On Tuesday, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell listed nine NFL players who have a chance to finish their careers as the greatest of all time (the GOAT) at their positions.
One of them was Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The other was his go-to passing target: tight end Travis Kelce.
Barnwell argued that Mahomes had a 15% chance to end up as the GOAT among quarterbacks. On Tuesday, I reviewed Barnwell’s case — and decided he wasn’t optimistic enough about Mahomes’ chances.
Now let’s consider Barnwell’s thesis for Kelce assuming the throne now occupied by former Chiefs great Tony Gonzalez.
Kelce has 10,344 receiving yards and 71 touchdowns. Gonzalez amassed a staggering 15,127 receiving yards and 111 touchdowns during his 17-year career with the Chiefs and Falcons.
Does Kelce have time to get there? Gonzalez entered the league as a 21-year-old. Kelce was drafted at 24 and played only one game as a rookie after undergoing microfracture surgery on a knee; his first significant season wasn’t until his age-25 campaign. Gonzalez already had more than 3,000 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns by that point.
Barnwell isn’t alone. This is frequently mentioned as the primary reason that Kelce cannot take Gonzalez’ place: when he begins his age-34 season in September, he’ll only be about two-thirds of the way to Gonzalez’ incredible numbers.
But Barnwell also recognizes that like Gonzalez, Kelce has remained remarkably healthy for a tight end — and has already demonstrated an ability to sustain his success even longer than Gonzalez did.
The age-33 season is usually a point of no return for even the best tight ends on the planet. Gonzalez’s last 1,000-yard season came at age 32, and he topped 900 yards just once over his five remaining seasons. No tight end since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 had topped 1,000 receiving yards after turning 32 until Kelce did it last season.
I’m not sure Kelce needs to top Gonzalez’s totals to be recognized as the greatest tight end of all time, but if he comes close and has multiple Super Bowl rings on his résumé, that should make for a strong case.
Chances Kelce will end his career as the GOAT: 60%
If the standard for being the tight end GOAT is having the most receiving yards, Kelce has his work cut out for him. He needs 4,783 yards. Gonzalez collected 3,320 in the four seasons he played after the age of 33. Antonio Gates had 2,648 yards over five seasons, while Ben Watson had 2,056 over five. (Watson played until he was 39 after missing his age-36 season).
But none of those other tight ends led their teams in targets during their final seasons. Kelce has led the Chiefs in four of the last five — and barring injury, is very likely to lead the team again in 2023. Depending on how productive the Kansas City wide receiver corps becomes this season, Kelce might get the most targets in 2024, too. If that happens, he could have nearly as many yards as Gates did over five seasons — and still have two (or three) years to gain a couple of thousand more.
But as Barnwell noted, Kelce’s total yards might not really matter. Just like Chiefs placekicker Jan Stenerud in the 1960s, Gonzalez revolutionized his position. Nobody will ever be able to take that away from either of them. But Kelce is the only tight end who has dominated the game over such a long stretch. No other tight end has ever had more than four 1,000-yard seasons. Kelce has turned in seven of them — one right after another.
So I can only agree that Kelce has a 60% chance to be the GOAT if that requires exceeding Gonzalez’s career mark for receiving yards. But in my book, at least seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (and at least two championship rings) ought to be enough. Kelce should be joining defensive tackle Aaron Donald and kick returner Cordarelle Patterson on Barnwell’s list of GOATs who have already made the grade.