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Ranking Travis Kelce and George Kittle Among the Best NFL Tight Ends

This Super Bowl showdown between Travis Kelce of the Chiefs and George Kittle of the 49ers is a clash of styles. It’s Kelce’s tight fade versus Kittle’s straggly, anyone-know-a-good-barber? look. Kittle’s pregame routine includes meditation, visualization and a salt bath. Kelce spends three hours selecting what he will wear. Kelce pulls up in a Rolls-Royce Ghost, whereas it’s a classic Mustang for Kittle. They are as different as Heath Ledger (Kittle has a tattoo of him) and Chris Farley (Kelce watches his movies repeatedly). Kelce is a Burger King Whopper kind of guy; Kittle goes for the orange chicken at Panda Express. And there’s more. The opposing tight ends come from different branches of the same tree. Kelce, with his confounding feel for understanding football’s intersections of time and space, is the representative of the receiving branch. Kittle, the hit man who gives defensive ends tastes of turf, comes from the blocking branch, or perhaps we should call it the two-way branch. Appropriately, Kittle is the son of a one-time left tackle and offensive line coach. That is not to say he catches as if he’s wearing boxing gloves, however. He once had 210 receiving yards in a game. Kittle led NFL tight ends in receiving yards this season — it was his third 1,000-yard season. George Kittle goes for 58 yards! 📺: #BALvsSF on ABC📱: Stream on #NFLPlus — NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2023In 2018, he had 1,377 yards, which was the most by a tight end in NFL history. Two years later, Kelce outdid him by 39 yards. Since Kittle came into the league in 2017, Kelce is the only tight end with more receiving yards. Kelce has seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons — more than any tight end ever (he missed his eighth this season by 16 yards after sitting out the regular-season finale). In his career, he has averaged 71.2 receiving yards per game — highest among all tight ends. Without Kelce’s 11 catches for 116 yards against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs are not in Las Vegas this week. And without Kittle’s 1,020 receiving yards during the regular season, the 49ers might be sitting this one out, too. More than an opportunity to buy squares and dip wings, Super Bowl LVIII is a forum to consider Kittle, Kelce and their places among the greatest of tight ends. Travis Kelce, left, has more 1,000-yard seasons than any tight end in NFL history, but George Kittle led the league’s tight ends in receiving yards this season. (Kevin Terrell / Associated Press) Football’s first tight end was supposed to be a linebacker. At least that’s what many teams thought. But Bears coach George Halas, head scout George Allen and assistant coach Luke Johnsos saw something in Mike Ditka that no one else did. They selected him and invented a new position, moving him a few yards from the offensive tackle on the line of scrimmage so he could have a two-way release, inside or outside the pressing defender. Ditka caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaged 19.2 yards per catch and was named the league’s rookie of the year. He wasn’t fast by today’s tight end standards, but he could get open with physicality and was as difficult to tackle as any player ever. What’s more, he set a standard for blocking. “You had to watch him for 60 minutes because he’d take your head off,” Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones told NFL Films. “Ditka defined the position,” says Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf, who scouted Ditka in person in the early 1960s. In the 1963 championship game, the Bears trailed the Giants 10-7 late in the third quarter and faced a third-and-9 on the Giants’ 15 when Johnsos suggested Halas call “Ditka Special,” in which Ditka ran a shallow crossing route. Ditka caught the pass just past the line of scrimmage and took it to the Giants’ 1. The Bears scored the winning touchdown on the next play. GO DEEPER How does this 49ers-Chiefs rematch compare to their Super Bowl LIV showdown? That same season, John Mackey made his debut for the Colts. For most of his time at Syracuse, Mackey was a fullback who blocked for Heisman winner Ernie Davis. But as a senior, he led his team in receiving. Colts coach Don Shula envisioned another Ditka, and Mackey subsequently averaged 20.7 yards per reception as a rookie and became the second great tight end. “Mackey had a little more speed than Ditka,” says Dale Lindsey, who played against both as a linebacker with the Browns and Saints and later coached in the NFL for 21 years. “In coverage, Mackey gave you more problems. But he wasn’t as physical as Mike was. In the running game, Mike was head and shoulders above everybody else — a tough, physical guy.” In a move that would have momentous implications for the tight end position, Steelers coach Chuck Noll hired former Georgia Tech coach Bud Carson as a defensive backs coach in 1972, then promoted him to defensive coordinator the following season. Carson brought the Cover 2 defense to the NFL, which made the middle of the field vulnerable to attack. Offensive minds looked for ways to counter with players who could exploit the open spaces in the zone defense. Dave Casper had been an All-America offensive tackle at Notre Dame in 1972. The following year, he was an All-America tight end. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis chose him in the second round in 1974 and helped Casper become a tight end who made legendary plays. “They lined him up on the left side with Art Shell and Gene Upshaw and ran every play to the left,” says one-time NFL defensive back, Hall of Fame coach and NBC commentator Tony Dungy, who played against Casper. “They didn’t care if you knew it. Dave became what everybody was looking for, a guy you could run behind on third-and-1 and also outrun a safety and make the catch to win the game.” But the Steelers were having so much success with Carson’s Cover 2 that the NFL made a change in 1978 to try to help offenses. The “Mel Blount rule” limited contact between defenders and receivers to the 5-yard area just beyond the line of scrimmage. Before 1978, defenders could jostle receivers all the way downfield without penalty. For offenses, this was seismic, and an opportunity for innovation. At 6 foot 2 and maybe 215 pounds, Ozzie Newsome was a big wide receiver at Alabama. He wasn’t big enough to be a tight end in the way Ditka, Mackey and Casper were, but Newsome could run and catch like few before him or since. With the Browns, he became a different kind of tight end, and when Newsome retired 13 years later, he was the all-time-leading tight end receiver. GO DEEPER Why this year’s 49ers team reminds the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ Rams of their Super Bowl run The year after Newsome entered the league, San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell and offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs were looking for an explosive playmaker who could create matchup problems. They found one like no other when they drafted Kellen Winslow in 1979. “Gibbs and Coryell said, ‘If I have that talent, why leave him at the tight end position?’” Dungy says. “‘I’ll move him and create mismatches.’ So Winslow did everything Ozzie did, but he lined up as a tight end, a wide receiver, in the backfield and in the slot. He was hardly ever asked to block.” Winslow led the NFL in receptions twice and finished second and third in two other years. “He was the first big, athletic guy who could run, jump, block,” says former Commanders coach Ron Rivera, who played against Winslow as a Chicago linebacker. “And he had really good hands.” Tony Gonzalez led a new wave of athletic tight ends in the 1990s, many of them with basketball backgrounds. (Photo by Al Tielemans / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) After Winslow, the emphasis became more on versatility and less on physicality. In 1990, the Denver Broncos drafted a small-school wide receiver in the seventh round and made him a tight end. Shannon Sharpe became a latter-day Newsome and was the first tight end to have 10,000 receiving yards. Tight ends up to that point got open mostly with speed, size or scheming. Then came a wave of players — Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham among them — who got open with savvy.…


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