Gronk tops AP’s tight ends list, with KC’s Kelce close 2nd
DALLAS (AP) — Rob Gronkowski needs to party less and Travis Kelce should keep his cool more.
Those observations aside, the New England star and Kansas City’s reigning All-Pro are a clear consensus among an Associated Press panel as the top two tight ends in the NFL.
Gronkowski received 10 of 11 first-place votes and 109 of the possible 110 points, and Kelce was second on eight ballots to finish with 98 points in voting released Friday. The panel includes Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton and 10 AP football writers.
The voters overlooked Gronkowski’s injury-plagued 2016, when he had back surgery and was limited to eight games coming off consecutive All-Pro years that gave him three such honors for his career. The 28-year-old missed a game this year with a thigh injury.
Gronkowski set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 touchdowns in 2011 and is second to Antonio Gates of the Los Angeles Chargers among active tight ends with 72 scores.
Gates, who received votes but wasn’t ranked among the top 10, set the NFL career record for tight ends with his 112th TD this season.
While insisting that he focuses on football during the season, Gronkowski’s offseason activities included partying in victory lane after the Daytona 500, joining the action at WrestleMania and smothering his chest in sushi in a music video.
“He’s an even better player, when healthy, than he is a partier — and that’s saying something,” said AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell, who is based in Minnesota.
Added Barry Wilner, AP’s lead NFL writer in New York: “When healthy and into it, he is unstoppable.”
Kelce had career highs with 85 catches for 1,125 yards when he was named All-Pro for the first time last season, his fourth in the NFL. His career high in touchdowns is five (twice), and he has three TDs through seven games this season.
The two-time Pro Bowler drew taunting penalties in consecutive weeks this year. The first resulted in a $12,154 fine for shoving a ball into the groin area of New England linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
Last year, Kelce was penalized for throwing his towel at the referee like a penalty flag.
“If he could keep his emotions from getting the best of him, he’d challenge Gronk for best in the business,” AP’s Denver-based Arnie Stapleton said.
Added AP’s Rob Maaddi of Philadelphia: “Great talent who needs to eliminate his knucklehead penalties.”
AP Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich, who is based in Washington, D.C., suggested there was a big gap between Gronkowski/Kelce and the rest of the field. The voting backed up that claim.
Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz was a fairly distant third with 79 points, and the drop-off to fourth was significant as well. Delanie Walker of Tennessee got 63 points.
Ertz leads tight ends in catches (39), yards receiving (494) and touchdowns (five) this season.
The TDs are already a career high, and he’s on pace for his first 1,000-yard season with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles (6-1) have the NFL’s best record, led by Wentz’s league-high 17 touchdown passes.
“Every young quarterback needs a quality tight end, and Ertz is a perfect match for Carson Wentz,” said AP’s Teresa Walker, based in Tennessee.
Walker is second to Kelce in yards receiving since 2015, with 2,212. The 33-year-old had seven mostly quiet seasons in San Francisco before emerging as a star with the Titans.
A Pro Bowler the past two years, Walker is still looking for his first touchdown in his 12th season. He’s also lauded as one of the best blockers among tight ends.
“A deep threat in an era where nobody else seems to be going deep anymore,” Stapleton said.
Carolina’s Greg Olsen, on injured reserve with a broken foot, was fifth with 54 points, and 35-year-old Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys was sixth.
In his 15th season, Witten is the second NFL tight end to reach at least 1,000 catches and 10,000 yards. The retired Tony Gonzalez is the other. Witten is the franchise leader in games, consecutive games, starts, consecutive starts, catches and yards receiving.
“When Witten hangs up his Cowboys jersey, he will need it again in five years in Canton, Ohio,” Wilner said.
Washington’s Jordan Reed was seventh, followed by the only rookie on the list at No. 8, Evan Engram of the New York Giants.
Jimmy Graham was ninth, with several voters considering him miscast with the Seahawks and a potentially much higher selection had he remained one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate took 10th. Brate has four touchdowns in his fourth season. He had eight TDs last year, tied for the most by a tight end.
EDITOR’S NOTE — The Associated Press is ranking the top 10 players at a different position every week of the NFL season, based on votes by Pro Football Hall of Fame member James Lofton and AP football writers Simmi Buttar, Dave Campbell, Schuyler Dixon, Josh Dubow, Howard Fendrich, Rob Maaddi, Arnie Stapleton, Teresa M. Walker, Dennis Waszak Jr. and Barry Wilner. This feature will move on Fridays.