Throughout the first 14 weeks of the 2021 season, we’ve seen a lot of impressive individual performances from tight ends around the league. Darren Waller’s season-opening showing of 10 catches on 19 targets for 105 yards was one. There was also Mark Andrews’ 11 catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns in Week 5. Both were incredible performances, but a couple of single-game stat lines might not necessarily paint the picture of a whole season.
When I think of which tight ends I’d consider most valuable this season, the three guys who most come to mind are Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Andrews. Here are my cases for each of them being 2021’s MVTE (Most Valuable Tight End).
Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Kelce has been one of the most dominant tight ends in the NFL for years, and this fall has been no different than the last seven. Here’s his stat line for this season: 73 catches for 875 yards, five receiving touchdowns, and a rushing touchdown.
While he doesn’t have the most catches, yards, or receiving touchdowns of any of my top three tight ends here, Kelce has been on the field for the most snaps. And why wouldn’t he be? Whenever he’s on the field, whether the play is designed to get him the ball or not doesn’t matter. In an offense that features both the NFL’s best quarterback and its fastest receiver, Kelce is the perfect complement at tight end. If defenders try to take Hill away as a downfield option, the tight end is usually open somewhere over the middle. The opposite is also true. If opposing defenses cheat to take away Kelce on short to intermediate passes, Hill usually breaks free deep.
The Cincinnati product is a perfect fit for the Chiefs’ offense. He stays on the field, he complements the skillsets of other receivers and his quarterback and he’s a solid blocker. Even despite his recent slump in production, he’s one of the most valuable tight ends in the NFL this year.
George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
If you watched Kittle play on Sunday against the Bengals—or at all this season—you’ll understand why he’s on this list. If you watched the 49ers play without Kittle as well, his value is even more apparent.
San Francisco is a completely different team when their tight end is healthy and playing. Kittle said his calf injury initially happened in Week 1, and he tried to play through it in the weeks following, which could explain his slow start. Since he returned in Week 9, he has 38 catches, 530 receiving yards, and six touchdowns. His receptions and receiving yard marks are the most of all tight ends over that span, and his six receiving touchdowns are more than any other player in the NFL. To underscore his importance to the team, the 49ers are 4-2 since his return and have climbed right back into the playoff picture.
Where Kittle stands apart from Kelce is in his blocking ability. The Iowa product absolutely loves contact, and we’ve seen him put that to work as a blocker when he’s not called upon to catch the ball. Just a few weeks ago, he had a blocking clip go viral when he pancaked Los Angeles Rams edge rusher Von Miller in the latter’s debut with his new team.
Kittle’s an incredible tight end in both parts of his hybrid role, and the effect he’s had on San Francisco just by returning healthy makes it so clear just how valuable he is to them.
Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
On Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, Andrews set a new Ravens franchise record for single-season receiving yards by a tight end. His 926 yards in 2021 have scorched past the previous record of 855—and he and the Ravens still have four games to play.
Andrews makes the top three in tight end value this year because of the sheer volume of his production. He’s got more than 50 extra receiving yards than Kelce on just two more catches this season, and he’s tied with both Kelce and Kittle for third on the tight end touchdowns leaderboard with six. He has more yards and receptions than his team’s No. 1 receiver through 14 weeks as well, which isn’t true for either of the other two tight ends here.
With four games to play, Andrews is Baltimore’s most productive pass-catcher and his receiving yardage even cracks the top 10 of all NFL players in 2021. He’s been a primary reason the Ravens have a potent passing game, so there’s no question he belongs in the conversation of the NFL’s most valuable tight end this season.