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25 Greatest Tight Ends in NFL History

After a one-year break, Rob Gronkowski looks to add to his Hall of Fame resume in Tampa Bay

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. Zach Ertz

Philadelphia Eagles 2013-Present

3-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl LII champion

106 games – 525 catches, 5,743 yards (10.9 ypc), 35 TDs

 

Ertz has been consistently dominant during his career so far. He has established himself as one of the best players in the league at the position.

 

24. Jay Novacek

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

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

Super Bowl XXVII, XXVIII, XXX champion (Cowboys)

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 run in the early 1990s.

 

23. Travis Kelce

Kansas City Chiefs 2013-Present

First-team All-Pro (2016, '18), 5-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl Ring LIV champion

96 games – 507 catches, 6,465 yards (12.8 ypc), 37 TDs

 

Kelce has been one of the most dominant tight ends since he stepped into the league, and the stats he's piling up are putting him in the conversation with the all-time greats. The sky is the limit for Kelce, as he is a key cog in the league's most explosive offense right now. Barring injury, he should rise up this list every year for the rest of his career.

 

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. Vernon Davis

San Francisco 2006-15; Denver 2015; Washington 2016-19

2-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl 50 Champion (Broncos)

194 games – 583 catches, 7,562 yards (13.0 ypc), 63 TDs

 

Davis, who announced his retirement from the game on Super Sunday this year, was one of the better pure athletes to ever play the position.

 

20. Heath Miller

Pittsburgh 2005-15

2-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XL, XLIII champion

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.

 

19. 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.

 

18. 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.

 

17. 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.

 

16. Charlie Sanders

Detroit 1968-77

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

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2007

 

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

 

15. 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.

 

14. 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.

 

13. Jimmy Graham

New Orleans 2010-14; Seattle 2015-17, Green Bay 2018-present

First-team All-Pro (2013), 5-time Pro Bowler

137 games – 649 catches, 7,883 yards (12.1 ypc), 74 TDs

 

When healthy and in his prime, few could match Graham's dominance — especially in the red zone.

 

12. Jackie Smith

St. Louis Cardinals 1963-77; Dallas 1978

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1994

 

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 2007-10, Carolina Panthers 2011-19, Seattle Seahawks 2020

3-time Pro Bowler

174 games – 718 catches, 8,444 yards (11.8 ypc), 59 TDs

 

Olsen quietly grew into one of the most prolific pass catchers in the league over the last decade. In 2016, he became the first tight end in NFL history to post three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The numbers he has posted thus far in his career place him among the all-time greats. He'll look to add to those stats as a member of the Seattle Seahawks in 2020.

 

10. Dave Casper

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

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

Super Bowl XI, XV champion (Raiders)

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2002

 

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 2003-17, '19

2-time first-team All-Pro, 11-time Pro Bowler

239 games – 1,215 catches, 12,977 yards (10.7 ypc), 72 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. The Cowboys' cornerstone for 15 seasons, Witten retired after the 2017 campaign and started his broadcast career as part of ESPN's revamped "Monday Night Football" team. However, after just one season in the booth, Witten announced on Feb. 28 that he was returning to the Cowboys. After a year away from the game, Witten returned and put up a respectable season, stat-wise, in 2019.

 

8. John Mackey

Baltimore Colts 1963-71; San Diego 1972

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)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1992

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

 

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. Mike Ditka

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

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1988

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

 

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.

 

6. Ozzie Newsome

Cleveland 1978-90

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

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1999

 

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.

 

5. Kellen Winslow

San Diego 1979-87

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

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1995

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

 

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.

 

4. Shannon Sharpe

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

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

Super Bowl XXXII, XXXIII (Broncos), XXXV (Ravens) champion

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2011

 

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 three 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.

 

3. Rob Gronkowski

New England 2010-18

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

Super Bowl Rings XLIX, LI, LIII champion

2014 AP & PFWA Comeback Player of the Year

115 games – 521 catches, 7,861 yards (15.1 ypc), 79 TDs

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

 

Going by the eye test, it's tough not to call Gronkowski the greatest ever at the position and his including on the NFL 100 All-Time Team is testament to this claim. Injuries certainly held him back at times and probably were one of the contributing factors to him announcing his retirement shortly following Super Bowl LIII. However, after a year off, it appears that Gronkowski is ready to return to the field as New England traded him to Tampa Bay a few days before the 2020 NFL Draft where he will reunite with Tom Brady. What Gronk has left in the tank remains to be seen but he was one of the best players on the field in the last game he played (Super Bowl LIII) and his absence was clearly felt by Brady and the Patriots this past season. Brady's 24 touchdown passes were tied for his second fewest in a full season and some of that can be attributed to the distinct drop in production from the tight end position. Four different ones (Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, Eric Tomlinson) combined for 37 catches, 419 yards and two touchdowns in 2019.

 

2. Antonio Gates

San Diego 2003-18

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

236 games – 955 catches, 11,841 yards (12.4 ypc), 116 TDs

 

Like Tony Gonzalez, Gates is a former college basketball player who has used his rare athletic ability to create problems for opposing defenses. Not only is Gates the all-time leader in touchdown catches (116) by a tight end, he's sixth on the career list for all players.

 

1. Tony Gonzalez

Kansas City 1997-2008; Atlanta 2009-13

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

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2019

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

 

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. He'll be enshrined in Canton in the Summer of 2019.

 

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

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