100 Million Americans will turn on their TVs today for Super Bowl LVII between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles. One of the most exciting players to watch will be Chiefs superstar tight end Travis Kelce, who will be playing in his second Super Bowl in 4 years. Kelce has been the consensus top tight end in the NFL this season and has dominated the position over the past five years. He is the first tight end in NFL history to record seven-consecutive 1,000-receiving yard seasons. Not to mention, Kelce is an eight-time Pro Bowler and has been nominated as an All-Pro in seven of his ten seasons. Kelce is undoubtedly one of the best tight ends of all time, which begs the question: where does Kelce stack up among other greats, such as Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski and Shannon Sharpe?
To answer this question and contextualize Kelce’s career, we looked to analyze four main categories:
Regular Season Statistics
Playoff Statistics: How does Kelce perform when it matters most?
Advanced Statistics and Over-Expected Modeling
Accolades: How does Kelce’s “resume” compare to other tight ends?
For Regular Season and Playoff Totals, we ultimately decided to keep it simple and include the most basic statistics such as receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and yards per catch. We also added games played in order to add context for the career lengths of the different tight ends.
Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates are the leading tight ends among the five players in most regular season statistics. They boast significantly higher receptions totals, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. This is due to the longevity of their careers (17 seasons and 16 seasons, respectively). Kelce ranks ahead of both Shannon Sharpe and Rob Gronkowski in receiving yard totals and has more touchdowns than Sharpe. It can be concluded from this chart that Kelce is side-by-side with the top TEs in regular season statistics, especially considering his relatively shorter career (10 years) compared to Gonzales and Gates.
But how does Kelce perform in the playoffs, when the stakes are the highest?
Travis Kelce ranks the highest for the top 5 tight ends in all categories except games played and YPC. It is worth noting that Kelce is tied with Gronkowski for receiving touchdowns, with both of them having 15 in their careers, even though Gronkowski has played five more playoff games. Besides, Kelce will have a chance in Super Bowl LVII to pass Gronkowski in this category (with Vegas pricing the odds of him scoring a touchdown at 56%).
After looking at cumulative regular season and playoff statistics, we decided to also look at advanced statistics that aren’t biased by a player's longevity. One of these advanced statistics was First Downs Over Expected (FDOE). Whenever I watch Travis Kelce and the Chiefs, I am always amazed with how efficient Kelce is at getting first downs. Every time the Chiefs and Mahomes need a key conversion, it always seems like Kelce beats his defender and moves the sticks. FDOE quantifies this phenomenon. It measures how many first downs a player generated beyond what would be expected given the down, distance, field position, and other situational factors. The idea behind FDOE is to adjust for how many first downs a player is responsible for relative to the average player in the same situation. A player’s FDOE is the percentage of first downs that he converts more than the average player. To create the table below, play-by-play data from nflfastR was collected and filtered to only include players who have over 500 career targets. Finally, it was decided to only look at play-by-play data dating back to 2013 (Kelce’s rookie year). Sample code to complete this task can be found below:
games <- load_pbp(2006:2022) games %>% filter(!is.na(receiver_id)) %>% left_join(history, by = c("receiver_id" = "gsis_id")) %>% filter(position == "TE") %>% group_by(receiver_player_name) %>% mutate(plays = n()) %>% mutate(tgt = sum(complete_pass + incomplete_pass)) %>% ungroup() %>% group_by(receiver_player_name, season.y) %>% mutate(tgt = sum(complete_pass + incomplete_pass)) %>% filter(tgt >= 500) %>% filter(season.y %in% c('2013', '2014', '2015', '2016', '2017', '2018', '2019', '2020', '2021', '2022')) %>% unique() %>% ungroup(season.y) %>% filter(complete_pass == 1, air_yards < yardline_100, !is.na(xyac_epa)) %>% summarize( Team = posteam, epa_oe = mean(yac_epa - xyac_epa), actual_fd = mean(first_down), expected_fd = mean(xyac_fd), fd_oe = mean(first_down - xyac_fd) ) %>% arrange(-epa_oe)
After this data wrangling was completed, the following table was produced:
According to the findings, Kelce converts 4.02% more first downs that the average TE would. This confirms our suspicion that he is really good at converting first downs, as he ranks second in this metric among all tight ends since his rookie year (2013). It is interesting that George Kittle ranks first among all TEs and he has a staggering FDOE of 6.4%. Gronkowski is second in this statistic, but there is a large drop off from Kittle to Gronkowski. While Kelce does rank behind Gronk in this metric, he is significantly higher than Antonio Gates, who was previously mentioned as one of the all time greats. Overall, it is very impressive that Kelce ranks top three in First Downs Over Expected and his ability to help his team convert on 3rd downs is one of his most valuable skills.
If you have been reading our articles for a while now, you might recognize the advanced statistic EPA/Play (Expected Points Added per play). EPA/Play is a statistic that measures the impact of a play on a team's expected point total for a drive. It assigns a point value to every play based on the likelihood of the drive resulting in a touchdown, field goal, or turnover, and is useful in evaluating a TE’s contribution to his team because it takes into account not only the outcome of each play, but also situation and field position. Taking this statistic a step further, we decided to look at EPA/Play Over Expected. EPA/Play Over Expected measures a player’s production compared to the league average and adjusts for the player’s usage and situation. It was very important for us to adjust to situation because Kelce benefits greatly from having Patrick Mahomes (now 2 time MVP) as his quarterback and EPA/Play Over Expected helps control for this.
Below is the EPA/Play Over Expected among TEs with over 500 targets in the last ten years:
The first thing to notice is that only 4 TEs in this dataset have positive EPA/Play Over Expected: George Kittle, Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and Brent Celek. This means that only these four TEs have EPA/Plays that “add” to their team’s expected points more than the average tight end would in their circumstances. All of the other TEs performed worse than what was expected of them, based on factors like whether or not they catch the ball, how many yards they get after the catch and whether or not they fumble, etc. Just like in the First Downs Over Expected chart, Kittle leads all TEs in this metric (and maybe he is deserving of his own Field General article in the future…). Once again, Kelce ranks third in this metric behind Kittle and Gronkowski. Based on these two advanced statistics, it is pretty clear that Gronk is slightly more efficient and valuable than Kelce. Still, the fact that Kelce is top three in both FDOE and EPA/Play Over Expected helps bolster his case for the Tight End Hall of Fame.
While player statistics are very important, awards and honors are another valuable way to gauge a player’s impact in the NFL. In the chart below, accolades were measured by comparing Pro Bowls, Super Bowls, and All-Pro Selections between the five tight ends.
Tony Gonzalez was selected for 14 Pro Bowls during his 17 seasons in the league, tied for second most all-time behind only Tom Brady. Kelce, on the other hand, was selected to 8, tying Sharpe and Gates and surpassing Gronkowski. Kelce has the highest All-Pro rate out of these five tight ends, having been chosen in 70% of his seasons in the NFL. Gonzalez is the only one who comes close, having made just under 60% of the All-Pro teams during his time in the league. Interestingly enough, while Gonzalez and Gates were far ahead of the rest of the tight ends for regular season stats, they are the only two on this list who had not won a Super Bowl during their respectively lengthy careers. Gronkowski, during his time with Tom Brady, won four rings, and Sharpe won two in Denver and one in Baltimore. Although Kelce only has one ring so far, he has a chance to win his second today to add another bullet to his resume…
By Nate Yellin and Jack Gewanter