13 Greatest Tight Ends of All Time, Including Tony Gonzalez, Travis Kelce, and Antonio Gates

The greatest tight ends of all-time list contains some of the biggest names in the NFL from past to present, but which Chiefs player tops the list?

There are many players across the history of the NFL who can stake a claim as being the greatest tight end of all time. The position has changed and evolved over the decades but some players have perfected the position better than others.

With the modern tight end becoming more involved in the passing game than ever before, the best are asked to stay in pass protection, create rushing lanes, and run routes from a variety of alignments.

Greatest Tight Ends of All Time | 13-6

These tight ends may not hit the higher rankings of the top tight ends in NFL history, but they had amazing NFL careers and deserve to be honored as some of the best to have played.

13) Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith had an underrated career and is rarely spoken about in the light of one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history.

Playing 13 seasons in the NFL between 1963 and 1978, Smith spent all but the final year with the St. Louis Cardinals, playing in 210 games in his career.

His 480 receptions and 7,918 receiving yards rank him among the top players at his position, and his 1,205-yard season in 1967 should be treated as one of the greatest years by a tight end ever.

12) Charlie Sanders

Charlie Sanders completed 10 seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions between 1968 and 1977, and he is highly regarded as a trailblazer for his position.

He was one of the first real athletes to play the TE position, having a basketball background. His athleticism, elusiveness, and strength put him ahead of his time as a tight end, and if he was placed into the modern NFL, there is little doubt that Sanders would pack the stat sheet.

Voted as a First-Team All-Pro for three consecutive years and reaching seven Pro Bowls, Sanders made the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

11) Ozzie Newsome

Ozzie Newsome proved to be one of the best executives in league history during his time with the Baltimore Ravens. However, he was also a dominant force on the field with the Cleveland Browns.

Playing between 1978 and 1990, Newson was twice named a First-Team All-Pro, received three Pro Bowl nods, and was named to the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team alongside Kellen Winslow Sr. (who appears later on this list).

Newsome played 198 games across his 13-year career, catching 662 passes for 7,980 yards. He twice went over 1,000 yards and had 89 catches in a single season in his illustrious career, and the Browns great was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999.

10) Dave Casper

What Dave Casper offered doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. A willing blocker, he was more of a traditional tight end, but his massive 250-pound size made him a mismatch in the passing game.

MORE: Top 10 Greatest NFL Teams of All Time

Casper’s strength and athleticism, along with his long arms and massive hands, made him an incredible player, and he was rewarded with induction into the Hall of Fame in 2002.

Voted a First-Team All-Pro four consecutive years between 1976 and 1979 and five straight Pro Bowls between 1976 and 1980, Casper is a Super Bowl champion and a top-10 tight end of all time.

9) John Mackey

A pure tackle-breaker, John Mackey embodies everything a tight end should be. While he was never the most refined as a receiver, he had the mentality to fight through everything, and it was recognized by the NCAA, which named the award for the best tight end in the nation after him.

A Super Bowl champion and a Ring of Honor member with the Baltimore Colts, Mackey was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992 as only the second tight end to be enshrined. However, his impact goes beyond the field.

Mackey epitomized an era of football and became the first president of the NFLPA, where he remained for the NFL’s first strike.

8) Mike Ditka

The list of accolades is long for Mike Ditka, who is unquestionably one of the greatest tight ends to have played the game.

A Super Bowl champion, an NFL Champion (pre-Super Bowl era), two-time First-Team All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, and with a retired jersey, Ditka’s mark on the NFL as a player runs deep.

His first pro season in 1961 also saw him win Offensive Rookie of the Year, and his 12 rookie touchdowns are still the NFL record among tight ends.

Starting out with the Chicago Bears, Ditka predates the Super Bowl era, but his six seasons in the Windy City mean he is regarded as one of the franchise’s all-time greats, and his No. 89 jersey is retired by the team.

Ditka would also go on to have a stellar coaching career and was the first tight end ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

7) Jason Witten

Was there anything Jason Witten couldn’t do? A well-rounded traditional tight end, Witten was a superb blocker but was also extremely impactful as a receiver.

Witten holds the record for the most games played by a tight end (271) while also recording the second-most catches and yards by a tight end in NFL history. He proved to be a security blanket over his 17-year career, 16 of which were with the Dallas Cowboys.

Simply a chain-mover and producer in the Cowboys offense, Witten caught 71% of his targets, with 54% of those going for a first down. Retiring in 2020, the Cowboys great is destined for the Hall of Fame.

6) Kellen Winslow Sr.

Kellen Winslow Sr. played his whole career with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers and is one of the best pass-catching tight ends the game has ever seen. Playing in an offense that was the first to utilize pass-catching tight ends under Don Coryell and Joe Gibbs, Winslow was a pioneer as a receiving tight end.

For his career, Winslow averaged 61.8 yards per game, 12.5 yards per reception, and recorded three years with 80+ catches, 1,000+ yards, and 8+ TDs. Those are elite TE numbers in today’s football, let alone in the 1980s!

Greatest Tight Ends of All Time | 5-1

The tight ends we have already discussed are elite, but the next group is the best of the best.

5) Shannon Sharpe

Shannon Sharpe is one of the most uniquely gifted players at the TE position. With over 10,000 yards in his 14-year career, he defined the H-back or “move tight end” position in the NFL.

A three-time Super Bowl champion, four-time All-Pro, and eight-time Pro Bowler, Sharpe is one of the best tight ends to have graced the NFL. An NFL 1990s All-Decade Team member, the TE most famously played for the Denver Broncos between 1990 and 1999 and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2011.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Sharpe continues to leave his mark on the game as a media member.

4) Antonio Gates

Antonio Gates was one of the best tight ends in the NFL for 16 seasons, spending his entire career with the Chargers organization. Originally a basketball player at Kent State, Gates went undrafted to the NFL, but that athleticism never left his game.

MORE: Top 10 TE Fantasy Football Seasons of All Time

One of the best pure pass catchers at the position, Gates displayed special athleticism and elusiveness throughout his career, with impressive route running and after-the-catch ability.

It translated into Gates holding the record for the most touchdowns (116) and the third-most receptions (955) by a tight end in NFL history. Retiring at the age of 38 in 2018, Gates is one of the all-time NFL greats – regardless of position.

3) Travis Kelce

There isn’t a tight end in the modern NFL who has a greater impact than Travis Kelce. His seven straight seasons of over 1,000 receiving yards are the NFL record for a tight end, and his relationship with Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes has become one of the most productive.

The Chiefs are building a dynasty, meaning Kelce can go on and break even more records as the only active player on this list.

It is easy to envision. Kelce continues to serve as one of the best weapons in football and is already fourth among TEs for the most receiving yards and receptions in NFL history. A certified future Hall of Famer, Kelce can go on and top this list if he manages to continue playing at such a high level.

2) Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski made being a tight end desirable. He was one of the most recognizable faces in the NFL through the 2010s, and while he was productive, he had fun doing it.

A four-time Super Bowl champion, four-time All-Pro, and five-time Pro Bowler, Gronkowski achieved everything he did in the game in 11 seasons. And, in his first six years, he scored 10+ TDs in all but one season. If it wasn’t for some injury-impacted seasons, you wouldn’t bet against him being higher up on the all-time stat sheet.

Gronkowski is one of the greatest red-zone weapons the NFL has ever seen, and his relationship with Tom Brady goes down as one of the best in NFL history.

1) Tony Gonzalez

Tony Gonzalez was unstoppable in the NFL, recording six All-Pro nods and 14 Pro Bowl selections across his 17 seasons with the Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons. He is a true icon of the sport and a true generational player.

The stats don’t lie when it comes to Gonzalez, who had 1,325 receptions, 15,127 yards, and 111 touchdowns. His receptions and yards are the most among tight ends, and they rank in the top 10 among all positions.

MORE: Highest-Paid NFL Players in the History of the League

Meanwhile, his receiving touchdowns are second only to Gates among tight ends and eighth across every position.

Boasting a greater physical and athletic presence than any other tight end before and after him, Gonzalez is the greatest tight end in NFL history.

As the 2023 NFL season comes to a close, the 2024 NFL Draft is on the horizon. Pro Football Network has you covered with everything from team draft needs to the Top 100 prospects available. Plus, fire up PFN’s Mock Draft Simulator to put yourself in the general manager’s seat and make all the calls!

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast!

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Fantasy Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.  Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review!

Join the Conversation!

Related Articles