25 Greatest Tight Ends in NFL History

The constant evolution of the game is changing the way we look at those who play the tight end position

It could be argued that no position has changed more in the NFL’s history than the tight end. Once primarily a sixth offensive lineman who would catch the occasional pass, tight ends have become key cogs on offense.

 

Some tight ends are so critical to a team’s passing attack in the current NFL that entire packages are designed to fit their individual skill sets. The extra emphasis placed on the position today causes us to look back at some of the greats who played the position historically and decide how they measure up – both from a statistical sense as well as in the simple “eye test.”

 

The changes at the position are impacted by how many players from the current era make this list, including a new addition that’s knocking on the top 10, but there is still plenty of representation from the past as well.

 

25 Greatest Tight Ends in NFL History

 

25. Jeremy Shockey

New York Giants 2002-07; New Orleans 2008-10); Carolina 2011

First-team All-Pro (2002), 4-time Pro Bowler

2 Super Bowl rings (XLII, XLIV)

136 games –  547 catches, 6,143 yards (11.2 ypc), 37 TDs

 

There was a period of two or three years early on in his career where he was Gronk before there was such a thing as Gronk.

 

24. Brent Jones

San Francisco 1987-97

4-time Pro Bowler

3 Super Bowl rings (XXIII, XXIV,  XXIX)

143 games – 417 catches, 5,195 yards (12.5 ypc), 33 TDs

 

A complete tight end who showed up and did his job while surrounded by legends.

 

23. Jay Novacek

St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals 1985-89; Dallas 1990-95

First-team All-Pro (1992), 5-time Pro Bowler

3 Super Bowl rings (XXVII, XXVIII, XXX)

158 games – 422 catches, 4,630 yards (11.0 ypc), 30 TDs

 

Novacek was the perfect complement to the “Triplets” (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin) during the Cowboys’ epic ruin in the early 1990s.

 

22. Riley Odoms

Denver 1972-83
2-time first-team All-Pro, 4-time Pro Bowler

153 games – 396 catches, 5,755 yards (14.5 ypc), 41 TDs; 25 carries, 211 yards (8.4 ypc), 2 TDs

 

You could make the argument that he was Denver's best player for nearly a decade.

 

21. Jimmy Graham

New Orleans 2010-14; Seattle 2015-Present

First-team All-Pro (2013), 4-time Pro Bowler

105 games – 499 catches, 6,280 yards (12.5 ypc), 59 TDs

 

When healthy, few can match Graham’s dominance – especially in the red zone.

 

20. Vernon Davis

San Francisco 2006-2015; Denver 2015; Washington 2016

2-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl 50 Champion

164 games – 505 catches, 6,424 yards (12.7 ypc), 57 TDs

 

Davis is one of the better pure athletes to ever play the position.

 

19. Heath Miller

Pittsburgh 2005-15

2-time Pro Bowler

2 Super Bowl rings (XL, XLIII)

168 games – 592 catches, 6,569 yards (11.1 ypc), 45 TDs

 

Miller was a model of consistency over his 11-year career with the Steelers.

 

18. Dallas Clark

Indianapolis Colts 2003-11; Tampa Bay 2012; Baltimore 2013

First-team All-Pro (2009), Pro Bowl (2009)

Super Bowl XLI Champion

143 games – 505 catches, 5,665 yards (11.2 ypc), 53 TDs

 

He was the unsung hero of the dominant Peyton Manning-led Colt offenses.

 

17. Keith Jackson

Philadelphia 1988-91; Miami 1992-94; Green Bay 1995-96

3-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

129 games – 441 catches, 5,283 yards (12.0 ypc), 49 TDs

 

Probably the most complete tight end in history.

 

16. Todd Christensen

New York Giants 1979; Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders 1979-88

2-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

137 games – 461 catches, 5,872 yards (12.7 ypc), 41 TDs

 

He was a Raider favorite who thrived despite being in the huddle with a handful of other legendary skill position players.

 

15. Charlie Sanders

Detroit 1968-77

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2007

3-time first-team All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler

128 games – 336 catches, 4,817 yards (14.3 ypc), 31 TDs

 

The other legendary Sanders to play in Detroit was a serious deep threat at the position.

 

14. Ben Coates

New England 1991-99; Baltimore Ravens 2000

2-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

158 games – 499 catches, 5,555 yards (11.1 ypc), 50 TDs

 

He was a key cog in the Drew Bledsoe-led Patriot offenses that put up huge numbers in the 1990s.

 

13. Jerry Smith

Washington 1965-77

First-team All-Pro (1969), 2-time Pro Bowler

168 games – 421 catches, 5,496 yards (13.1 ypc), 60 TDs

 

One of the most underrated players in NFL history.

 

12. Jackie Smith

St. Louis Cardinals 1963-77; Dallas 1978

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1994

5-time Pro Bowler

210 games – 480 catches, 7,918 yards (16.5 ypc), 40 TDs; 38 carries, 327 yards (8.6 ypc), 3 TDs

 

Smith is sadly remembered mostly for his dropped pass in the end zone during Dallas’ 35-31 loss to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIII. But that one missed opportunity shouldn’t overshadow the fact he was a solid and at times dominant force throughout his Hall of Fame career.

 

11. Greg Olsen

Chicago Bears 2007-2010, Carolina Panthers 2011-Present

3-time Pro Bowler

158 games – 622 catches, 7,365 yards (11.8 ypc), 52 TDs

 

Olsen has quietly grown into one of the most prolific pass catchers in the league over the past five seasons. In 2016, he became the first tight end in NFL history to post three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

 

10. Dave Casper

Oakland 1974-80, ’84, Houston Oilers 1981-83; Minnesota 1983

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2002

4-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

2 Super Bowl rings (XI, XV)

147 games – 378 catches, 5,216 yards (13.8 ypc), 52 TDs

 

Casper was the premier tight end in pro football during the 1970s, leading to his immortal status in the eyes of Raider Nation.

 

9. Jason Witten

Dallas 2003-Present

2-time first-team All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler

223 games – 1,089 catches, 11,888 yards (10.9 ypc), 63 TDs

 

Witten may be the last of the old-school tight ends – a big-bodied guy who blocks as well as he runs routes and catches passes. He has been the Cowboys’ cornerstone for 14 seasons. His stat line speaks for itself and because of those numbers, Witten will one day be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

 

8. John Mackey

Baltimore Colts 1963-71; San Diego 1972

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1992

3-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

139 games – 331 catches, 5,236 yards (15.8 ypc), 38 TDs, 19 rushes, 127 yards (6.7 ypc)

 

The John Mackey Award is given to the best tight end in college football annually. That alone should tell you how great he was in his time. Mackey was one of the premier offensive weapons in the NFL during his prime. Perhaps most impressive – he missed only one game during his 10-year career.

 

7. Rob Gronkowski

New England 2010-Present

4-time first-team All-Pro, 4-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XLIX Champion

2014 AP & PFWA Comeback Player of the Year

88 games – 405 catches, 6095 yards (15 ypc), 68 TDs

 

Going by the eye test, it's tough not to call Gronkowski the greatest ever at the position. Injuries seem to be the only thing holding him back. Unfortunately, those injuries appear to be taking a toll, and it looks as if his days as an impact player in the NFL are numbered.

 

6. Mike Ditka

Chicago 1961-66; Philadelphia 1967-68; Dallas 1969-72

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1988

2-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl VI champion (Cowboys)

158 games – 427 catches, 5,812 yards (13.6 ypc), 43 TDs

 

Long before he was Da Coach in Chicago and the subject of a legendary series of SNL skits, Ditka was the focal point of the Bears' passing attack in the 1960s. He brought the same toughness to the offense that teammate Dick Butkus brought to the defense, making Chicago one of the most feared and respected franchises in the NFL.

 

5. Ozzie Newsome

Cleveland 1978-90

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1999

First-team All-Pro (1984), 3-time Pro Bowler

198 games – 662 catches, 7,980 yards (12.1 ypc), 47 TDs

 

Newsome was one of the premier tight ends of the 1980s along with Kellen Winslow. He was a favorite target of Bernie Kosar's on a Cleveland Browns team that fell agonizingly short of two Super Bowl appearances at the hands of the Broncos. Newsome's football IQ set him apart, and that is what has made him one of the elite general managers in the game today.

 

4. Kellen Winslow

San Diego 1979-87

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1995

3-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

109 games – 541 catches, 6,741 yards (12.5 ypc), 45 TDs

 

Winslow is the guy many people immediately picture when they hear the words "tight end." He was the first real deep threat at the position, making an already prolific Dan Fouts-led passing attack that much more lethal. Many will likely eclipse his stats, but nobody will ever replace the iconic image of Winslow's teammates carrying him off the field after exhausting himself -- mentally and physically -- in a playoff game in Miami's Orange Bowl in 1982.

 

3. Shannon Sharpe

Denver 1990-99, 2002-03; Baltimore 2000-01

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2011

4-time first-team All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

3 Super Bowl rings (XXXII, XXXIII, XXXV)

204 games – 815 catches, 10,060 yards (12.3 ypc), 62 TDs

 

Sharpe's stat line speaks for itself, but it was his immeasurable impact as John Elway’s and subsequently Trent Dilfer's security blanket in the passing games of two championship teams that set him apart from others at his position. He was the first of the oversized natural wide receivers who assumed the role of tight end.

 

2. Antonio Gates

San Diego 2003-Present

3-time first-team All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

204 games – 897 catches, 11,192 yards (12.5 ypc), 111 TDs

 

Like Tony Gonzalez, Gates is a former college basketball player who has used his rare athletic ability to create problems for opposing defenses. The two are fittingly tied for the most touchdown catches by a tight end with 111 each, and Gates also is the Chargers’ all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards. He and Philip Rivers share the record for the most prolific quarterback-to-tight end touchdown scoring combo in NFL history with 84 end zone hookups.

 

1. Tony Gonzalez

Kansas City 1997-2008; Atlanta 2009-12

6-time first-team All-Pro, 14-time Pro Bowler

270 games – 1,325 catches, 15,127 yards (11.4 ypc), 111 TDs

 

Gonzalez pioneered the trend of basketball players making the transition to the tight end position. His frame combined with his athleticism created unique matchup problems for defenses, revolutionizing schemes on both sides of the ball. Statistically, he has far and away the greatest resume of anyone who ever played the position.

 

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.

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