After Travis Kelce scored four touchdowns on Monday Night Football, a retired Rob Gronkowski began trending again as his career was called into question.
Drafted in 2010, it became immediately clear that drafting an injured Gronkowski in the second round would be one of the savviest moves Bill Belichick would ever make. Gronkowski was unstoppable, as in he became the poster guy for the NFL posterizing movement. He outran linebackers, outreached cornerbacks, ran receiver routes and dragged multiple humans down the field as he ran. Yes, dragged. In fact, Gronk was so impossible to defend, players began hurling themselves at his knees, which injured him and affected his career down the line. But even a veteran Gronk lined up and handled edge rushers, paving the way for a run-heavy path to Super Bowl LIII — oh, and he was a game-changer on their singular touchdown drive, too.
Twelve years, two teams and two retirements later, Gronk is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of only three active players included in the NFL All-Time 100 list in 2019. Widely considered to be the greatest tight end in NFL history, Gronkowski is, in a word, incomparable.
Unjustly, Gronk’s name is trending due to his inverse relationship with another future Hall of Fame tight end: Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce. When Kelce has an incredible game, which is fairly common considering how integral he is in the Chiefs offense, the question arises: Is Rob Gronkowski really the NFL’s tight end for the ages? Or is it possible that Kelce, who is still adding to his extensive resume, can usurp Gronk and claim the throne for himself?
The crux of the issue with this argument is that each player vastly differed with their roles, which means that they should be examined within their own context. But it’s sports, and comparisons are never-ending, so here’s why Gronk continues to win out as the NFL’s greatest tight end.
There’s only one right answer to who’s the fairest of them all, and it’s Rob Gronkowski over Travis Kelce
Rob Gronkowski was and likely will always be the best for one simple reason: he truly did it all. In his heyday, Gronkowski was a matchup nightmare — his mere presence on the field drew multiple defenders, which often led to the Patriots using him as a chess piece to open up other receivers. And if you didn’t double cover Gronk — because he always required at least two defenders on him — defenses were often punished for their oversight. Gronkowski had massive hands, secured the ball, was fast, was formidable… it’s difficult to emphasize how dominant he truly was. His NFL 100 enshrinement is a testament to his game, and the fact that Kelce wasn’t nominated is something that should be considered when comparing their games.
Kelce is easily one of the greatest tight ends of all time, and he certainly has stats weighing in favor of his argument for being the best. In January, Kelce became the quickest to reach 9,000 receiving yards as an NFL tight end, and in Week 4, he made NFL history by cracking the top five for all-time tight end receiving yards.
In reflecting on what this moment meant, Kelce mentioned what it meant to be in the same conversation as Gronkowski.
"“What an honor. Eight-seven, Rob Gronkowski, you can’t say enough about who he is as a player and as a person. Even to be in the same conversation as a guy like that and the rest of the list, it’s just an honor.”"
The humility reflects the character of Kelce, who is understandably admired for that and for his game. There’s no arguing that Kelce has rapidly broken NFL touchdown and receiving yard records, and after Kelce comes Kyle Pitts and other tight ends who primarily catch passes.
Like Gronkowski, Kelce has proven that he too is a matchup nightmare — he got open and scored four touchdowns in a game, after all. Still, Kelce often doesn’t block for the run game, and if the Chiefs did have someone like Gronkowski available to block, it could only improve that aspect of their offense.
Also, Colts cornerback Stephon Gilmore locked up Kelce during their Week 3 win over the Chiefs, which proves that a singular cornerback can shut down Kelce in man coverage. Gilmore is one of the NFL’s best, and Kelce is no outlier in being shut down by him. But that was so much more difficult to do it to Gronk in his prime.
In the end, Travis Kelce is guaranteed to be in the top five among tight end receiving yards, and while he may catch up to Shannon Sharpe, there’s still legends like Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez who have less attainable records. Recency bias is a major problem here, too — NFL fans are already forgetting how Gronk played, and that was only a decade ago. And somehow, Chiefs fans are crowning Kelce the greatest of all time when their franchise featured Tony Gonzalez for 12 seasons.
As it stands, the tight end position is designated as one that features running routes and blocking. In that regard, no one comes close to Rob Gronkowski.