Rob Gronkowski was the most dominant tight end in recent football history, both in fantasy and real life. His 2011 season is the best by a tight end in fantasy ever; he had 330.9 points in PPR scoring, 18.14 points more than Travis Kelce's second-place number in 2020. Well, Kelce did his best to top that number last season but had to settle for a new career high short of Gronk, scoring 316.3 PPR points.
Coming into this season, Kelce should be thought of as a late first/early second-round pick at worst. Looking at how far ahead of the rest of the tight ends he sits, there is no other player who out-ranks the competition like Kelce.
Pre-season projections can be finnicky, but they give us an idea of how players are viewed heading into the season, especially compared to players at their position. No surprise, Kelce towers above the competition, and I wanted to see just how dominant he is expected to be. Projections below are from Fantasy Nerds, and the numbers are correct as of July 20th, 2023.
Kelce's Dominant Projections
Kelce is projected to top all tight ends in targets, catches, yards, touchdowns, and fantasy points, the only player at any position projected to top each major category at his position. And it's not just that he is at the top; it's how far he is above the other tight ends:
It truly is Kelce then everyone else when it comes to tight ends.
Comparison to Wide Receivers
These numbers are impressive on their own, but let's see how far the top players at wide receiver sit above their closest competitors in the same stats:
That's a long way of saying that Kelce laps his positional compatriots in a way no wide receiver, even the top ranked overall player Jefferson, can touch. This doesn't mean Kelce should be drafted first overall, but it shows how much more production he is expected to have versus any other tight end.
Running Backs and Quarterbacks
RBs and QBs are different than pure pass-catchers, but the same exercise bears common results. I'll run through them as quick and clean as possible with Kelce's numbers repeated for ease:
Rushing yards: Jonathan Taylor projects 2.5% higher than Nick Chubb, and Justin Fields an eye-popping 17.5% more yards on the ground than fellow quarterback Lamar Jackson. (Kelce's yardage advantage: almost 21%)
Rushing touchdowns: Derrick Henry is projected to have less than 4% more than Chubb. (Kelce's touchdown advantage is just under 31.5%)
Receiving touchdowns among halfbacks: McCaffrey and Ekeler are tied at the top, meaning there is no difference between first and second place, but they sit 20% above third-ranked Jerick McKinnon.
Passing touchdowns: Mahomes projects to have just under 10% more scores through the air than Joe Burrow.
Total fantasy points: McCaffrey only projects to have less than 1% more points than Taylor, while Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, and Josh Allen are essentially tied atop the quarterback scoring board. (Kelce: 24% advantage in total points)
I threw a lot of numbers at you there (which is good for some people but not others), so let's try to lay out what these stats show us:
That last nugget means that Kelce is seen as a first-round player, and I have to agree. Running backs are scarce, but you can find depth players later in the draft if you go with Kelce right away (although I would still choose a running back). You can find wide receivers of value throughout the draft, so while Jefferson and others are special players, they won't outplay the competition the way Kelce will.
I will draft Kelce at the end of the first round or (especially) early in the second when he is available, and it will be before any wide receiver. (Again, running backs are like gold, and that's where my first pick is almost always going.) If you do an auction league, Kelce is worth an investment as high as almost any other player. Consider spending a large portion on him and getting a lot of backs and receivers at the next level.
I said it before: it's Kelce, then everyone else and don't stress about grabbing a tight end early if you miss him. All the names mentioned in this piece will be playable most weeks, but I don't expect any to stand out much above the crowd. Grabbing extra running backs and receivers in early and middle rounds will serve your team better than drafting Waller or Kyle Pitts when a run of tight ends starts.
Dalton Schultz signed a one-year deal with Houston where he will be the unquestioned starter. He will be playing for a big contract and has rookie quarterback in C.J. Stroud who, while considered maybe the most pro-ready rookie this season, will still have struggles and surely look to his tight end as a safety net. Schultz is ranked 11th among tight ends by Fantasy Nerds.
If you get shut out of the top 12-15 tight ends, Mike Gesicki is ranked 21st and not being drafted in most leagues. Gesicki struggled last season as Miami changed offense philosophies away from what he did best, but this is a former second-round pick who averaged 95.3 targets, 51 receptions, 684.3 yards, and 4.3 touchdowns per season in the three years prior. Hunter Henry is currently on top of the depth chart in New England, but Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez flourished together a decade ago under Bill Belichick, and I have a feeling he will get his best players involved, especially with a lack of playmaking receivers. I see Gesicki as a possible top-10 option at tight end by the end of the season.
However the board falls, don't reach for a tight end, especially if they start going early. Enjoy the bounty of running backs and receivers you can stash, and remember, those players can always be traded later for a tight end. Value is the name of the game, and your team won't be the same at the end of the year as it is after your draft. Take Kelce if the opportunity presents itself, but don't jump at tight ends once he is gone.