Kittle, Kelce and Ertz — The post-Rob Gronkowski generation of elite tight ends

It is unlikely there will ever be another tight end like Rob Gronkowski.

The now former Patriot’s sheer dominance and off-field charisma will be extremely difficult for another to replicate.

Yet, following his retirement, there are numerous excellent players at tight end ready to fill the void and succeed him as the NFL’s premier player at the position.

Here we look five of the best candidates to succeed Gronk as the NFL’s elite tight end.

George Kittle — 49ers

Probably the leader in the clubhouse for the title of Gronk successor. Just two years into his career, Kittle already holds the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season by racking up 1,377 last year.

A remarkable athlete and excellent blocker at 6 foot 4 inches and 250 pounds, Kittle has made great strides as a route runner and his speed and elusiveness make him an extremely tough player to stop in the open field.

Playing in Kyle Shanahan’s creative offensive system, Kittle should continue to produce at a high level, but will be eyeing an improvement in touchdowns after reeling in only seven through his first 31 games.

Travis Kelce — Chiefs

It was Kelce who broke Gronkowski’s record for single-season yardage before Kittle surpassed him later on the same day. 

His 1,336 yards were a career high and marked the third successive season he had topped 1,000. Kelce also had 10 touchdowns in 2018, taking the tally for his career to 32.

Clearly one of Patrick Mahomes’ favorite targets, Kelce’s body has held up much better than Gronk’s and there is no reason the 29-year-old cannot continue to dominate for at least a few more years.

Zach Ertz — Eagles

Though not as athletically blessed as Kittle and not quite as productive as Kelce, Ertz has proven extremely dependable throughout his career and is still only 28.

He came through when it mattered for the Eagles in Super Bowl 52 and had the best season of his career last year, catching nearly 75 percent of his targets for 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns, reaching the latter mark for the second straight season.

Ertz will continue to be targeted regularly by one of the best young quarterbacks in the game in Carson Wentz. If Wentz can produce at his 2017 level, Ertz’s ability to put up those kind of numbers could extend well beyond the prime years he is now experiencing.

O.J. Howard — Buccaneers

Everybody has been waiting for Howard to make the leap to becoming one of the NFL’s best since his 208-yard, two-touchdown performance in the National Championship game for Alabama three years ago.

He has yet to do so but is still only 24 and, at 6 foot 6 inches and 251 pounds, boasts the same speed as Kittle to make things happen with the ball in his hands.

With Bruce Arians taking the reins in Tampa, the Bucs should have a more exciting and more potent offense, of which Howard will likely be a focal point. Expect the former Crimson Tide star to be much more prolific going forward.

David Njoku — Browns

It says a lot about how disappointing Njoku’s first two seasons were that the 639 receiving yards he had last year were a career high.

The 2017 first-round pick has yet to deliver fully on his potential for the Browns but that is primed to change in 2019.

Supremely physically gifted, Njoku should have much more room to operate with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry attracting plenty of attention in an offense led by coach Freddie Kitchens and young star quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Time is on the 22-year-old’s side and he could soon take a big step toward becoming an elite talent at the position if this attack carries over its momentum from the Browns’ surge in the second half of the 2018 season.