Preparing the gameplan for the undefeated Chiefs; Sunday Night Football crew joins to debate Gronk vs. Kelce

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FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce won't see each other on the field Sunday night unless they want to say hey in warmups. Or unless they want to take part in the weekly bro hug convention at midfield immediately following the game.

But the tight end "matchup" between the Patriots and Chiefs is one that has already garnered all kinds of interest because of the caliber of the players involved. All can agree that Kelce and Gronkowski are the best of the best at their position.

But which is better?

"I just try to be the best I can be every single week, do my job every single week," Gronkowski said when asked about Kelce on Wednesday. "The rankings and all that, the comparisons, all that, I’ll just leave that up to you guys, whatever you guys say. But I just try to do my best. I think he’s a great player and I’ve just got to worry about what I can do to help out the team."

Diplomatic approach. Fair enough.

"When I get the ball in my hands I'm a different type of athlete," Kelce told the Dan Patrick Show last year. "Gronk's going to run around there like a Clydesdale, run through everything, like a big boulder. I'm more a guy who can make people miss, break somebody down with a juke move or slide off tackles. Gronk can just break everything."

Little more to chew on there, and not inaccurate. Kelce chips away at the surface of their differences with that comment. 

Let's dig a little deeper.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Kelce is 29 years old and is listed at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds. Gronkowski is 29 years old and is listed at 6-6, 268.

Kelce came into the league in 2013 and drew comparisons to Gronkowski before he was drafted. Gronkowski was drafted in 2010, falling to the second round because of back problems.

Kelce was placed on injured reserve after one game as a rookie but has played in every game except one since the start of his sophomore season. Gronkowski has missed 21 regular-season games since the start of 2013 and 26 total over his eight-plus seasons. 

Gronkowski has, however, played in 38 more games than Kelce (not including playoffs), and he has 3,180 more yards receiving on 162 more catches. This season, Kelce has 99 more yards and two more touchdowns on five more receptions than Gronkowski.

"It's interesting," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said when asked on a conference call which tight end he'd prefer. "I would've said Rob for a long time. But I've gotta say it's getting a little closer in my mind . . . The big tie-breaker for me was Gronkowski's ability to block. We see him on some of those tight end wham plays where he just devastates defensive linemen. His pass-blocking ability in their seven-man protections are a real key I think in many ways for that offense . . .

"I don't think I have a favorite because to me it's like comparing apples to oranges. These two players really could not be any more different at the position. I'd say Kelce is a little more new-age and Gronk's a little more old-school, but they're both great players."

MONSTER TARGETS

The passing game is where Kelce shines. He's almost the same size as Gronkowski, yet he's the quicker athlete of the two -- something even Gronkowski would acknowledge.

"His shiftiness," Gronkowski said, "is nice."

That shiftiness allows Kelce to run routes that suit his role in Andy Reid's West Coast system perfectly. He can get through a great deal of a receiver's passing tree -- and also come up with a shovel pass occasionally -- as one of many catch-and-run options in Kansas City's offense.

Kelce is probably faster than Gronkowski at this juncture, especially with Gronkowski dealing with an ankle injury, but Gronkowski has been the better down-the-field threat for his offense over the long haul.

With an ability to build speed and make contested catches, Tom Brady will go to Gronkowski, weighing the risk versus the reward in the process, on a regular basis. That's borne out in the numbers, as Gronkowski has averaged almost four full yards per reception than Kelce since 2015.

Gronkowski still might be the better deep threat because of his catch radius and body control, but Kelce has had the advantage in explosive playmaking this season, averaging 14.5 yards per catch to Gronkowski's 13.4.

"I love Gronk," NBC's Rodney Harrison said. "Gronk is a big huge target, but Kelce just brings something a little different. He brings that athleticism. He brings that fire. There's times when he gets outside of himself and he can be a hot head and get a penalty, but athletically just matching up with him, there's so many things that he can do.

"I would say at this point in time if I was a safety playing man-to-man coverage, I would probably have a little bit more trouble defending Travis Kelce as opposed to Gronk. Gronk is huge . . . Obviously he pushes off and he uses his body well, but at this point in time, the level of speed and athleticism, the youth factor, the fact that Kelce has been healthy, the quickness and his route-running, I would say Kelce at this time is the better tight end."

After the catch, both have been forces, but both do things differently, as Kelce described above. The 260-pound water bug versus the 268-pound Clydesdale. And this year, again, Kelce has the nod over Gronkowski as the better runner with the ball in his hands.

Kelce is averaging a modest 5.9 yards after the catch per reception, which isn't an out-of-this-world number. But Gronkowski sits at a meager average of 2.9, which is fourth-worst among tight ends who've played at least 60 percent of their team's snaps through five weeks. (The player leading that category among tight ends is San Fransico's George Kittle, with an average of 12.0 yards after the catch.)

When Kelce is referenced as the top tight end in football, as he was on ESPN's Monday Night Football broadcast this week, it's the receiving numbers this year that back up that claim. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes also described Kelce as the NFL's top dog tight end.

"I mean, on my list, I would rank Kelce the best tight end in football," Mahomes said Wednesday. "I know Gronk has been a great tight end for a long time. But, I mean, I haven't gotten to play with Gronk. I've gotten to play with Kelce, and I've never seen anyone be able to do the things that he's done."

BUILDING BLOCKS

I asked Gronkowski during his weekly press conference if when he watches Kelce he sees a player who plays the same position he does. They go about their work so differently, they're asked to perform such different tasks, it's as though they have two different gigs.

Apples and oranges, as Collinsworth would say.

"I mean, you can look for yourself," Gronkowski said. "I think he’s a great player and can definitely learn from guys like that."

And Kelce could learn from Gronkowski when it comes to what happens at the line of scrimmage. Kelce is the prototype for his position in 2018. Gronkowski's game is more of a throwback because of his ability to create big plays in the run and pass games.

As rare as it is to see a player Kelce's size move the way he does, it's as rare to find a player like Gronkowski who can dance with an athletic pass-rusher on one snap and bury him on the next to give a running back room.

For some, that makes Gronkowski the more valuable chip.

"If it's one game and they're both healthy, I'm taking Rob Gronkowski because I think he's a better blocker and more of an inside tight end," NBC's Tony Dungy said. "But Rodney's point is valid. Travis has been a lot more available over the course of the last couple of years. Healthier. But I'm a Gronkowski fan. If I've got one game to win and they're both healthy, I'm taking Rob."

Bill Belichick was definitive in describing Kelce's game Wednesday. He oftentimes lauds opposing tight ends by saying that they need to be treated like receivers because they're so athletically gifted, and Kelce fell under that category for him.

"He's a receiver," Belichick said of Kelce. "A big, athletic receiver. Very good after the catch."

And when Belichick was given a chance to describe Kelce as a blocker, he went on to explain that Kelce can sometimes take out a defender on a run play simply by running a route -- not exactly glowing commentary on the player's physicality in the trenches. 

"They use him on a lot of RPO plays, so if you don't cover him they throw it to him, so you have to cover him," Belichick said. "It's better than blocking actually because somebody has to chase him on the RPO. Somebody has to cover him somehow on the RPOs. He's usually involved in those. Not always, but usually. If you don't cover him then they throw it to him. If you cover him, then that's as effective as him blocking the guy, but they do a lot of that."

Collinsworth acknowledged that Gronkowski -- who had a strong day as a run-blocker in last week's win over the Colts -- is easily the better blocker of the two players. Collinsworth became the majority owner of Pro Football Focus in 2014, which has graded Gronkowski as the best run-blocking tight end in football through five games. But Collinsworth believes Kelce is coming along in that aspect of the game. 

"I'll say this about Kelce: a) He's better at the line of scrimmage than he's been in the past at blocking," Collinsworth said. "And b) he's one of the best blockers in the open field. And with the way the Kansas City Chiefs are playing right now, they're such a space team -- there's so much of the motions, reverses, screens, all of that, all the different things that comes with this offense -- a lot of times it comes down to, can that tight end make an open-field block to spring a big play? And he does that a lot. He's really good at it."

Kelce has been the more productive player this year and might carry more long-term upside, though he's only five months younger than his counterpart. Gronkowski clearly has had the better career and continues to be the superior blocker.

The better tight end right now? If you're a traditionalist, it's Gronkowski because of his versatility. And it's probably not all that close.

The better player right now? That's a different discussion. Given the way Kelce's been playing, it's as close a call as it's ever been.

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