Let’s take a stroll through history and identify the greatest tight ends of all time. The tight end position is historically one of the most difficult positions on the offensive side of the ball. The best are asked to stay in pass protection, create rushing lanes, and run routes from inline, in the slot, and even out wide. As with every other “greatest ever” conversation we’ve had at Pro Football Network, what a player did in the Super Bowl era matters most.
Greatest Tight Ends of All Time | 13-6
These tight ends may not have résumés that stack up with the top five, but they deserve their spots on this list. Additionally, Jimmy Graham and Todd Christensen earned consideration for the top 13.
13) Jackie Smith
Amazingly, Jackie Smith isn’t more widely recognized for his contribution to the league. When Smith retired, he was the all-time leading receiver for the position. He helped change tight end, making it an all-around offensive weapon instead of a primary blocker that occasionally caught passes.
Smith might deserve a higher standing in the discussion for the greatest tight ends of all time. In the same era as other greats like Mike Ditka, Charlie Sanders, and John Mackey, Smith had himself the best season and most prolific stretch of any tight end. In 1967, he averaged over 21 yards per catch and had more than 1,200 yards but lost out on an All-Pro bid to Mackey, who had 686 yards that year.
Considering Smith was a competent blocker himself, not receiving at least one All-Pro in his Hall of Fame career seems odd.
12) Mike Ditka
This was easily our most intense discussion as a team. Our Super Bowl era parameters practically eliminate Ditka from contention. His best season in the modern era saw him average 32.4 yards per game — he did nearly all of his damage during the four years leading up to the Super Bowl era. Therefore, the first tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame lands at No. 12.
However, Ditka’s 12 touchdowns as a rookie still stand as the highest total ever for a rookie tight end. Rob Gronkowski is the only other player at the position to reach double digits (10).
11) Ozzie Newsome
Ozzie Newsome is one of the most well-rounded football personalities ever. The Hall of Fame tight end deserves the same accolades for his time as the Baltimore Ravens general manager. As a tight end, he made the 1980s All-Decade Team alongside Kellen Winslow Sr.
Newsome produced two 1,000-yard seasons in his career and twice caught 89 passes. He was one of the first at the position to stretch the field as a vertical target. The NFL ranked Newsome No. 73 in the Top 100 Greatest Players.
10) Charlie Sanders
Sanders was a bit of a trailblazer, and his abilities make him one of the greatest tight ends of all time. He was a three-time All-Pro and was also voted to the 1970s All-Decade Team. He was one of the first athletes at the position to play basketball in college. That translation still holds today, with some of the greatest ever playing both sports.
Sanders was athletic, elusive, and powerful. Although he was long and lean, he also served well as a blocker. He never had an outrageous statistical season in his career relative to others, but his impact on the game went beyond the stat sheet.
9) Travis Kelce
Travis Kelce’s impact goes beyond the stat sheet as well, but his is filled to the brim. Kelce (pronounced “Kels,” as many learned this offseason) is one of the best weapons in all of football, regardless of position. He’s been a model of consistency for the past seven seasons, netting 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last five. His year-to-year efficiency remains about even, which is a testament to his talent and situation.
Kelce is the modern-day tight end. It may surprise some, but he takes the majority of snaps from inline. But what makes Kelce special is his ability to flex out wide in a traditional X-receiver alignment. He’s a physical mismatch for every defender he faces.
8) Dave Casper
Dave Casper is in the mold of a more traditional tight end. At 250 pounds, he was one of the bigger playmakers in the game. He had long arms, massive hands, and an uncanny ability to not care about contact coming to the catch point. His stature and athleticism allowed him to punish tacklers and be a plus blocker.
His four-year stretch from 1976-1979 was incredible. He dominated the position, being voted onto four straight All-Pros. His overall game was highlighted by the pride he took as a blocker.
7) Jason Witten
Speaking of traditional tight ends — Jason Witten, everybody! Witten has the second-most catches of any tight end in history and is one of only two to catch more than 1,000 career passes. The two-time All-Pro and 11-time Pro Bowler caught over 71% of his targets.
He proved every week how valuable a weapon he was in terms of moving the chains. Over 54% of his receptions went for first downs. Witten, like Casper, was also known for his superb blocking ability. He was the Cowboys’ security blanket for a good portion of his 17-year career.
6) John Mackey
Mackey was an annihilator over the middle of the field. His powerful, athletic frame did everything from bounce off to bowl over defenders. He wasn’t known for his hands, but he got the job done as a body catcher. Mackey possessed a compact and robust frame that gave him outstanding contact balance.
The videos of him stringing together broken tackles are plentiful. It helps cement his spot on the list of greatest NFL tight ends. College football named their award for the best tight end in the nation after Mackey. He also was the head of the player’s association during the time of the NFL’s first strike.
Greatest Tight Ends of All Time | 5-1
Without further ado, here are the top five tight ends in NFL history!
5) Kellen Winslow Sr.
Don Coryell and Joe Gibbs were the first to create an offense that utilized pass-catching tight ends to the best of their ability. And no one embodied the role better prior to Kellen Winslow Sr. The Chargers deployed Winslow off the line of scrimmage and into space to allow his talent to take over.
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 tight end numbers in today’s football, let alone in the 1980s! There is a reason Winslow is considered one of the greatest tight ends of all time.
4) Shannon Sharpe
In his 14-year career, Shannon Sharpe failed to top 600 yards in only three — his first two seasons in the league and an injury-shortened 1999 campaign. He defined the H-back or “move tight end” position in the NFL. Sharpe was a four-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler. Further adding to his accolades, he was named to the 1990’s All-Decade Team.
At 6’2″, 228 pounds, Sharpe was a uniquely gifted player that caused fits for every defense he faced. A physical specimen, Sharpe had no trouble moving the chains. While he is one of the greatest tight ends of all time, he also left a mark on the game as one of the best trash talkers ever.
3) Antonio Gates
Antonio Gates began his career as a star basketball player at Kent State. He parlayed that into an undrafted ticket to the NFL and an eventual Hall of Fame bust. He personifies the basketball-player-turned-tight-end trope that still runs rampant in the league.
Gates’ athleticism and elusiveness on the basketball court translated to impressive route running and after-the-catch ability on the gridiron. He spent all 16 of his NFL years on the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers from 2003-2018. His 955 catches are third-most all-time for tight ends as he played to nearly 40 years old. While he doesn’t top the reception list, Gates’ 116 touchdowns rank No. 1 for the position.
2) Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski only entered the league in 2010, but his dominance on the field makes his tenure feel much longer. In his first six years, he scored 10+ TDs in all but one season (2013 – 4). Furthermore, his 14 postseason touchdowns are the most ever at the position. At 6’6″ and 265 pounds, Gronkowski is one of the best red-zone weapons the NFL has ever seen.
Sure, having the G.O.A.T. Tom Brady as your QB for the entirety of your career makes life easier. But there is a reason Brady consistently looks Gronk’s way. His massive wingspan and impressive frame make him a downfield threat and a trustworthy target. Moreover, his size and intense mentality allow him to be an exceptional run blocker.
1) Tony Gonzalez
Let’s take a quick glance at Tony Gonzalez’s career stat line: 1,325 receptions, 15,127 yards, and 111 touchdowns. His receptions (third) and yards (sixth) are not only the most among tight ends, but they are both top-10 among all positions. His touchdowns are the eight-most all-time and second only to Gates among TEs. Need I say more? I don’t, but I will.
Gonzalez’s physical ability is greater than any other tight end before and after him. His skill set was unstoppable, leading to 14 Pro Bowls, 6 All-Pros (most ever at the position), and a seat on the 2000s All-Decade Team. No one personified the tight end position better than the Anthony David Gonzalez.