49ers vs. Chiefs: Travis Kelce long surpassed George Kittle as top TE

Tight end George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers and tight end Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Tight end George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers and tight end Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

With the Chiefs visiting the 49ers on Sunday, talk of tight end George Kittle and Travis Kelce will heat up, except Kelce has long since won that No. 1 debate.

For a number of years, there were two contenders for the title of “best tight end in the NFL,” and the names were easy to throw out there: the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle and the Kansas City ChiefsTravis Kelce.

That argument certainly came to a head in 2018 when Kittle broke former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s single-season receiving yards record with 1,377. And while some still argued Kelce was by far the more productive out of the two, Kittle still had the bragging rights about being the best all-around tight end in the league.

A year later and after his lone first-team All-Pro selection, Kittle was even named Pro Football Focus’ top player for 2019.

With Kansas City visiting the Niners for a Week 7 showdown at Levi’s Stadium, there’ll be even more conversations about these two tight ends and their respective trajectories.

Unfortunately for San Francisco fans, it’s not one that works in favor of Kittle.

Chiefs’ Travis Kelce has since outpaced 49ers’ George Kittle

OK, in fairness, Kelce had four years in the NFL before Kittle’s rookie season in 2017. So it’s no surprise the former has a much longer résumé to look at.

If we base an argument on which tight end is better, at least in terms of overall impact, let’s merely include everything from 2017 to now. And over that timeframe, it’s still hard to argue Kelce, not Kittle, has been much more impactful.

Sure, Kelce doesn’t come close to the kind of blocking prowess Kittle has. Yet that can be overvalued in many regards, as blocking tight ends are fairly common. What made Kittle unique is the fact he’s both an elite blocker and a top-end receiving option.

However, some may argue the 29-year-old Kittle is already starting to decline. Just take a look at his last three seasons, including 2022:

George Kittle Receiving & Rushing Table (2020-2022)

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 10/19/2022.

Yes, injuries played a role in Kittle’s decline in statistics, but that carries weight here, and we’ll get to that.

In those two prior seasons, Kelce netted well above 1,000 yards receiving and is on pace to do so again in 2022. In fact, Kelce hasn’t had a sub-1,000-yard season since 2015, and he’s been a Pro Bowler every year since that point.

Kittle boasts that accolade just three times in his five-plus years in the NFL.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, Kelce now owns that single-season receiving record for a tight end, set back in 2020 with 1,416 yards.

Now, those who argue Kelce has a much better quarterback delivering him the ball in Patrick Mahomes have a point, whereas Kittle has tried to make it work with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, and that’s a massive difference.

While a valid argument, all one needs to remember is Kittle set that single-season receiving record back in 2018 when Garoppolo was lost in Week 3 to a season-ending ACL tear, subsequently resulting in Kittle catching passes in record fashion from backup quarterbacks C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens for the bulk of the year.

49ers TE George Kittle injury history diminishes comparison to Chiefs TE Travis Kelce

For those who are still on the fence about the Kittle-versus-Kelce argument (and that’s fine), there’s one wild card that’ll truly put Kelce ahead in the race to the No. 1 tight end spot.


Kittle’s own injury history is well-documented, and he’s already missed two games in 2022 because of a groin injury. In 2021, injuries kept Kittle out of three games, and he also missed half the season back in 2020.

And Kittle missed two games in 2019, too.

In contrast, one of the reasons why Kelce has remained so prolific despite being significantly older than Kittle is his ability to stay on the field. Going back to that 2017 starting point, Kelce has missed a mere three regular-season games, one in 2017, another in 2020 and one more in 2021. That’s it.

If availability is the best ability, then Kelce has that edge.

However, for those who think this is nothing but Kittle hate, it’s not. Both are elite tight ends and are unique in their own respective ways.

Rather, the argument about which tight end is better is probably one that needs to be put to bed.

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