The Evolution of Tight Ends in the NFL
Tight ends have taken over the league over the last two decades, especially as the league has become more passing evolved. Tight ends continue to emerge as the ultimate weapons, who are mismatches against anybody a defense throws onto them for coverage. They can blow past linebackers in speed and are too oversized for corners and safeties to cover. In the last few years, we have seen Antonio Gates and Jason Witten retire, who are both top ten tight ends in history. We have seen names like George Kittle and Zach Ertz start to emerge as the next tight end stars. When looking back at eras, tight ends over the last twenty years have emerged as huge receiving threats. That wasn’t always the case, as some tight ends were solely used for blocking, or red zone usage. Names that have come through more lately have jumped ahead of the guys from prior to the 90s. The position has evolved, and in terms of looking ahead into the future, receiving is going to be what we truly look at when evaluating tight ends. Rob Gronkowski’s of the world have truly changed the game.
1. Tony Gonzalez
Did you know Tony Gonzalez was a basketball player? We heard it almost every game, and he was one of the best at the position, and my top tight end of all-time. Gonzalez is sixth all-time in receiving yards, and 8th all-time in receiving touchdowns. Gonzalez is a 14-time Pro Bowler and was named All-Pro six times. He was a top 15 pick in the 1997 draft and will be a Hall of Famer sometime shortly. Gonzalez went for over 15,000 yards in his career and had 111 touchdowns. He was also super durable, which can’t be said for everyone on this list.
2. Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski, when healthy, has been one of the most dominant tight ends in football. He had 38 touchdowns in his first three seasons, before being injured the next year. He has had two seasons where he missed half the year. Gronkowski might have had an exceptional career on the all-time lists if it wasn’t for his injuries and likely a shortened career. He has over 7,500 receiving yards and 79 receiving touchdowns, which could be adding up to more if he decides to keep playing. Gronkowski has two Super Bowl rings with New England and has been to five Pro Bowls.
3. Antonio Gates
Antonio Gates tried to retire, but Hunter Henry’s injury brought him back for a season. In Gates’s prime, he was a dominant talent. He finished tied for 6th in receiving touchdowns and 28th in receiving yards. Gates is a future Hall of Famer and was an eight-time Pro Bowler. He had over 11,000 receiving yards and 116 receiving touchdowns. Gates caught 955 receptions and were Philip Rivers’s main go-to option for many years. They were a lethal combo. Gates had a career-high of 13 receiving touchdowns in his second season.
4. Shannon Sharpe
Shannon Sharpe is third on the list, and it ain’t no problem. He was a three-time Super Bowl champion in Denver and Baltimore, and also went to eight Pro Bowls, and was named an All-Pro four times. Sharpe was drafted in the seventh round and is quite the bargain when we look at it. He had over 10,000 receiving yards and 62 receiving touchdowns. Sharpe posted a few seasons over 1,000 yards and had ten touchdowns in two seasons. He was a mismatch for many trying to cover him. Sharpe is a Hall of Famer, and deservingly so.
5. Jason Witten
Dad runner, Jason Witten, was a top-end tight end. He was reliable for Dallas, playing there his entire career. Witten ranks 21st in receiving yards and is inside the top 50 in receiving touchdowns. He was a Pro Bowler 11 times and was named All-Pro twice. Witten finished with 11,52 receptions, and over 12,000 receiving yards. He had 68 touchdowns, which knocks him down a little bit. There was a time where Witten was the workhorse within the offense, getting over 120 targets regularly. Unfortunately, we have to listen to him as an announcer on Monday Night Football now, but we won’t hold that against him.
6. Kellen Winslow
Kellen Winslow is the son of a former football player. He started off his career with tough luck, tearing his ACL in his second season. When he returned, he posted 800+ receiving yards in three of the next four seasons. Winslow wasn’t a huge touchdown threat playing on some bad teams but was a tremendous receiving tight end. He finished with over 5,000 receiving yards in nine seasons despite missing one. He was a sixth-round pick that many might not look at as a top-end tight end, but he was a crucial part of many passing offenses.
7. Mike Ditka
Mike Ditka was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player in 1988, and then also as a coach. Ditka won an NFL championship and a Super Bowl championship as a player. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. Ditka was a consistent tight end during his time with the Bears, and then after his move to Philly and Dallas, he struggled to get involved in the offense much. He had over 5,500 yards and 43 receiving touchdowns, playing in a non-pass happy era.
8. Ozzie Newsome
Ozzie Newsome played nearly 200 games with the Cleveland Browns, where he racked up nearly 8,000 receiving yards and 47 touchdowns. Newsome was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 and was drafted 23rd overall back in 1878. He managed to be named All-Pro once and went to three Pro Bowls. He had a career-high of nine touchdowns in his second year, and in his career, he averaged 12.1 yards per reception. During the era, Newsome was a strong receiving tight end.
9. John Mackey
John Mackey played ten seasons in the NFL and had over 5,000 receiving yards mostly with the Baltimore Ravens. Mackey averaged a whopping 15.8 yards per reception, as mainly a deep threat. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame back in 1992 and was a premium tight end during his time. Mackey was a five-time Pro Bowler, also being named an All-Pro three times. During the era, Mackey was a solid tight end, who also set a career-high in yards with 800+ in back-to-back seasons.
10. Dave Casper
We go back to the early 70s for Dave Casper, who thrived as a receiving tight end. He racked up over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his career. Casper was also a two-time Super Bowl champion and went to five Pro Bowls. He was named All-Pro four times, in addition to the Pro Bowls. Back in 2002, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, averaging 13.8 yards per reception. Casper was a mismatch with a 6-4 240 frame, and his time at Notre Dame also brought some staggering numbers.
11. Travis Kelce
Travis Kelce has played a few seasons in the NFL already but is already cracking the top 25 list. Kelce is up over 5,000 yards in his career and has 32 touchdowns and counting. His early seasons were always questioned because of the touchdown counts, but he is starting to improve more with red zone usage. Kelce is a modern-day receiving tight end and was a monster mismatch for defenses at 6’5 and 260. He is averaging 12.8 yards per reception, is a four-time Pro Bowler.
12. Greg Olsen
Greg Olsen is a former first-round pick and has had a long career with both Chicago and Carolina. He has blossomed into one of the better tight ends in the game. Olsen has over 7,500 receiving touchdowns and 57 touchdowns. Olsen is over the age of 30 and closing in on retirement, while he may not log a Hall of Fame career, he is in line to be one of the better tight ends of the last few decades. During a stretch in Carolina, Olsen had three seasons with over 1,000 yards.
13. Jackie Smith
Jackie Smith nearly cracked the 8,000 receiving yard mark and finished with 40 touchdowns for his Hall of Fame career. He was inducted in 1994 and went to five Pro Bowls. In 1967, Smith had a monster season with 1,205 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 21.5 yards per reception. Smith averaged 16.5 yards per reception in his career, and in his career had some incredibly long receptions on a seasonal basis. He had a long and successful career and was one of the best during the 60s and 70s.
14. Ben Coates
Ben Coates played over 150 games and played nine seasons with the Patriots. He won his Super Bowl in his last season with Baltimore but didn’t have much production. Coates went out on top in a pretty successful career. He went to five Pro Bowls was named All-Pro twice too. Coates finished with over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns with 499 receptions. He had a career year in 1994 where he posted a 96-1,174-7 line. This was the only time he went over 1,000 yards, but it was still a successful career.
15. Jimmy Graham
Jimmy Graham in his prime was one of the best tight ends. He had a huge season in 2013 where he locked down 16 receiving touchdowns and 1,200 yards. In New Orleans, Graham was a dominant year in and year out. The Achilles injury set him back, but he did find his groove again in Seattle, where he had 16 touchdowns in two seasons. Graham made five Pro Bowl appearances and was an All-Pro once. While we don’t see him in his prime anymore, Graham has over 70 receiving touchdowns in his career and will cross 7,500 receiving yards shortly.
16. Todd Christensen
Todd Christensen was a two-time Super Bowl champion and had over 5,500 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. It was rare to see 1,000-yard seasons for tight ends, and Christensen had three of them during the 80s. He also had two seasons where he caught over 90 receptions. Christensen had a rough start to his career bouncing around, and it wasn’t till his age 27 where he really broke out.
17. Dallas Clark
Dallas Clark spent most of his career with Peyton Manning, and you couldn’t ask for a better quarterback to play for. He was drafted in the first round back in 2003, and played with Indy for nine seasons before Baltimore and Tampa Bay. Clark had over 5,000 receiving yards in his career, posting 53 touchdowns. He had two double-digit touchdown seasons and had a career-high 100 receptions and 1,106 yards in 2009 which was his only Pro Bowl and All-Pro season.
18. Heath Miller
Long time Pittsburgh great, Heath Miller was a crowd favorite and a very good tight end when all was said and done. Miller finished with over 6,500 receiving yards and 45 touchdowns. He never had off the chart seasons but was a productive tight end who could be relied upon. Miller went to the Pro Bowl twice, and was also a two-time Super Bowl champion. He was drafted 30th overall back in 2005, and put together a very strong career.
19. Keith Jackson
Keith Jackson put together over 5,000 receiving yards and he had 49 receiving touchdowns as well. Jackson went to the Pro Bowl five times and was an All-Pro three times. He also won a Super Bowl as well, which adds to his strong track record. Jackson’s rookie season he had an 81-869-6 line and averaged 12.0 yards per reception for his career. He never followed his rookie season, but in his last year, he had ten receiving touchdowns and was more of a red zone threat at that time in his career.
20. Vernon Davis
Vernon Davis lived up to the hype as a sixth overall pick, which seems crazy to take a tight end these days. Davis was a special athlete, who had a very successful career. He had over 7,000 receiving yards and counting, and 62 touchdowns. He had two seasons where he posted 13 receiving touchdowns. Davis was a Super Bowl champion, and also has been to two Pro Bowls. Davis is still chugging along in the NFL and adding on to his career stats. He will finish among the top ten in production among tight ends.
21. Jay Novacek
Jay Novacek was a three-time Super Bowl champion and was a part of those Dallas years during the 90s. Novacek put together a strong career in the 11 years, putting up over 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. He also finished with over 400 receptions. Novacek also made the Pro Bowl five times and was an All-Pro once. His best season came in 1992 where he had 630 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
22. Jeremy Shockey
Jeremy Shockey was a 14th overall pick, and once again it seems crazy to take a tight end that high in the order. Shockey had a strong career and finished with over 6,000 yards and 37 touchdowns. He was a consistent option for the Giants long term and then moved onto New Orleans. Shockey won two Super Bowls and went to four Pro Bowls. He was also named an All-Pro once. Shockey was the face of the Giants receiving core for quite some time.
23. Todd Heap
Longtime Baltimore Raven, Todd Heap was an underrated tight end. He played for a lot of good Baltimore teams, and while they weren’t exactly a pass-happy bunch, he posted over 5,500 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns. Heap was a reliable safety blanket for a few quarterbacks and went to the Pro Bowl twice. He was a first-round pick out of Arizona state, going 31st overall back in 2001.
24. Riley Odoms
The Denver Broncos had a solid tight end during the 70s and early 80s. Riley Odoms played his entire career with Denver, racking up 41 touchdowns and over 5,500 yards. Odoms averaged 14.5 yards per reception, and also had over 200 rushing yards in his career. He went to four Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro twice. Odoms went fifth overall back in the 1972 draft but wasn’t a high volume tight end.
25. Charlie Sanders
Back in 2007, Charlie Sanders was inducted into the Hall of Fame and was a consistent tight end option who played several seasons in Detroit. He tallied over 4,500 yards and had 31 receiving touchdowns. Sanders doesn’t have the most prolific stats to gaze our eyes at but averaged 14.3 yards per reception in an era that wasn’t high on tight end production. He creeps into the end of a list of talented tight ends.