Fantasy Football: Can Travis Kelce Approach Rob Gronkowski's Most Dominant Seasons in 2017?

Kansas City's Travis Kelce was the best fantasy tight end in 2016. Can he get to healthy-Gronk levels of domination this season?

Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, after essentially missing his entire rookie year in 2013 and flashing promise in his first two seasons, finally seemed to put it all together in 2016.

The 2016 campaign was easily the best year of his career. It was so good, in fact, that it prompts a serious debate. Which tight end would you rather have going forward: Kelce or Rob Gronkowski? discussed the real-life debate recently. But what about in fantasy football? With both healthy, could Kelce actually supplant Gronkowski as the top player at the tight end spot in 2017 with a season resembling Gronk's most dominant years?

In both PPR and standard formats, Kelce finished as the TE1 in fantasy in 2016.

As one of just two tight ends to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving (the other was Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers), Kelce ranked second at the position with 85 receptions, just one behind Dennis Pitta of the Baltimore Ravens.

His 1,125 receiving yards were the best at the position in 2016 while -- of the eight tight ends with at least 95 targets -- Kelce's 13.24 yards per reception mark was behind just Olsen's 13.41 and Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham's 14.20.

Despite dealing with occasional knee swelling, Kelce -- who will turn 28 in October -- remains one of the top tight end options in fantasy football. In our latest positional rankings, we have Kelce listed as the third-best tight end for 2017, behind Olsen and, in the top spot, the inestimable Gronkowski.

According to the good folks at Fantasy Football Calculator, Gronkowski can be had for a mid second-round pick. Meanwhile, Kelce is going off the board at the beginning of the fourth round.

Can Kelce match Gronkowski's level in 2017?

The Dominance of Rob Gronkowski

Despite playing in only 88 of a possible 112 games since he was drafted in 2010, Gronkowski is still second among all tight ends in terms of total PPR points in that span. His total of 1,428.7 fantasy points since 2010 trails only Graham, who is out in front with 1,481.3.

As we can see from the table below, Gronkowski enjoyed three truly dominant seasons in 2011, 2014, and 2015, but he was far from a slouch in his other seasons. Also included are Gronk's Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), which you can learn more about by checking out our glossary, and the league average.

Year Games Targets Rec Yards TD Rec NEP/Target TE Avg FP/Game
2010 16 59 42 546 10 0.96 0.58 7.0
2011 16 124 90 1,327 17 1.06 0.61 15.1
2012 11 79 55 790 11 0.96 0.59 13.0
2013 7 66 39 592 4 0.87 0.62 11.9
2014 15 131 82 1,124 12 0.86 0.6 12.3
2015 15 120 72 1,176 11 0.88 0.59 12.2
2016 8 38 25 540 3 1.32 0.62 9.0

In 2016, hampered by injury, he was still tops among all tight ends on a fantasy points per game basis (9.0), while his 2013 mark of 11.9 was second. Only in his rookie season did Gronk fail to crack the top two in tight end scoring per game, finishing as the seventh-highest scoring tight end that season. (Not bad for a first-year player.)

Despite Kelce's breakout in 2016, his Reception Success Rate, the percentage of his catches that led to NEP gains, was actually just 8th among the 25 tight ends with over 60 targets, which is good but not spectacular.

Gronkowski meanwhile, in his three All-Pro seasons, posted ridiculous Reception Success Rate numbers, here ranked among tight ends with over 100 targets:

Year Receptions Reception Success Rate Position Ranking
2011 90 93.33% 1st
2014 82 92.68% 1st
2015 72 86.11% 2nd

The Coming of Travis Kelce

Kelce played just 66.34% of the Chiefs offensive snaps in 2014 as he made his way back from microfracture surgery, but he was fully integrated into the system in 2015. That season, Kelce finished with a 21.78% market share in Kansas City's passing offense and had 72 receptions for 825 yards -- good for a TE8 finish in standard scoring leagues.

Then in 2016, Kelce's game seemed to progress to another level.

His Reception NEP (a cumulative statistic) was 101.39 -- 7.26 points ahead of nearest challenger, Olsen. That's in spite of Olsen seeing 12 more targets than Kelce over the course of the season.

Of tight ends who saw at least 50 targets, only Dwayne Allen (0.95) and Hunter Henry (0.93) could lay claim to a higher Reception NEP per target mark than Kelce's 0.87 (league average was 0.62). Essentially, that means Kelce contributed the most, in total, of any tight end to his team in 2016 -- and he did it in big chunks.

The frustration for Kelce's fantasy owners, though, was his apparent allergy to the end zone. In 2016, Kelce's 18 red zone targets were tied for fourth-most among tight ends. Inside the 10 yard-line, he saw just seven targets all year, while at the five yard-line or closer he had only three targets. In comparison, Kyle Rudolph saw eight targets inside the five yard-line for the Minnesota Vikings.

Indeed, Kelce's 85 receptions were good for 1,125 yards but brought him just 4 touchdowns -- and only one score came after Week 8. By comparison, Gronkowski's three most dominant seasons featured at least 11 trips to the end zone.

Can Kelce Reach Gronkowski Levels in 2017?

The short answer to this question is, "I'd be bloody surprised."

Oh, you want more? OK.

Gronkowski has benefitted from not only ample opportunity in his prime seasons but also efficiency from his quarterback.

In 2011, only Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees dropped back to pass more times than Tom Brady, who dropped back 643 times. Brady posted the third-highest Passing NEP mark among quarterbacks that season and the third-best Passing NEP per drop back mark among the quarterbacks with at least 500 drop backs, behind only Brees and Aaron Rodgers.

In 2014, Brady dropped back 604 times, just 11th-most in the NFL. But still, he was in the top five in terms of Passing NEP and Passing NEP per drop back among the 500-drop back club. He was up among the leaders in 2015, too, when only Philip Rivers dropped back to pass more and only Carson Palmer had a higher Passing NEP and Passing NEP per drop back than Brady's 165.92 and 0.25 (against a league average of 0.11).

Simply put, Brady is Dr. Frankenstein, and he's allowed the monster of Gronk to come to life and wreak havoc upon the NFL.

In his four seasons with the Chiefs, Alex Smith has never posted a Passing NEP mark of more than 70.68 (in 2016), has three times finished at or under the league average for Passing NEP per drop back, and hasn't dropped back more than 517 times since 2013.

Of the weapons in the Chiefs' passing attack in 2016, the only players who posted a Reception NEP per target above the league average for their position were Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. In 2011, Gronkowski was joined by another four players who, seeing at least 32 targets, exceeded the league average in terms of Reception NEP per target.

The 2014 season, a year which saw deep criticism for the Patriots offense and Brady in general, saw just Gronkowski and fellow tight end Tim Wright exceed the league average, while the 2015 campaign saw Gronkowski and five teammates above the average.

For Smith all of a sudden to become a Brady-type field general seems far-fetched.

It should also be noted that the Chiefs ground game dipped quite drastically from 2015 to 2016. The Chiefs went from 6th in the NFL in rushing yards in 2015 to 15th in 2016. On the flip side, their passing yards leapt from 30th to 19th. Of their main rushers, here's how the two seasons differed in terms of successes on the ground.

First, in 2015:

Player Carries Rushing NEP per Play Position Avg
Alex Smith 72 0.48 0.28
Charcandrick West 160 -0.04 -0.04
Spencer Ware 72 0.2 -0.04

And then, in 2016:

Player Carries Rushing NEP per Play Position Avg
Alex Smith 32 0.21 0.26
Jamaal Charles 71 0.1 -0.02
Spencer Ware 214 -0.07 -0.02
Charcandrick West 88 -0.08 -0.02

The downturn in fortunes in the ground game led to a greater dependence on passing than in previous seasons. That's why, despite Kelce's market share going down slightly to 21.43% in 2016, it was actually worth another 14 targets in Kansas City's offense.

There are question marks surrounding Tyreek Hill's suitability to be a number-one wide receiver, as evidenced by our WR31 preseason ranking for him. The next highest Chiefs wide receiver is Chris Conley at WR65, a player who actually performed right at a league-average level in 2016 in terms of Reception NEP per target.

So, expect the volume to be there -- we project Kelce to finish with the most receptions among tight ends in 2017. But Gronkowski, per our numbers, is expected to be a far bigger fantasy producer again this year, should he stay healthy.

2017 Projection Receptions Yards Touchdowns Standard Points TE Rank
Gronkowski 69.0 1,014.3 11.3 169.2 1
Kelce 82.3 994.8 5.6 132.5 3


A look at our breakdown of tight end defensive matchups suggests that Kelce's 2017 road won't be easy. He has five games against the toughest defenses for tight ends in 2017 and just four against the easiest.

We project Kelce to have a big season, both in fantasy and reality football -- TE3 is nothing to scoff at.

But he won't be in the same ballpark as Gronkowski's three truly dominant seasons of 2011, 2014, and 2015.