After a historic 2020 season by Travis Kelce there has been plenty of discussion about whether he has surpassed some of the best to play at his position in Arrowhead, but where does he actually rank among the greatest tight ends in Chiefs history?
Travis Kelce is one of, if not the, best tight end currently in the NFL with the likes of San Francisco’s George Kittle, Las Vegas’ Darren Waller, and Philadelphia Eagles’ Zach Ertz all hovering directly below Kelce in a multitude of areas.
While Kelce has been quietly strengthening his future Hall of Fame resumé he has simultaneously been passing some amazing, historic Kansas City Chiefs tight ends in the KC record book, but just how far has he gone up the ranks in the course of his eight years in the NFL? It all depends on how you look at the stats, the footage, and the influence that the TE has on their respective Chief squad.
#5: Keith Cash, 1992-1996
In the early 90s, the TE position was not a well-oiled pass-catching machine like much of the NFL today seems to be heading towards but Cash was not necessarily needed as much through the air when Joe Montana had Marcus Allen and Kimble Anders dominating the field for much of his tenure in KC.
Throughout his five-year career in Kansas City, Cash had 132 catches for 1,312 yards and 10 TDs, which is respectable for a position that was under-utilized at the time, especially considering Cash was playing “Martyball” throughout his entire time as a Chief.
With Cash’s strength and size (6’4″, 248 lbs) it was almost insane to see how quickly he was able to jump off the line and block for Marcus Allen or rush to block a punt on special teams, the quickness he portrayed on every snap is what made him one of the best Chiefs tight ends of all time.
The main reason Cash is on this list over the likes of some other amazing Chiefs is because of one play that stands out among the rest…and it wasn’t even on offense.
No, this particular play happened in the 1994 playoffs against Pittsburgh–Cash’s previous home prior to KC–when Cash lined up on the punt block unit down late in the fourth quarter and blocked Mark Royals’ punt, allowing Kansas City’s Fred Jones to return it 31 yards to their 9-yard line.
Montana scored the game-tying TD a few plays later and eventually led the Chiefs to their final home playoff win before Andy Reid and company broke the curse three seasons ago in 2018.
Without Cash, there would most likely not be that home playoff win, and Joe Montana’s Kansas City career would be much less grand without Cash’s efforts on that day against his former team, that’s why Cash is in the top 5.
#4: Walter White, 1975-1979
Walter White (not the “Breaking Bad” character) spent his entire five-year career in Kansas City and showed that the tight end position could be used to dominate more than just the blocking game and pass protection.
QB Len Dawson’s departure from KC was still very fresh and the Chiefs had to have a makeover at quarterback as well as at most of the skill positions around the time White showed up, but with new chemistry happening on the field and in the locker room one of the only things that truly worked was White at TE.
Almost instantly White made a name for himself, putting up 559 receiving yards and three TDs on just 23 receptions (24.3 yds/catch) in ’75, which earned him the coveted Mack Lee Hill Award which is given to the Chief’s best rookie or first-year player after every season.
In White’s second year he had 47 receptions for 808 yards–9th most in the entire league that season–and a career-high seven TDs when it was all said and done. That ’76 season was the first of three straight in which White recorded 40+ receptions in the regular season, during that streak he averaged 13.1 yds/catch and racked up over 80% of all his career TDs.
The Chiefs never had a winning season during the entirety of White’s tenure in Kansas City and were toted as somewhat of a laughing stock in the AFC but even through the losses and coaching changes White still had some mind-boggling numbers for a TE in his five years.
He finished his career with 163 receptions for 2,396 yards (currently 20th on the Chiefs’ all-time receiving yards list) and his 16 TD receptions as a Chief ranks 17th all-time in KC’s history books.
After his time as a player was over he became a founding member of the Kansas City Ambassadors in 1989, a one-of-a-kind group of former players and executives (including Lamar Hunt) that perform outreach events, provide local scholarship programs, and support the community through all sorts of charitable actions across Kansas City.
White was the inaugural president of the Ambassadors for its first nine years and even outside of the Ambassadors program he helped raise millions of dollars across the country for cancer patients, cancer research, and union charities, all of which using his platform as a former Chief to his advantage.
Overall, Walter White’s pass-catching abilities, outstanding personal performances on such sub-par teams, and extensive philanthropy efforts for the city that took him in lands him at the #4 spot.
#3: Fred Arbanas, 1962-1970
Originally drafted by the Chiefs while they were entering their final season as the ‘Dallas Texans’ Arbanas also spent his entire career as a Texan/Chief and put up some of the best numbers that a KC tight end has ever put up in their career.
Arbanas’ accolades span across two different eras of professional football but by the end of his career, he had made five Pro Bowls (’62-’65, ’67), was First-Team All-Pro three times (’63, ’64, ’66), made the All-AFL team six straight years (’62-’67) and when it was all said and done he ended up a Super Bowl champion (SB IV).
Season after season Arbanas showed his consistency as a pass-catcher, compiling all the records that a Chiefs TE could have and keeping them in his name until the arrival of Tony Gonzalez almost 30 years later.
After not missing a game for eight consecutive seasons (’63-’70) Arbanas accumulated 3,101 receiving yards and averaged 15.7 yds/catch, bringing in at least 250 receiving yards in seven of his nine years, all on top of hauling in 35 total TDs (including the playoffs) which is currently 8th on the Chiefs all-time receiving list.
The argument for Arbanas’ definitely holds water considering the era he excelled in and the hard-hitting defenses that he went up against; he was also the only TE in Chiefs history (before Kelce this past season) to reach multiple Super Bowls and bring home a Lombardi trophy at least once.
#2: Tony Gonzalez, 1997-2008
Tony Gonzalez was the epitome of the perfect tight end, he revolutionized the position with his ability to win at the catch point, shed tackles, gain yards after the catch, and skillfully block for the likes of Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson.
When discussing Gonzalez and his lifetime of awards and records it’s easy to get lost in just how much he accomplished over his 17-year career: 14x Pro-Bowler, 6x First-Team All-Pro, 2004 NFL reception leader (102), and in 2019 he solidified his spot in Canton, Ohio when he was inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame.
Gonzalez is just one of four tight ends to ever have four 1,000-yard seasons (Witten-4, Gronkowski-4, Kelce-5) and he can attribute much of those yards to his ability to stay healthy and to never fumbling the ball.
In fact, Gonzalez only missed two bouts out of his 270 career games (including Atlanta) and only fumbled one time between 2000 and his retirement in 2013.
His strength was unmatched and his TD celebration (above) became iconic in the eyes of every Chiefs fan across the globe but his generosity to Kansas City in return was also a major reason he was so beloved by the entire organization and fanbase.
While Gonzalez may have the Chiefs record for most receiving yards (10,940) and is tied with Priest Holmes for most overall TDs (78) in KC history he still has a playoff record of 0-3 as a Chief and 1-6 overall, which is obviously not his fault alone but in his three playoff games as a Chief, he only brought in a collective 106 yards and was notably not the same caliber player as he was in the regular season.
(Note: Tony Gonzalez ended his career with the most TDs of all time by a TE (111), which has since been eclipsed by Antonio Gates, but when determining the best TE in Chiefs history this is simply being based upon stats acquired in Kansas City)
Although his playoff record is not something that should be held against Gonzalez personally it is still a major factor when determining which players are truly the best in their sport and because championships are so important to someone’s legacy it is a bittersweet fall from grace for Gonzalez from #1 to #2 thanks to Super Bowl LIV.
#1: Travis Kelce, 2013-Present
You’d be right to question your eyes at first when reading this final member of the list but based on the rise of Travis Kelce, just over the past five seasons alone, it’s hard to say that Kelce does not check every box and that he won’t have every tight end record in the palm of his hand by the end of his NFL career.
Let me explain, Kelce has played in the NFL for eight seasons and has already amassed 7,881 receiving yards in regular-season games alone (not to mention the near-thousand yards he has in the playoffs), at this point in Gonzalez’s career he only had 6,905 yards. Kelce also already has 48 regular season TDs through 104 games, Gonzalez only had 42 through that many.
Kelce has even broken records that Gonzalez himself never did in his 17 seasons! Namely the fact that Kelce is coming off his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season–Gonzalez only ever had two in a row and four total.
Or what about the single-season receiving record by a tight end(1,416) which Kelce broke last season (below), which he also holds the third-best mark (1,336). Meanwhile, Gonzalez’s best season (’04) ended with 1,258 yds and currently sits at 7th all-time, but to be fair if Kelce had played in the final game of the season against LA he very well could have also been the first of his position to ever finish the season atop the NFL in receiving yards.
Kelce is merely ascending at too fast of a pace for Gonzalez’s records to feel any amount of safety and because of that, it’s hard to consider Kelce below Gonzalez any longer.
For reference, if Kelce plays in KC the same amount of seasons that Gonzalez played in the NFL (17) then he is on pace to finish with 18,854 receiving yards, that’s 3,441 more than Gonzalez entered the Hall of Fame with.
Kelce is also on pace to finish with over 130 TDs, especially if he keeps the same tenacity in the playoffs that he has so far in his career, that would be at least 19 more than Gonzalez ended with and would be considered one of the biggest jumps from #1 to #2 in the record books.
The differences in their games are definitely noticeable: Kelce has never been hailed as the biggest or best blocker but he has shown that he can do that job when the job needs to be done (most recently in the AFC Championship), and Gonzalez was able to pick apart holes in the defense but never at the skill level that Kelce has continued to do it at since 2015.
The biggest difference between these two historically great NFL tight ends is their respective playoff records (1-6 vs. 7-5) and the massive “W” in Super Bowl LIV that Kelce can brag about for the rest of his life, but also with the direction the NFL is moving and the expansion of the season from 16 to 17 games it’s likely that Kelce is only going to break more records and succeed in Kansas City for a long, long time.