Welcome to Learning from History, where I dig into every fantasy season since 1985 to find historical comparisons for modern players.
Today, we look at Travis Kelce. Kelce is exactly the kind of player for whom a rigorous historical analysis like this is most valuable, in my opinion; he's relatively old and extremely productive. When we try to think of comparable players, names like Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, and Shannon Sharpe all come to mind. Each of those four players maintained very strong production well into their thirties, so perhaps we expect Kelce to do the same.
There are two mistakes going on right here, though. The first mistake is something called the "availability heuristic", which suggests that we mentally judge how likely something is to happen based on how easily we can think of examples of it happening. It's really easy to think of examples of tight ends playing a long time because the tight ends who do so invariably become especially famous.
The second mistake is something called "selection bias". We judge Kelce as a great tight end and want to compare him to other great tight ends. But we're comparing Kelce at the midpoint of his career to other tight ends at the end of their careers; there are other tight ends who, like Kelce, might have seemed great at 29, but who we don't judge as great in hindsight precisely *because* they could not sustain their success.
So what do Kelce's historical comparables look like if we ignore our faulty memories and judge him strictly based on the cold, hard numbers?
Comparison #1: Superstars Through Their 20s
First, a quick sanity check. Yes, Travis Kelce really has been on a tremendous pace through his 20s. Of all tight end seasons between 1985 and 2018, only eight players have accumulated more fantasy value over replacement during that decade. Here is every tight end with at least 400 points of value over replacement in his 20s, along with his average per-year (APY) production from ages 20-32 and his total remaining career production.
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