In previous years, figuring out who the top player on the list was would have been extremely easy. Not only was Rob Gronkowski at his best the clear-cut top tight end in the league; he was arguably the best player at this position in NFL history. For the large majority of his career, Gronk was an utterly dominant two-way tight end: an elite receiver and an elite blocker. There was nobody quite like him.
With Gronkowski announcing his retirement earlier this offseason, it’s time to crown a new top tight end. There are several worthy candidates (in alphabetical order by first name: George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz), but somewhat surprisingly, our panel of experts here at CBSSports.com all voted for the exact same player.
The differentiator in the rankings came at No. 2 and No. 3, where the same two players showed up for every single voter, but in different orders. After that: chaos. Five different tight ends got votes as the fourth-best in the league. Same with fifth-best. So the rankings ended up being incredibly stratified.
Before we move on and get to the actual list, please note that the tight ends were ranked collectively by a group involving more than 10 writers and editors. All of us ranked our top 10 tight ends and our individual ballots were then fused into one list using a point system, so this is not my own personal list. Rather, it reflects the collective wisdom of the crowd here at CBSSports.com.
Other Top 10 rankings:, ,
10. Kyle Rudolph, Vikings
Rudolph ending up on this list should be a clue as to how thin the position is. It was barely a month ago that he was reportedly on the trade block and about to be replaced by rookie Irv Smith Jr. The Vikings ended up extending his contract with a new four-year deal, but Rudolph is no better a player after having gotten paid than he was before. He’s always been talented, but he’s also been inconsistent. He’s failed to eclipse even 40 receiving yards per game in either of the past two seasons, and after totaling 15 touchdowns in 2016 and 2017, he scored just four a year ago. Still, Rudolph is a quality receiver near the goal line, and though he’s heading into his age-30 season, he should still have something left in the tank.
9. Greg Olsen, Panthers
Olsen finds himself this low on the list as a result of injuries and his advancing age. From 2013 through 2016, Olsen played every single game and averaged 77 catches for 969 yards and five touchdowns per season. He played just 16 of 32 games over the past two years thanks to a series of foot injuries, and totaled only 44 catches for 482 yards and five scores. Now 34 years old, Olsen is clearly far closer to the end of his career than he is to his prime, as evidenced by the now-annual rumors that he might take a job in one broadcast booth or another. He does have the trust of Cam Newton, though, so if he can stay healthy, he should find his way to another productive season.
8. Evan Engram, Giants
Engram backslid a bit during his sophomore season amid injuries that limited him to 11 of 16 games. He should take on a larger role in the offense this year, though, after the offseason trade of Odell Beckham Jr. Engram is purely a receiving threat as a tight end, and with 109 catches and nine scores through his first two seasons he has been a productive one. Whether or not he takes the next step will largely depend on whether Eli Manning can rediscover arm talent that is above replacement level, and then whether Engram can develop chemistry with heir apparent quarterback Daniel Jones.
7. Eric Ebron, Colts
Here’s two stat lines for you: 77 catches for 835 yards; and 48 catches for 608 yards. Which of those players would you rather have? Probably the first one, right? Well, that’s Eric Ebron. The problem is, so is the second one. Ebron played to a 77-catch, 835-yard pace (per 16 games) when Colts tight end Jack Doyle was out, and a 48-catch, 608-yard pace when Doyle was in the lineup. And he ended up No. 7 on our composite list anyway, thanks largely to his incredible touchdown production. Ebron earned the trust of Andrew Luck in and around the red zone, and ended the season with 13 scores. That’s 13 touchdowns on 66 catches. In his previous four seasons, Ebron had 186 catches and just 11 scores. If he can keep up what at first glance sure seems like wildly unsustainable touchdown production, then he deserve his spot on this list. If he can’t, well, remember what you thought of Ebron before last season? That’s how you’ll be thinking of him this time next year.
6. Jared Cook, Saints
Cook is the answer to the question, “What is Eric Ebron, but older?” The talented tight end finally had the breakout season we were all waiting for forever, only it came at age 31 and on a terrible Raiders team. That season landed him a deal with the Saints, though, and now he might be in a better position to succeed than ever before. New Orleans has not had a tight end threat quite like Cook since trading Jimmy Graham several years back, and it’ll be fascinating to see how he fits in an offense that now features Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara as its two primary receivers. It’s unlikely Cook tops 100 targets like he did a year ago, but he may be a more valuable player due to the situation he’s playing in.
T-5. Hunter Henry, Chargers; O.J. Howard, Buccaneers
It seems fitting that these two wound up exactly tied in our rankings, and in this No. 4/5 slot, no less. There is a clear top three here, and nobody could seem to agree after that, so the ranking ended up going to two players who are more potential than production at this point. Last year was supposed to be Henry’s breakout season after two seasons playing as a part-timer alongside Antonio Gates, but he tore his ACL in camp and sat out the whole regular season. He’s ready to take over as the top option now, though, and with Tyrell Williams also having moved on this offseason, he should have a sizable role. Howard has been projected as a game-changer ever since his debut, but that hasn’t turned into elite production yet. The new offense Tampa will run is a perfect match for his skill set, though, and Bruce Arians seems excited about heavily using a tight end for seemingly the first time in his coaching career.
3. George Kittle, 49ers
Coming off a fantastic sophomore campaign, Kittle damn near leapt up to the No. 2 spot. He finished just a single ranking point behind the next player on the list. That’s no fluke, either. He’s every bit as deserving after racking up 88 catches for 1,377 yards and five scores a season ago, while playing 13 of his 16 games without starter Jimmy Garoppolo. Kittle is likely to see his absurd 9.9 yards per reception after the catch decline in 2019 (that was 2.1 yards better than the next-closest tight end with at least 50 catches), but he should still be able to do good work there and he should be a better touchdown producer thanks to working in a better, presumably healthier offense. In other words, he’s a star, and he’s just getting started.
2. Zach Ertz, Eagles
After catching 75, 78, and 74 passes from 2015 through 2017, Ertz busted all the way out last season and set an NFL record for most catches by a tight end with 116. Along with those 116 grabs came his first 1,000-yard season, as well as eight touchdowns. There’s little reason to expect a drop-off in 2019, as the Eagles should be an even more dynamic offense thanks to the addition of field-stretcher DeSean Jackson and more competent running backs. Ertz is firmly in his prime at 29 years old, and he should be in line for another spectacular year.
1. Travis Kelce, Chiefs
You could be forgiven for thinking this year’s No. 1 tight end is the same as the past several years. Kelce, like Gronk, wears No. 87. Kelce, like Gronk, is his team’s top passing game target. Kelce, like Gronk, is a monster physical specimen at 6-5 and 260 pounds. Kelce, like Gronk, is a perennial Pro Bowler (four in a row) and All-Pro (two first team selections, including last year). Kelce, like Gronk, has a gregarious personality. Kelce, like Gronk, is now firmly an elite touchdown producer, with 18 scores in the past two seasons. And for now, Kelce, like Gronk before him, tops our list as the best tight end in football.