Top 25 Tight Ends of All-Time

By Jason Lisk
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With the news that Jason Witten is considering retirement, and Antonio Gates will not be returning to the Chargers (as well as Rob Gronkowski’s flirtation with the idea of retiring before saying he would return) I thought it would be a good time to re-visit ranking the best tight ends of all-time. The position basically came into common usage right after the AFL was formed in 1960, and the NFL expanded with teams in Dallas and Minnesota by 1961. The first award was given in the 1961 season (Mike Ditka was the first team all-pro at tight end that year).

It’s a position that has seen many changes over the years, from more in line blocking to usage all over the field. It can also be a brutal position playing in the middle of the field, and one where careers used to be significantly shortened (something I try to account for here). There’s always a question of peak versus longevity, I’m more of a peak guy, but longevity is good as long as it is higher end longevity. In compiling these rankings, I looked at a variety of things:

  • Yearly awards (Pro Bowl and more heavily, all-pro selections) and Decade Awards, as well as Hall of Fame voting;
  • Statistical ranks at the position on a yearly basis, weighted toward top finishes;
  • Fantasy points over baseline (yards + TDs) using TE12 as the compiler/baseline for determining peak value;
  • Stats and percentage of team offense in four best seasons.

Here is the list:

#1 Tony Gonzalez

Easily the top on the list. Yes, Tony Gonzalez played forever and has over 15,000 receiving yards. He also has the most all-pro selections and pro bowls at the position. If anyone questions whether he was just a compiler who lasted forever, point to 2008, at age 32, in his last year in Kansas City. He had over 1,000 yards and 10 TDs on a team where Tyler Thigpen made 11 of his 12 careers starts in the NFL. Most tight ends dream of those numbers with a really good QB. You won’t find any other top one who did that with a third stringer.

#2 Shannon Sharpe

Shannon Sharpe was the dominant tight end of the 1990’s, made four 1st team all-pros, and won three Super Bowls with Denver and Baltimore. His numbers may not look quite as dominant compared to the recent offensive passing explosion of the last decade, but he has both the longevity and dominance to be the next of this tightly grouped five some that follows Gonzalez.

#3 Mike Ditka

Iron Mike Ditka was the first great tight end, and was the best tight end in football through 1965. After that, injuries slowed him down, and you wonder if he would have held up better in today’s game. How dominant was he? On a Bears team that won one title during his peak, he accounted for 31% of the passing yards and 34% of the passing touchdowns, which puts him near the top in peak dominance. (For comparison, in Rob Gronkowski’s four best years, he is at 25% of yards and 34% of TDs.) The game has changed but he should be recognized as the best of the early tight end movement.

#4 Antonio Gates

Gates ahead of Winslow among Chargers’ tight ends? There’s actually a good case for it based not only on longevity, but also dominance. Gates played way longer, and was also named all-pro four times to Winslow’s three. The Chargers of the mid-2000’s didn’t throw the ball as frequently as the Air Coryell teams, and Gates accounted for a ridiculous 40% of Chargers’ receiving touchdowns between 2004 and 2007. For those that think the case for Witten over Gates is close, Gates has twice the all-pro selections and nearly double the number of touchdowns, while having similar receiving yard totals.

 

#5 Rob Gronkowski

“Gronk” could move higher on this list if his health holds up. He’s already near the top based on his impact on the Patriots’ offense when healthy. He’s been selected all-pro five times, which is already second only to Gonzalez. He’s already got 76 career touchdowns, which is more than several guys below on this list who played much longer.

#6 Kellen Winslow

Kellen Winslow was the dominant tight end of the early 80’s and injuries robbed him of a longer career. He was a central figure in the Air Coryell offenses and really revolutionized the position after the adoption of passing rules in 1978 that opened up the game after the dead-ball era of the 1970’s. He would have had over 1,000 yards receiving four straight season but for the strike-shortened 1982 season (He still had over 700 yards in 9 games that season).

 

#7 Dave Casper

Dave Casper’s raw numbers may not look as good today, but he, like several tight ends on this list, was impacted by the dead-ball era in the 1970’s when defenses dominated and passing yards were at their lowest since before modern expansion in 1960. He was the all-pro tight end four times in a row in the late 70’s, won a Super Bowl, and is famous for the “Ghost to the Post” play in the 1977 playoffs.

 

#8 Todd Christensen

Todd Christensen is the first tight end on my list who is not in the Hall of Fame. The reasons for that–he played a hybrid running back/receiving back role in college at BYU, and was initially reluctant to change positions. He also broke his foot in the preseason of his first year with Dallas, and had only 8 career catches before his 26th birthday. But from 1983 to 1986, he was the best tight end in football. He led in fantasy points at the position all four years (and this wasn’t a high-powered offense). He was first team all-pro twice and second team all-pro twice in that span.

Christensen hosted the American Gladiators after his career ended, and also worked in broadcasting. He died of complications from a liver transplant in 2013.

 

#9 John Mackey

John Mackey is near the top of many tight end lists. He is largely viewed as one of the best of all-time. This ranking is actually a reflection and compromise of that view, because based on peak, statistics, dominance, and longevity, he would be much lower. He wasn’t among the top 10 in statistical peak dominance, even adjusting for era, but he was a physical force for the Colts. He was among the best tight ends from 1965 to 1968 (along with guys like Pete Retzlaff, Jackie Smith, and Jerry Smith, who will appear below). He was named all-pro three times, which ties him for 7th most all-time with several other tight ends. In 1967, he was named all-pro over fellow Hall of Famer Jackie Smith with 683 yards and 3 TDs while Smith had 1,205 yards and 9 touchdowns.

#10 Jason Witten

Jason Witten is not higher than this because he doesn’t have the dominance of those above him, and his touchdown rate is way below other top tight ends. He does, however, have a lot of key counting stats that will sweep him into the Hall of Fame because he was pretty good for a while (and then has largely compiled in the last few years). He’s very much like Ozzie Newsome in this sense–he played in a peak era for tight ends and missed out on some awards behind some greats like Gonzalez and Gates. He has eight seasons where he posted numbers that were among the six best in the game, and if he retires, will finish with 1,152 career receptions.

 

#11 Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith was never selected as a first team all-pro, though as I pointed out when discussing John Mackey, there were a few seasons he had a case. During his peak years in the late 1960’s, playing for some mediocre to bad Cardinals teams, he accounted for 33% of the passing yards, putting him in the top 5 in peak dominance. He had 1,205 yards and 9 touchdowns in 1967 and was not first team-all-pro. The teams he played for averaged about 2,600 passing yards, and he was easily the best weapon. He also played forever, and is infamously remembered for dropping a pass for Dallas in the Super Bowl after Tom Landry talked him into coming out of retirement to serve as a backup tight end at age 38.

 

#12 Ben Coates

Ben Coates was able to temporarily unseat Shannon Sharpe and won two all-pro awards, and was the second-best tight end in football from 1994 to 1998. He also won a Super Bowl ring as a backup to Sharpe on the 2000 Ravens, after being a key figure in the Patriots reaching the Super Bowl in 1996.

#13 Ozzie Newsome

Ozzie Newsome was *only* selected to three pro bowls and one all-pro, but was in a stacked AFC where he was behind Kellen Winslow and then Todd Christensen. He was a major part of the passing offense on Browns teams that weren’t among the most explosive. He had two 1,000 yard seasons, and would have had another in 1982 but for the strike. He has gone on to be one of the best executives in football and is retiring after this season.

 

#14 Pete Retzlaff

Here’s a name that few current fans know, but he was one of the great early tight ends late in his career, after playing as a receiving back in the 1950’s. From ages 32 to 34, he averaged nearly 1,000 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns, and was selected as the first team all-pro in 1965 at age 34 over John Mackey, when he had over 1,000 yards and double digit touchdowns playing with the Eagles.

 

#15 Keith Jackson

Keith Jackson was the 13th overall pick in 1988 for the Eagles, and was selected first team all-pro three times in a row. His career high of 869 yards was in his rookie season (which is why he isn’t higher on this list) but he managed a late career revival playing with Brett Favre and Dan Marino. He scored 10 touchdowns on the 1996 Green Bay Packers Super Bowl champs.

 

#16 Charlie Sanders

Charlie Sanders is a unique case, and the last remaining current Hall of Famer on the list. He was selected to seven pro bowls (which puts him tied for 5th all-time) and was all-pro from 1969 to 1971. He also never had more than 42 catches, and only had more than 600 receiving yards once (that was in 1969 when he had 656 yards and 3 touchdowns). So statistically, he’s way behind others as a receiver, and was obviously highly thought of as a blocker. He also played on poor passing teams, and he did account for 26% of the passing production, which puts him in line with guys like Travis Kelce and Ben Coates, who came up in different eras.

He was inducted as a senior Hall of Fame selection in 2007, thirty years after retirement.

#17 Jerry Smith

Jerry Smith was a big part of the Washington passing game in the late 1960’s, and caught 43 of his 60 career touchdowns from Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen. He played 13 seasons, all in Washington, and was an all-pro in 1969. He retired as the career leader in touchdowns scored among tight ends. Smith died of AIDS at age 43 in 1986.

 

#18 Jimmy Graham

Jimmy Graham has two different years with over 1,200 yards and 10+ touchdowns, and has scored 69 career touchdowns. If he can make another pro bowl and continue to put up some good seasons in Green Bay he can climb this list.

 

#19 Riley Odoms

Odoms was the 5th overall pick of the Denver Broncos in the 1972 draft. He made a pro bowl each year from 1973 to 1975, and was the first team all pro in 1974 and 1975. His numbers were affected by playing in the 70’s, and he posted his career high in yards in his final pro bowl year in 1978, with 829.

 

#20 Mark Bavaro

Mark Bavaro is frequently mentioned among the game’s best, and he’s a case of what-if. He had a 1,000 yards in 1986 on the Super Bowl winning Giants team, and was on pace for better the next year (a lockout meant only 12 games). But injuries sapped him by the time he was 26 and he finished with only two pro bowl and all pro seasons.

 

#21 Bob Trumpy

Trumpy was an early version of Gronkowski in terms of a 6’6″ guy who could get downfield and make catches. He was a pro bowler in each of his first three seasons in Cincinnati, and was all-pro in 1969 when he scored 9 touchdowns and had 835 yards in 14 games.

 

#22 Travis Kelce

Yes, Travis Kelce is already on this list, and is the best tight end not named Gronk now. He’s averaged over 1,000 yards per season and should continue to add to his three pro bowl appearances in four years as a starter.

#23 Rich Caster

Caster was a hybrid WR/TE who stood 6’5″ and could get downfield. He averaged 17.1 yards per reception for his career and accounted for 31% of the Jets passing game from 1972 to 1975 playing with Joe Namath.

#24 Wesley Walls

Walls started his career as a little-used backup in San Francisco, but really found his footing when he joined the Carolina Panthers. He had two double-digit touchdown seasons and made four straight pro bowls from 1996 to 1999.

#25 Jay Novacek

Jay Novacek, like Todd Christensen, was little used early in his career. After a couple of productive seasons in Phoenix after the franchise moved from St. Louis, he signed with Dallas in 1990. He made five straight pro bowls and was selected first team all-pro in 1992, and was a key part of the Dallas offense during the run of three Super Bowl wins.

 

Honorable Mention: Raymond Chester, Brent Jones, Charle Young, Fred Arbanas, Steve Jordan, Alge Crumpler, Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen, Jimmie Giles, Paul Coffman

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