The two best tight ends in the NFL will be in action for Super Bowl LIV: Travis Kelce for the Chiefs and George Kittle for the 49ers. Sunday’s matchup will be the first time in the Super Bowl era when the starting tight ends from both Associated Press All-Pro teams made it to the big game.
Both tight ends are known for their excellent play and for being two of the most entertaining personalities in the NFL. Here’s why they’re so valued on the field — and why they’re fan favorites.
Kelce can beat anybody in single coverage, and he’ll dance afterward
Kelce, who is 30 years old, was a third-round pick by the Chiefs in 2013, and since then, he has been named to five Pro Bowls and the All-Pro team four times. He’s consistently among the top receiving tight ends in the league due to his combination of size, speed, and route-running ability.
Kelce has had at least 83 catches and 1,000 yards in each of the past four seasons, and if he does it again in 2020, he’ll be the first tight end to do so five times. He was fourth in the league in first-down receptions this season with 65, first among tight ends. For the second year in a row, he was Patrick Mahomes’ top target. In 2019, Kelce saw 136 passes thrown his way compared to 90 for Sammy Watkins, who was the team’s second-most targeted receiver.
His biggest game in the regular season came against the Broncos in Week 15. In it, Kelce caught 11 of 13 targets for 142 yards. And he almost always had plenty of separation on his receptions:
Aside from the eye-popping numbers he puts up, Kelce is also famous for his celebration dances. He’s often the player on the sidelines getting his team fired up during games.
Kelce is so great on the field, he earned the praise of 49ers tight ends coach Jon Embree. Embree said when he was with the Browns, he begged them to draft Kelce in 2013. When asked about Kelce on Super Bowl opening night, Embree went into detail about his skillset, via CBS Sports:
“He has an uncanny ability to get open. Some guys get open because they’re great route runners. Some guys get open because they’re big or whatever. He’s a little bit of a combination of that. He has a great feel for setting guys up and then putting his foot in the ground and exploding out of it. And he does a great job of playing outside of his frame. He doesn’t let the ball get on his body a lot. So now he has this 6’5 radius where, now it’s like a 7-footer.”
That’s high praise coming from the same person who’s coaching Kittle.
Kittle is a jokester who is extremely difficult to bring down
Kittle, 26, was a fifth-round pick in 2017 out of Iowa. Unlike Kelce, Kittle was used sparingly and primarily as a blocker in Iowa, so his production in the NFL caught a lot of people by surprise. Kittle had modest numbers as a rookie, but in 2018 he set an NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end, with 1,377 (as well as five touchdowns).
This past season, Kittle caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards and another five touchdowns. He was labeled the best player of 2019— at any position — by Pro Football Focus, who graded him higher than they’ve ever graded a tight end.
Kittle’s best work as a receiver comes after the catch, where he’s incredibly tough to bring down in the open field. In 2018, Kittle had 870 yards after the catch — the most since the stat started being tracked in 2010. He ranked first among non-running backs with 602 yards after the catch this past season, too.
You can see some of that in action from his pivotal fourth-and-2 catch against the Saints that set up a game-winning field goal this season:
But aside from being great at running after the catch, Kittle is also a devastating blocker. Blocking is hugely important to Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and Kittle is one of the best in the league.
Kittle’s personality is a lot like Kelce’s. He’s often the life of the 49ers and is always trying to get his team amped up.
He certainly has a flair for showmanship, too. Kittle loves pro wrestling and draws his main celebration from All Elite Wrestling’s Pentagon Jr. The celebration, which Kittle uses primarily when he earns a first down, involves signaling the letters O and M with his fingers. It stands for “cero miedo,” which in Spanish means “zero fear.”
He recently discussed the celebration with reporters to give some more background on why he uses it. Shanahan suggested the tight end would have a WWE career when he leaves the NFL.
“He has a personality where he goes 100 miles per hour in whatever he does,” Shanahan said. “That’s probably why he’s going to have a WWE career after this. What’s cool is that’s kind of who he is and then you see it on the field. That’s why whether he does perfect or not, he always makes plays with his attitude when the ball is in his hands.”
Outside of his signature celebration, Kittle is a bit of a goofball in the 49ers’ locker room. Once the 49ers punched their ticket to the Super Bowl, he was spotted wearing a shirt that featured a bare-chested Jimmy Garoppolo.
The 49ers feel good about the state of their locker room, and Kittle’s ability to have fun at work certainly plays a large part in that.
Kittle and Kelce will be enemies in the Super Bowl, but they respect each other
In addition to being two of the best and most entertaining players out there, the tight ends have a mutual respect. They’ve even learned from each other.
While he was playing at Iowa, Kittle was tasked with watching film of the league’s top tight ends, and it was Kelce that Kittle focused on the most.
“Whether it’s what he does in the red zone, how he runs his routes, his mindset every time he steps on the football field … I think the thing that really kind of stands out the most is you see his personality when he plays and how much fun he has,” Kittle said. “Very similar to (Rob Gronkowski) and his personality, the way it shows. I think they just kind of opened the door for tight ends like me to be able to express ourselves on the football field.”
And Kelce was complimentary of Kittle when asked about him during Super Bowl media week, too.
“George Kittle, man. I was just talking about his tenacity,” Kelce told the NFL Network. “How he runs routes. How he plays the game with a certain level of energy and enthusiasm, man you gotta love it. And there’s nothing you dislike about that guy’s game. Just trying to take it to the next level every single time he plays.”
In the postseason thus far, Kelce has caught 13 of 16 targets for 164 yards and three touchdowns, including a 134-yard, three-touchdown game in the Divisional Round. Kittle, on the other hand, has mostly been tasked with blocking. He helped pave the way on the ground for Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert. While Garoppolo only attempted 27 passes in two playoffs games, Kittle had four catches for 35 yards, two of which went for a first down.
Both Kelce and Kittle will be ready to go when the Chiefs and 49ers meet in the Super Bowl. Look for them to make their mark on the big game — and have fun doing it.