In 2011, Travis Kelce wasn’t really Travis Kelce yet—at least not as a football player. He was a junior at the University of Cincinnati, getting his first real playing time as a tight end. He barely played his freshman and sophomore seasons at UC and was a quarterback in high school. At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, he had obvious athleticism and a good mind for the mechanics of an offense, but he lacked a clear purpose on the field. There had to be more he could offer than a few blocks here and there and 13 catches over the course of that season.
That year was also Rob Gronkowski’s second NFL season, when Gronk became a household name. He had 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011, both single-season records for a tight end. He seemed unstoppable because of the mismatches he created: He was too fast for linebackers and too big and strong for safeties. He was still an excellent in-line blocker—the traditional role of the “Y” tight end—but could line up in multiple spots in any formation. New England had been successful for years using slot receivers like Wes Welker to manipulate the middle of the field. Eventually, it started experimenting by lining up a bigger player—often Gronkowski—in the same space. There was little he couldn’t do.
When Kelce watched Gronkowski that season, he saw a prototype for how to unleash an exceptional tight end all over the field. He saw a role that looked as satisfying and impactful as his dual-threat quarterbacking days in high school.
“When I moved to tight end, he was the staple,” Kelce said Monday. “He was up-and-coming and had made his mark in the NFL as a young player, and his dominance fueled me to be able to have that much impact in a football game.”
In 2012, in his last college season, Kelce caught 45 passes for 722 yards and eight touchdowns, all career highs by a wide margin. In 2013, Kansas City drafted him in the third round, looking for a playmaking tight end in the mold of Gronkowski and others who were succeeding in similar roles.
“He transcended [the position] just in terms of being such a dominant force, a big athletic guy who can run up the seams, catch the ball, make a few guys miss, break a tackle, and take it to the house,” Kelce said. “You didn’t see that in every offense. What that did for a guy like myself, coming into the league, was it gave coach Andy Reid an understanding of ‘OK, we can use the tight end position a certain way if he works at his craft enough.’”
Kelce and Gronkowski, who came out of retirement to play in Tampa this season, are not identical players—Gronkowski is the better blocker and, at his peak, was the better athlete—but they are part of the same macroevolution at their position. One way of viewing Super Bowl LV is as the continuation of a cycle that began around the time Gronkowski was drafted: a new generation of tight ends, great pass catchers who could run intermediate and deep routes, not just short ones, and who could split out wide or line up in the slot, entered the league. They were different from the traditional in-line blockers, the “Y” tight ends who were often offensive tackles who couldn’t keep enough weight on. Their emergence punctuated an equilibrium—no longer did playing tight end mean performing drudgery in relative anonymity. Teams were encouraged to expand their roles to fit the spread offenses of the modern NFL. Kelce has picked up in Kansas City where Gronkowski left off in New England, setting new standards of achievement. This season, Kelce became the first tight end to record a 1,400-yard receiving season, just as Gronkowski was the first to 1,300 yards in 2011.
There’s been a tight end renaissance in the past decade. From Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham to Kelce and George Kittle, they’re putting up better numbers, earning more fame, and getting bigger contracts. By changing the view of the position from grunt work to glamour, they’ve inspired a new generation of players.
“Great athletes have started playing the position,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said Monday. “Most of them weren’t good enough basketball players, so they turned to football—I think Tony Gonzalez was one of those guys who started it, and Antonio Gates. Really good power forwards who … weren’t going to the NBA [and] went to the NFL. That’s what you’re seeing.”
Gronkowski was drafted as part of a two-year run on tight ends in 2009 and 2010. Twenty were taken in each of those drafts, more than any other year since the draft went to seven rounds in 1994, save for 2002, an outlier year when 24 were chosen. In addition to Gronkowski, the 2009 and 2010 drafts included Ed Dickson, Graham, Dennis Pitta, and Jared Cook, among others.
Their success piqued other teams’ interests and led to another run on tight ends in 2013, especially those with receiving skills. Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz, Vance McDonald, Kelce, Jordan Reed, and Luke Willson went in the first five rounds of 2013. These players could play in space and thrived as the spread offense took over the NFL. The prevalence of spread concepts has helped offensive players in general, but it took the right player pipeline being in place for NFL tight ends to take advantage. There was no guarantee that a position named for its traditional spot tight to the end of the line was going to flourish in a system defined by spreading out wide.
The NFL, to an extent, has to take what it can get. When there’s a steady supply of talent at a position, of a certain body type, or anything else, the smart teams take advantage, and the rest eventually follow suit. It’s not clear why so many good tight ends came out of those 2009 and 2010 drafts, but it is possible to draw a line from those players’ success to other teams wanting the same—and better athletes in high school and college taking an interest in what became an increasingly high-profile and lucrative job. The more good players become available at a position, the more the NFL prioritizes it financially and schematically, and the cycle continues.
“It’s become a position that is more viable for young players to turn to whereas before it was kind of like playing right field in little league,” said an NFL personnel executive. “If you look at guys on a scale of 1 to 5, there’s probably more 3s and 4s now than there ever were. Before it was some 5s and some 2s.”
In 2010, Gates became the NFL’s highest-paid tight end when he signed a five-year contract extension with the Chargers worth $7.2 million per year. Last offseason, Kittle signed a five-year extension with the 49ers worth more than twice that, $15 million, in average annual value. Kittle’s deal largely ignored precedent at the position. “I don’t care about the tight end market. I’m being paid to do a George Kittle deal,” his agent, Jack Bechta, told NFL Network at the time. The tight end market, though, definitely cared about them. Hours after Kittle’s deal was complete, Kelce signed his own four-year extension worth an average of $14.3 million per year. Both deals shattered what had been the previous high-water mark: Browns tight end Austin Hooper’s $10.5 million per year. In 2020, 16 tight ends made over $5 million and four made at least $10 million.
Gronkowski and his contemporaries deserve much of the credit for advancing a tight end’s role in an NFL offense, but he gives Kelce and Kittle credit for showing the true value of the position in terms that matter to those who play it—by getting paid.
“I feel like the tight end position is on the map now. It’s a position that I feel like kids want to play,” Gronkowski said Monday. “People want to grow up to be a tight end which is pretty, pretty awesome.”
It’s also possible those kids also want to grow up to be Gronk, another matter entirely and a taller task, but Gronkowski is right. In Kelce’s case—or for players like Houston’s Darren Fells or Indianapolis’s Mo Alie-Cox, who became tight ends after playing college basketball—the specialization at the position takes place during or after college. For many others, though, it starts earlier.
A promising high school athlete with a certain size and speed combination might, for instance, now prefer to play tight end over outside linebacker.
Timothy Bostard is the head football coach at Woodland Hills High School in Pittsburgh, Gronkowski’s alma mater. Bostard told me he gets more students wanting to try out at tight end than there are roster spots at the position. A wider range of body types can realistically point to successful college or NFL tight ends as their inspiration.
“They’re trying to migrate to that position because of what it is now,” Bostard said.
The beauty of the modern tight end position is how many things it can be. No wonder it captures players’ imagination. There’s a self-fulfilling element to the cycle: If there are more good players at a position, teams start finding more ways to use them. One reason there are more jobs available now is because some of these better athletes can add value on special teams by covering kicks and kick returns. Teams carry more tight ends on their rosters than they used to, and the very best of them are earning more lucrative contracts. A good receiving tight end can split out wide and function as a fourth or fifth receiver in a spread formation; a bigger one can take advantage of the middle of the field from the slot; and someone still has to block sometimes. Almost none of these players are or will be at Gronkowski’s, or even Kelce’s, level of talent or accomplishment, but they’ll follow the trail they blazed and choose to follow the footprints that suit their skill sets best. In an era of positionless football, a positionless position should be thriving.
“There are so many different types of tight ends now, where you can line up out wide, you can line up to the left, you can line up in the backfield, you can line up on the line,” Gronkowski said. “That’s what makes the position really cool and very intriguing to kids these days. I feel like it’s the cool position.”