game in the playoffs. Since the merger with the AFL in 1970, that's neck-and-neck with the 2011 season for the best such marks on record.

Postseasons with Highest PPR Tight End Fantasy Scoring, 1970-2022
Year Fantasy
Average
PPR
Average
DraftKings
Average
FanDuel
Average
Top TE Team PPR Points
2022 11.1 17.1 17.5 14.1 Dalton Schultz DAL 42.2
2011 11.7 17.1 17.7 14.4 Vernon Davis SF 63.2
1981 10.5 15.3 15.8 12.9 Dan Ross CIN 57.4
2012 9.0 14.5 14.9 11.7 Dennis Pitta BAL 48.3
2020 8.5 14.0 14.4 11.3 Travis Kelce KC 85.0
2014 8.5 13.7 13.9 11.1 Rob Gronkowski NE 54.4
2019 8.2 13.3 13.5 10.8 Travis Kelce KC 63.9
2017 8.4 13.2 13.6 10.8 Rob Gronkowski NE 55.8
2021 7.7 12.5 12.7 10.1 Travis Kelce KC 75.0
1994 7.7 12.4 12.7 10.0 Keith Jackson MIA 35.8
1993 7.4 12.3 12.5 9.9 Keith Cash KC 45.3
2009 7.7 12.0 12.2 9.9 Dustin Keller NYJ 48.1

Thus far, Schultz has been the top fantasy tight end of this postseason (12 catches, 122 yards, three touchdowns), but that seems temporary. Schultz and the Cowboys have been eliminated, which means Kelce (35.8 PPR points in just one game) will probably pass him in the AFC Championship Game. Speaking of which, Cincinnati's Hayden Hurts (9-104-1) has 23.4 PPR points and could also wind up on top with another big game or two. 

The only postseason that can compare to this was in 2011. That was the peak of the Aaron Hernandez-Rob Gronkowski Patriots, as the duo combined for 36 catches, 446 yards, and five touchdowns and helped New England reach the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Giants. Jimmy Graham also had a big year, going 12-158-3 in two games with the Saints. None of them, however, could hold a candle to Vernon Davis. In only two playoff games, Davis caught 10 passes for 292 yards (29.2 yards per catch!) and four, count 'em, four touchdowns.

Most of the seasons listed here took place in this century, but one notable exception came in 1981, over 40 years ago. There was no particular dominant tight end that year, but a lot of guys had big games in one-and-done situations. The Jets' Mickey Shuler, Miami's tandem of Bruce Hardy and Joe Rose, and Tampa Bay's Jimmie Giles had a total of 17 catches for 340 yards and four touchdowns even though they played just one game each. Elsewhere, San Diego's Kellen Winslow caught 13 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown (plus a blocked field goal to force overtime) in a 41-38 overtime win over the Dolphins, then added three catches for 47 yards and another score in the AFC Championship Game against Cincinnati. It was the Bengals' Don Ross, whoever, who had the best totals that season: 22 catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns, including an 11-104-2 performance in a 26-21 loss to San Francisco in the Super Bowl.

Kelce will likely finish as the top fantasy tight end of these playoffs. But he also appears three other times in the prior table, as the recent surge in tight end scoring almost seems to be entirely his doing:

  • Kelce's 85.0 PPR points in the 2020 playoffs are the record for a single postseason; he caught 31 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns in three games as the Chiefs lost the Super Bowl to Tampa Bay.
  • Kelce's 75.0 PPR points in last year's playoffs are the second-most for a tight end in a single postseason; he caught 23 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns as the Chiefs lost the AFC Championship Game to Cincinnati.
  • Kelce's 63.9 PPR points in the 2019 playoffs are the third-most for a tight end in a single postseason; he caught 19 passes for 207 yards and four touchdowns as the Chiefs beat San Francisco in the Super Bowl.

Kelce now has 120 receptions in the playoffs, a post-merger record for tight ends. His 1,389 receiving yards are exactly tied with Rob Gronkowski (nobody else has even 900), and he trails Gronk by one touchdown, 15 to 14 (nobody else has more than seven). He should be alone in first place in yardage by halftime of the AFC Championship Game, and could surpass Gronkowski's touchdown total in the next game or two as well.

We wrote two weeks ago that Kelce was the best tight end of his era based on his regular-season statistics. But by ignoring his playoff success, we were actually selling him short.

Two other notes before we get to this week's players:

  • Kelce is shooting to lead tight ends in postseason fantasy scoring for the fourth time. That would tie him with Gronkowski, who did it in 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018 with New England. Two others did it three times each: Mark Bavaro of the Giants (1985, 1986, 1990) and Keith Jackson (with three different teams—Philadelphia in 1988, Miami in 1994, and Green Bay in 1995).
  • Speaking of Jackson, what was up with dudes named Keith in that era? You also had Buffalo's Keith McKeller on top in 1991, Kansas City's Keith Cash in 1993, and New England's Keith Byars in 1996.
Quarterbacks
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Sacks
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Opp
1.
Joe Burrow CIN
23/35
242
2
0
1
200
187
13
BUF
Burrow gains 41 DYAR in opponent adjustments. The Bills got a field goal on the first drive of the second half to cut Cincinnati's lead to 17-10, but Burrow never let them get any closer. From that point to the end of the game, he went 5-of-9 for 56 yards, plus two DPIs for 30 more yards, an average of 9.6 yards per dropback with six total first downs. He also had a big day on third downs, going 4-of-5 for 49 yards with a sack, plus a 26-yard DPI, for five total conversions, including a touchdown.
2.
Patrick Mahomes KC
22/30
195
2
0
0
95
90
6
JAX
If you're curious, Chad Henne had 14 passing DYAR for his second-quarter cameo (5-of-7 for 23 yards and a touchdown) while Mahomes was getting his ankle checked. Speaking of which, Mahomes had 30 DYAR in the first half (12-of-15 for 84 yards and a touchdown), but a league-best 59 in the second (10-of-15 for 111 yards and a touchdown). And that's all while losing 23 DYAR to opponent adjustments.
3.
Brock Purdy SF
19/29
214
0
0
2
77
84
-8
DAL
Purdy struggled in scoring range, going 4-of-12 for 25 yards with a sack inside the Dallas 40. Of course, the Cowboys had a lot to do with that—Purdy gained 28 DYAR due to opponent adjustments.
4.
Jalen Hurts PHI
16/24
154
2
0
1
47
44
3
NYG
Hurts threw for six first downs in the first quarter, completing each of his seven passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns. He only threw for three the rest of the game, going 9-of-17 for 65 yards with a sack-fumble.
5.
Josh Allen BUF
25/42
265
0
1
1
39
33
6
CIN
Allen did not throw for a first down until the Bills were down 14-0 in the second quarter; he did not convert a third down until they were down 17-7. In the red zone, he went 3-of-7 for only 15 yards with no touchdowns. The magic passing range for Allen came 8 to 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage: each of his six passes of that distance was completed for a first down, for a total of 75 yards.
6.
Trevor Lawrence JAX
24/38
217
1
1
2
15
1
15
KC
Most of Lawrence's best throws went to his right, where he went 10-of-15 for 107 yards and a touchdown. Of course, his interception was also thrown to his right, and one of those 10 completions was fumbled away to Kansas City to boot.
7.
Dak Prescott DAL
23/37
206
1
2
1
-34
-44
10
SF
Prescott gains 35 DYAR due to opponent adjustments. On throws to his left, Prescott went 11-of-16 for 114 yards. That sounds OK, but only three of those completions went for first downs, and both of his interceptions were thrown in that direction as well.
8.
Daniel Jones NYG
15/27
135
0
1
5
-83
-81
-1
PHI
Jones gains 45 DYAR due to opponent adjustments. He struggled on throws to his right, going 4-of-8 for 17 yards with an interception. On third/fourth downs, he went 4-of-10 for 37 yards with three conversions, three sacks, and one fumble.
Five Best Running Backs by DYAR (Total)
Rk
Player
Team
Runs
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
Opp
1.
Joe Mixon CIN
20
105
1
2/3
18
0
64
60
4
BUF
Mixon gains 24 DYAR due to opponent adjustments. He ran for eight first downs against Buffalo, including four runs of 10 yards or more, while being stuffed just twice. All three of his targets came on first-and-10; he picked up one first down on a gain of 13.
2.
Kenneth Gainwell PHI
12
112
1
1/2
9
0
47
44
4
NYG
Gainwell's rushing data is, frankly, ridiculous. Seven of his runs went for first downs, with five runs of 10 yards or more, including a 35-yard touchdown. And each of his other five carries gained exactly 3 yards, no more, no less.
3.
Isaih Pacheco KC
12
95
0
1/1
6
0
41
38
3
JAX
Pacheco only ran for three first downs, but that included gains of 12 and 39 yards, and he was only stuffed once.
4.
Travis Etienne JAX
10
62
1
3/3
18
0
36
26
10
KC
All 10 of Etienne's carries gained at least 1 yard. Four went for first downs, including gains of 12 and 19 yards. He added a fifth first down on a 3-yard catch on third-and-3.
5.
Samaje Perine CIN
7
33
0
5/5
31
0
32
16
16
BUF
Perine gains 11 DYAR due to opponent adjustments. All seven of his carries gained at least 2 yards and he picked up three first downs, the longest a gain of 11. He had two more first downs as a receiver the longest also a gain of 11.
Five Best Running Backs by DYAR (Rushing)
Rk
Player
Team
Runs
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
Opp
1.
Joe Mixon CIN
20
105
1
2/3
18
0
64
60
4
BUF
2.
Kenneth Gainwell PHI
12
112
1
1/2
9
0
47
44
4
NYG
3.
Isaih Pacheco KC
12
95
0
1/1
6
0
41
38
3
JAX
4.
Travis Etienne JAX
10
62
1
3/3
18
0
36
26
10
KC
5.
Christian McCaffrey SF
10
35
1
6/8
22
0
31
19
12
DAL
Though McCaffrey's longest carry gained only 8 yards, four resulted in first downs and he was stuffed just one time.
Worst Running Back by DYAR (Total)
Rk
Player
Team
Runs
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
Opp
1.
James Cook BUF
5
13
0
0/0
0
0
-11
-11
0
CIN
Cook failed to run for a single first down, his longest carry gained only 8 yards, and he was stuffed once.
Worst Running Back by DYAR (Rushing)
Rk
Player
Team
Runs
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
Opp
1.
James Cook BUF
5
13
0
0/0
0
0
-11
-11
0
CIN
Five Best Wide Receivers and Tight Ends by DYAR
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
Opp
1.
George Kittle SF
5
5
95
19.0
0
39
DAL
2.
Hayden Hurst CIN
5
6
59
11.8
1
38
BUF
3.
Dallas Goedert PHI
5
5
58
11.6
1
23
NYG
4.
Dawson Knox BUF
5
7
65
13.0
0
20
CIN
5.
Ja'Marr Chase CIN
5
8
61
12.2
1
19
BUF
Chase's totals include 1 rushing DYAR for his one carry for 3 yards. Three of his catches produced first downs, including a 28-yard touchdown.
Worst Wide Receiver or Tight End by DYAR
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
Opp
1.
Jamal Agnew JAX
2
3
5
2.5
0
-33
KC
No, this does not include Agnew's 131 yards on three kickoff returns, nor does it include his 23 yards on three punt returns. But it does include his three targets (incomplete on third-and-4; 2-yard catch on first-and-10; 3-yard catch and a lost fumble on first-and-goal from the 9), and also 2 DYAR for his one carry, a 2-yard gain on second-and-3.

Comments

24 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2023, 7:14pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 23, 2023 - 12:03pm

Minnesota's T.J. Hockenson had 10 catches for 129 yards against Detroit

Alas, no.

Points: 1

#2 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 23, 2023 - 12:04pm

Schultz has been the top fantasy tight end of this postseason

It was Dallas's fantasy he could get out of bounds correctly.

Points: 6

#4 by big10freak // Jan 23, 2023 - 12:43pm

As always, good stuff

 

Though I do find it challenging to think of Kelce as better than Gronk given that Gronk was much the superior blocker

 

But that's just my perspective.  

Points: 1

#5 by KnotMe // Jan 23, 2023 - 1:00pm

Aaron always talks about career vs peak. I think peak Gronk was better (blocking as you mentioned) but Kelce should beat him easily career wise

Points: 0

#7 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 23, 2023 - 1:54pm

Even then, Kelce's peak is comparable. He was 2nd in the league in receiving yards in 2020!

It basically comes down to blocking, which isn't a quantified stat. It's going to be interesting to see how history regards them.

Points: 0

#8 by StraightCashHomey // Jan 23, 2023 - 1:59pm

Definitely agree with this. Peak, healthy Gronk was one of the best players I've ever seen regardless of position. But his peak lasted only so long and he often wasn't healthy. Kelce is incredible and basically never misses a game. 

Points: 2

#17 by Pat // Jan 23, 2023 - 3:19pm

I dunno, Kelce basically had to carry as much of the receiving load as Gronk did at his peak and Kelce's waaay older. It's kindof insane.

Points: 0

#9 by Kaepernicus // Jan 23, 2023 - 2:02pm

Kelce is the new Tony G. He is the best receiver I have ever seen at the position. Gronk was a physical freak who was a mismatch with everyone and basically a second tackle. He was nowhere near the route runner that Kelce is though. 

Points: 3

#13 by MJK // Jan 23, 2023 - 2:34pm

Disagree.  Gronk was a fantastic route runner.  I'll accept that Kelce could be slightly better (I don't watch many Chiefs games), but Gronk was good enough that I don't think there's room for the "nowhere near" adjective.  

Points: 2

#16 by Pat // Jan 23, 2023 - 3:09pm

Kelce is an exceptional route runner, in the sense that his routes match the defense rather than necessarily the literal play. He's a former college QB, which really helps in that he understands more the overall route concept and what the QB is going to look for, making it really easy on the QB.

Really the thing though is that Kelce's maintaining the athleticism and ability as he's gotten older, and route-running improves as you get older, too (with experience). Remember, Travis and Gronk were born the same year. They're only like a half-year apart from each other.

Points: 4

#20 by BigRichie // Jan 23, 2023 - 3:39pm

I'll second this. Take Gronk down from 260 to 180, and he'd have still been a competent slot receiver. In particular, Gronk's body control on long passes was just astounding (and also what caused many of his injuries).

I don't "think", I know Gronk was way too good at receiving that there's no room whatsoever for any "nowhere near" adjective. Geesh, maybe you were watching his brother instead??

Points: 2

#10 by TomC // Jan 23, 2023 - 2:15pm

I googled Hayden Hurst, hoping his middle name would start with "H" so I could call him "Triple-H." Unfortunately, turns out it's "Randle." But you know what, "HRH" is pretty damn good too (except for people associating you with Charles III).

Points: 1

#11 by pm // Jan 23, 2023 - 2:30pm

Where does Kelce rank in all-time Postseason DYAR for a TE or WR? He has to be ahead of any receiver in history not named Rice.

Points: 0

#12 by laflamablanca87 // Jan 23, 2023 - 2:33pm

What was Kelce's DYAR against Cincinnati?

Points: 1

#15 by Aaron Schatz // Jan 23, 2023 - 2:55pm

Kelce had -14 DYAR against Cincinnati. By YAR, before opponent adjustments, it was his worst game of the season. He caught 4 of 6 passes for 56 yards. The Bengals were one of the better defenses against tight ends this season.

Points: 1

#14 by ChrisS // Jan 23, 2023 - 2:34pm

I love this column, Vince is mostly great but the intro paragraphs emphasis on fantasy made it a fast read as I just skimmed over that dreck.

Points: 0

#18 by Kaepernicus // Jan 23, 2023 - 3:20pm

Seeing the Bavaro references brought up some bad memories. I know his counting stats aren't great but he is one of those guys that feels like he should be in the HOF when you take his post season play into account. I feel like he would have put up crazy numbers in a different offense. He was a true match up nightmare when he was healthy.

Points: 2

#23 by Kaepernicus // Jan 23, 2023 - 4:31pm

Bavaro was the guy you feared on offense and LT was the guy you feared on defense. Those Parcells Giants teams were just bullies.

Points: 0

#21 by andrew // Jan 23, 2023 - 3:46pm

Isn't part of this that some of these teams are lousy at covering tight ends?  I seem to remember reading that being a weakness of the Giants defense, and it seems to have been validated.

Points: 0

#22 by Vincent Verhei // Jan 23, 2023 - 4:05pm

The Jags were the worst defense against tight ends this season, followed by the Giants and then the Dolphins. The Vikings and Bucs were also in the bottom 10. So yes, that's having an effect here.

Then again, the Bills (first), Cowboys, Bengals, Eagles, and Ravens were all in the top seven, so it goes both ways.

Points: 1

#24 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Jan 23, 2023 - 7:14pm

Despite their only being 4 games this weekend, the Five Best Running Back lists sport Total DYAR that would compare to a lot of regular season weeks.  

Points: 0

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