(Photo by Stephen Hopson/Icon Sportswire)
On the surface, the title of this article comes across as a hot take. However, the numbers tell a very different story. As an exercise, it’s worth noting the most commonly regarded “best of the best” when it comes to tight ends in the NFL:
Other names are worth mentioning – TEs David Njoku, Jordan Reed, and Jared Cook come to mind – but Njoku is a young player still finding his footing in the league and Reed is a talented, but an oft-injured vet who has only had one elite year (2015, 87/952, 11 TDs). Cook has always tantalized with his upside, but mostly he is known more for underperformance than elite production (though, it should be noted that Cook is having one of his better years this season in Oakland at age 31). Certainly, based on this year’s production very few would likely dispute that TE George Kittle fits among that group, but it’s debatable where he would slot, and the answer probably changes depending on who you ask. The argument here is that Kittle may very well deserve the top spot.
And some numbers suggest it may not be close.
The common, though flawed, approach to ranking the best tight ends in football would be to look at their current, conventional stats:
*all stats from NFL.com.
I have omitted Gronkowski for a few reasons: 1) His back injury has sapped his athleticism, and rumors abound that this might be his last season in the NFL, and 2) he hasn’t really been healthy this year, as his current stats (29/448, 1 TD) portend, indicating that he has become a veritable shell of his former, HOF self. Gronk is arguably the greatest tight end to ever play the game, but this discussion is about who the best is right now.
As the table above illustrates, conventional stats provide only some clarity. Ertz seems to be the most targetted, while Kelce has compiled the most total yards, yards per game, and TDs. Howard has the best average yards per reception. While Kittle holds his own in these statistical categories, he does not lead all his peers in any. However, it can be argued that traditional stats do not a complete picture of a player’s true value, and a look under the hood actually reveals how efficient and dynamic a player truly is. After all, a lot of context needs to be applied to the statistical output of many of these players, and the crux of this argument is that Kittle is doing far more with far less than just about all of his peers.
So, let’s take a look under that hood…
Some of you may be unfamiliar with SPARQ, a metric developed by Nike to measure a player’s athletic ability. SPARQ is essentially an acronym for speed, power, agility, reaction, and quickness. A football player’s SPARQ score is measured through four basic combine tests – the 40-yard dash, short shuttle, bench press (or kneeling power ball toss) and vertical jump. The player’s score is then adjusted for his weight. While Nike ultimately removed their SPARQ calculator from public access, Zach Whitman of Three Sigma Athlete re-engineered Nike’s calculation formula and created a comparable pSPARQ scoring metric. Whitman also expanded the areas measured to include additional tests from the NFL Combine like the ten-yard split and 3-cone drill, which measure short area quickness. Whitman then took the test forward another step by normalizing by position, so players’ ratings would be weighted based on tests most relevant to each position, and players would then be graded against their peers.
An average NFL skill position player typically checks in at a 110 pSPARQ. The better athletes post a score of 120, and the truly good ones average 130. The elite athletes produce a 140 score. The 150+ range is reserved for freaks of nature (think Calvin Johnson).
George Kittle produced a pSPARQ score of 143.0, the highest SPARQ score of the 2017 TE draft class (higher than David Njoku, Evan Engram, and O.J. Howard). Rob Gronkowski’s back woes have sapped what made him so special, but his combine scores revealed he posted a pSPARQ score of 120.9. Coming out of college in 2013, Travis Kelce earned a pSPARQ score of 128.5. Zach Ertz posted a SPARQ score of 113.8, making him an underrated athlete for his position but nowhere near the elite athleticism that Kittle possesses. In fact, Kittle’s athleticism is in a league of its own even when compared to the best the tight end position has had to offer for virtually the last decade.
“Yards after the catch” is a stat that measures how dangerous a football player is with the ball in his hands. A recent PFF article by Ben Cooper mentioned that only two tight ends have ever managed to finish a regular season with 535+ yards after the catch since 2006 – Kelce and Gronkowski. That in itself isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that George Kittle has joined that list this year, and he did it in just 10 games. He still has 6 more games left to play. You need a telescope to spot Kelce’s 362 YAC, the next closest total behind Kittle’s 535.
Kelce’s 652 YAC was produced on 85 receptions in 2016. Assuming health, Kittle is on pace to blow well past that mark. Cooper further pointed out that Kittle’s YAC per reception (10.7) also outpaces Kelce’s mark from 2016 (7.7) and qualifies as the most since 2006 by any tight end. Part of that success is due to excellent game planning by HC Kyle Shanahan who brilliantly schemes Kittle, his best playmaker, open as much as possible. But that shouldn’t take away just how lethal Kittle is with the ball in his hands once he gets a full head of steam.
Kind of like this:
As Cooper relays: “Among the 88 tight ends since 2006 with 90 or more receptions in that span, Kittle is the current leader in percentage of receiving yards that have come from yards after the catch (62 percent). And it’s important not to understate that stat because it shows an ability to produce when you don’t have a Brady-esque quarterback throwing to you (only 40.1 percent of Gronkowski’s yards have come after the catch).”
However, Cooper’s most salient point may be this revelation right here:
“Kittle is currently out-producing top pass-catching running backs in yards after the catch per reception, namely Todd Gurley (10.6), Saquon Barkley (9.5), Christian McCaffrey (8.4) and Alvin Kamara (7.8). Kittle has had 10 or more yards after the catch on 19 receptions, third-most among all players. Barkley and New England Patriots running back James White are the only others with more, and the next closest tight end is Kelce with 10.”
So Kittle isn’t just outproducing his position – he’s outproducing the most dynamic, elite running backs in football. To assume this is the result of creative playcalling would do Kittle’s equally elite athleticism a disservice.
Football Outsiders uses innovative stats to apply value to a player’s performance on individual plays. One of their signature metrics, DYAR stands for Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. According to FO, “this gives the value of the performance on plays where this TE caught the ball, compared to a replacement-level TE in the same game situations and then translated into yardage.” Let’s see how Kittle compares to his peers:
YAR measures the same thing DYAR does, but it’s not adjusted based on opponent. Whether opponent it is taken into consideration or not, George Kittle clearly stands at the front of the line as the most valuable tight end when it comes to catching a ball and turning it into yardage. Gronkowski has been hurt so much that applying these stats to his lackluster performance thus far would be an exercise in futility. How about Evan Engram? Well, Engram (-36 DYAR, -28 YAR) has seemingly been less than replacement-level. It’s easy to dismiss Engram’s struggles as a byproduct of Eli Manning’s shortcomings, but it bears worth mentioning that Kittle has been catching passes from a middling second-year pro (QB C.J, Beathard) with a QBR of 39.7 and QB Nick Mullens, a UDFA signal caller who threw his first NFL pass less than three weeks ago.
Catch rate is something that needs to be considered in context given how a tight end can’t control how the ball is thrown to him. For the sake of simplicity, establishing a catch rate that only takes into account the percentage of passes completed by a receiver, we can extract some sense of value, albeit in a vacuum since quarterback play, both efficient and poor, play a huge role in how many balls can be reasonably labeled as “catchable.”
Here’s an example of Kittle’s stellar ball skills:
All that being said, among the elite tight ends, Kittle’s catch rate (70%) is exceeded by only Ertz (75%) and Olsen (73%), with O.J. Howard close behind (69%). However, it should be noted again that Ertz is catching passes from one of the league’s best young quarterbacks in QB Carson Wentz, while Olsen has years of chemistry with QB Cam Newton. Even Howard has the added luxury of seeing favorable coverage with WRs Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and Chris Godwin commanding attention outside. Kittle is the 49ers’ number one option in the passing game, and he’s been catching passes from two guys who have combined for just 12 TDs to go along with 9 INTs on the year.
Currently, George Kittle is PFF’s second highest-graded tight end (86.2) but his receiving grade (89.6) is tops at his position. Whether it’s blocking in the run game or catching the ball in the passing game, Kittle has ascended to the top of the mountain at his position. Kittle has also forced 9 missed tackles already, which is more than he had in 2017 and ranks second in the league at his position.
George Kittle is not only a complete tight end – he may be one of the most complete players in all of football. There’s nothing this guy can’t do, and it’s only his second year in the league. It’s tantalizing to think what Kittle could be given a full season playing with a top-notch quarterback like QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Regardless of your feelings on Garoppolo, there’s no denying that he’s a significant upgrade over the likes of Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard.
There is enough data to suggest that naming George Kittle the best tight end in the NFL is not as far-fetched as it may sound when placing him among the household names we’ve come to regard as the best at his position. In fact, it can be argued that Kittle may already be the best tight end in football.
Whether you agree or not, what should be certain to all is that the 49ers have a blue-chip playmaker at a position where there aren’t that many.