Every year, ESPN rolls out an offseason position-by-position ranking of the NFL’s best players. But this one isn’t based on the opinion of one of its writers — or even a poll of them. Instead, it’s based on the votes made by a group of more than 80 league executives, coaches, scouts and players.
These lists aren’t intended to be either a projection or a career retrospective. Voters are asked to identify the top players in each position right now.
One of these position rankings is being released every day through July 18. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Nick Bolton and Chris Jones were named among the league’s top 10 at their positions. No Kansas City players were mentioned in the top-10 edge rushers article on Monday — but on Tuesday, the cornerback ranking had two Chiefs in the fine print. Even though Justin Reid got some votes, no Kansas City players were identified among the league’s top safeties on Wednesday.
ESPN shifted to offensive players on Thursday, publishing the ranking of the league’s top-10 tight ends. This time, the identity of the top player is not a surprise.
1. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Highest ranking: 1
Lowest ranking: 3
Last year’s ranking: 2
The Kelce-Kittle gap has now widened, and then some: Kelce dominated the 2023 process with more than 80% of the first-place votes.
Reasons to appreciate his game aren’t hard to find: Kelce’s 9,482 receiving yards since the start of the 2015 season are the most in the NFL regardless of position. His streak of seven straight 1,000-yard seasons is the longest in NFL history for a tight end.
And he’s at his best in the playoffs, ranking second in receiving yards (1,548) and receiving touchdowns (16) in postseason history, trailing only Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice.
“You got to see a different element of his game last year as the focal point of the offense with Tyreek Hill gone, with an appreciation and respect for what he does,” an AFC personnel evaluator said. “He can take over a game.”
A veteran NFL scout added: “He has that Steph Curry thing, like, how long can be he an All-Pro? He ages well because his game is not predicated on speed.”
Unsurprisingly, Kelce is followed by the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle and the Baltimore Ravens’ Mark Andrews. Over the last few years, these three players have been duking it out at the top of everyone’s tight-end rankings. For a while, Kittle (perhaps inexplicably) was usually ranked ahead of Kelce. More recently — as is the case here — Kelce has had the edge.
But this ranking raises two questions: which of these league executives, coaches, scouts and players thinks Kelce should be ranked third? And if so, which two tight ends should be ranked above him?
In the introduction to the article, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler notes that the voting was “not at all close.” That’s a fair description of a process where Kansas City’s tight end is ranked first on 80% of the ballots. But why isn’t it 100%? What, exactly, must Kelce do to universally be recognized as the best tight end in today’s game?
I get it: there are some who believe that Kelce’s blocking skills aren’t up to par with other tight ends. That’s a fair observation — and as an old guy, I can relate to this point of view. But I’m not so old that I’m unable to see how the game has changed. Let’s be realistic, please: it’s not 1985 — or even 1995 — any longer. Tony Gonzalez has already revolutionized the position. It’s time for everyone to see that Kelce is head-and-shoulders above every other tight end playing today.
The math is really simple: no other tight end plays a larger part in a team’s success. If that can’t make everyone see that Kelce is the best at his position in 2023, I don’t know what can.