25 Greatest Tight Ends in NFL History

Rob Gronkowski will do go down as one of the greatest to ever play the 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 run 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. Vernon Davis

San Francisco 2006-2015; Denver 2015; Washington 2016-Present

2-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl 50 Champion

194 games – 573 catches, 7,439 yards (13.0 ypc), 62 TDs


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


20. 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.


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

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.


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 2015-2017, Green Bay 2018-present

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

137 games – 611 catches, 7,436 yards (12.2 ypc), 71 TDs


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


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

174 games – 666 catches, 7,847 yards (11.8 ypc), 57 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. His last two seasons have been hampered by injury, but the numbers he has posted thus far in his career place him among the all-time greats.


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 2003-17

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

239 games – 1,152 catches, 12,448 yards (10.8 ypc), 68 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. What he has left in the tank at 37 remains to be seen, but all he's really doing his delaying the clock for his eventual induction 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. 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.


6. 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.


5. 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.


4. 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.


3. Rob Gronkowski

New England 2010-18

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

3 Super Bowl Rings (XLIX, LI, LIII)

2014 AP & PFWA Comeback Player of the Year

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


Going by the eye test, it's tough not to call Gronkowski the greatest ever at the position. Injuries certainly held him back at times and probably were one of the contributing factors to him announcing his retirement on March 24. Despite somewhat of a short-lived career, Gronkowski's overall body of work, capped by his performance in Super Bowl LIII, and the dominance he showed at different times throughout his career solidify him as one of the very best to ever play the position.


2. Antonio Gates

San Diego 2003-Present

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2019

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. 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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