The tight end position in the NFL has seen a spike in powerfully built, big, athletic bodies that are becoming more and more difficult to defend.
The ability NFL teams have to transform a basketball power forward like Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates into a tight end creates mismatches that most secondary personnel and linebackers have trouble stopping.
In the 2011 NFL season, there were a total of five tight ends that led their respective teams in receiving yards. They were: Jason Witten (Dallas), Owen Daniels (Houston), Marcedes Lewis (Jax), Jimmy Graham (New Orleans) and Dustin Keller (New York Jets). A sixth tight end, Fred Davis (Washington), was leading his team in receiving yards until he was suspended for the final four games of the 2011 season.
In today's article we are seeking the 10 greatest tight ends in the history of the NFL. We are looking for players that have made an impact on the NFL for a long time, so even though there is no denying the strong impact that Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are making on the game, neither one has withstood the test of time yet to be considered for the best in history.
We are looking for tight ends that are in the Hall of Fame or have been voted the best tight end for a specific decade in NFL history. Since there are more than 10 candidates worthy of consideration, we have also come up with an honorable mention list to acknowledge those that had a strong career, but ultimately fell short of our top-10 list.
The NFL All-Decade teams didn't start to include a tight end until the 1960s All-Decade team. That 1960s group included just one tight end, while every decade team after that included a first-team tight end, in addition to a second-team tight end.
Here is a rundown of the best tight ends from the NFL All-Decade Teams from the 1960s to today.
NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s: Dave Casper (First-Team) and Charlie Sanders (Second-Team)
NFL All-Decade Team of the 1980s: Kellen Winslow Sr. (First-Team) and Ozzie Newsome (Second Team)
NFL All-Decade Team of the 1990s: Shannon Sharpe (First-Team) and Ben Coates (Second-Team)
NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s: Tony Gonzalez (First Team) and Antonio Gates (Second Team)
According to the NFL Hall of Fame web site, there is a total of eight tight ends that have been voted in so far from the modern era of the NFL. They are: Dave Casper, Mike Ditka , John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, Charlie Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, Jackie Smith and Kellen Winslow Sr.
There are three other tight ends that I gave consideration to, before I ultimately decided on my final top-10 list. The three that deserve honorable mention are: Ben Coates (New England), Todd Christensen (Oakland) and Jason Witten (Dallas).
As far as the current wave of tight ends, the two that impress me the most are Rob Gronkowski (New England) and Jimmy Graham (New Orleans). If either one are able to continue sustaining their current production level for another 10 years or so, they would elevate their chances of cracking the top-10 list.
The way that they are playing now, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Gronkowski and Graham wind up being the first-two team tight ends for the decade of the 2010s. The duo finished up 2011 in the Top Seven of all NFL receivers for yardage gained.
Gronkowski had 1,327 yards, while Graham had 1,310 yards. They are leading the new breed of tight ends in the NFL, which in turn is making the tight end position that teams are focusing on around the league.
Charlie Sanders was the second-team member of the NFL All-Time Decade Team of the 1970s. Sanders was elected into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2007.
Although some people might have a hard time with me placing Sanders here at No. 10 and omitting Jason Witten, Ben Coates, and Todd Christensen from the top-10 list, none of them are in the Hall of Fame, and that is part of my rationale for keeping Sanders in the elite group.
Sanders played for the Detroit Lions from 1968-1977, and he was their third-round draft pick in the 1968 draft. He went with the No. 74 overall draft pick that year. Sanders is 6'4" and weighs 230 pounds.
Sanders was voted to seven Pro Bowl teams. That is the most Pro Bowl berths of any of the eight modern day tight ends in the Hall of Fame. He was voted All-Pro for three-straight years from 1969-1971.
According to the NFL Hall of Fame, which serves as our source for information and statistics for this presentation, Sanders' attributes were his leaping ability, big hands, speed and elusiveness.
Sanders retired in 1977 with 336 receptions in his career, which was a team record at the time for the Lions. He gained 4,817 yards in receptions, averaging 14.3 yards per catch.
Another unique accomplishment for Sanders was that when he was a rookie in 1968, he became the only rookie to make the Pro Bowl team that season. Sanders played in 128 games and scored 31 touchdowns.
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has been very thankful that tight end Antonio Gates decided to give up the game of basketball and chose to play football instead.
Gates has played for the Chargers for the past nine years (2003-present). Gates was voted to the NFL's All-Time Decade Team of the 2000s. Tony Gonzalez was voted on as the first-team tight end, while Gates was voted on as the second-team tight end. Safe to say that Gates warmed up to playing football pretty fast.
In 2004, Gates put the NFL on notice that he would be a force to be reckoned with when he caught 81 passes for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns. From that point on, Gates would have at least 60 catches and eight touchdowns every season.
Over his career, Gates has made 593 receptions for 7,783 yards and 76 touchdowns. He has been named to eight-straight Pro Bowl teams and been named to five All-Pro teams.
Gates is 6'4" and weighs 260 pounds. He is the only player on our list that was not drafted out of college, which made sense since he didn't play football in college.
Jackie Smith played tight end for the St. Louis Cardinals (1963-1977) and Dallas Cowboys (1978). The Cardinals drafted Smith in Round 10 of the 1963 draft. He was the No. 129 overall pick that year. Smith was 6'4" and weighed 235 pounds.
For NFL fans that were regular NFL fans, they will recall Smith as an excellent receiving tight end. For fans that weren't around then, to this day Smith is best remembered for a dropped pass in the end zone from Roger Staubach for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII.
The ironic part was that at that stage of his career, the Cowboys preferred to use Smith as a blocking tight end. He never caught a pass the entire season, which helps to explain why he might have been a little bit rusty in the Super Bowl.
Smith was known as a complete tight end due to his excellent blocking skills. He played in five Pro Bowl games and was All-Pro twice. Smith came up with at least 40 catches in seven seasons. He played in 210 games over his career, and when he retired in 1978, he was the NFL's all-time leading tight-end receiver with 480 catches for 7,918 yards and 40 touchdowns.
Ozzie Newsome was a tight end for the Cleveland Browns from 1978-1990. Newsome was voted on as the second-team tight end for the NFL All-Time Decade Team for the 1980s.
Ozzie wasn't the biggest tight end to play in the NFL. He stood 6'2" and weighed 232 pounds, which seems quite small by today's standards. He had played wide receiver at college in Alabama, but the Browns converted him to tight end.
Newsome was a first-round draft pick for the Browns in 1978. When he finally retired in 1990, he was the all-time leading NFL tight with 662 catches for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns. Not only was Newsome the leading NFL tight end of all time, but he was also No. 4 for all-time NFL receivers when he retired as well. That is how good he was.
Consistency and durability were Newsome trademarks, as he caught a pass in 150 consecutive games and played for the Browns in parts of three different decades. Newsome was named to three Pro Bowl teams and was All-Pro twice.
As a rookie, Newsome was named as the Browns Offensive Player of the Year in 1978. He played in 198 consecutive games.
Dave Casper played for the Oakland Raiders from 1974-1980 and for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1984. He also played for the Houston Oilers from 1980-1983 and on the Minnesota Vikings in 1983.
Casper was a second-round draft pick of Oakland in the 1974 draft. He was the No. 45 overall pick in that draft. Casper was 6'4" and weighed 240 pounds. He played both tight end and tackle at Notre Dame.
Casper didn't become a starter until his third year with Oakland, but when he was given a chance to play, he made the most of it with 53 receptions and 10 touchdowns. The first two years, he was only playing on special teams.
After that breakout season, Casper was named to the All-Pro team four-straight years from 1976-1979. Casper was a complete tight end in that he excelled at both blocking and catching the ball. Casper was the first-team tight end for the NFL All-Time Decade Team of the 1970s.
In his career, Casper had 378 receptions for 5,216 yards and 52 touchdowns. He was named to five Pro Bowl teams and was enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame in 2002.
Kellen Winslow makes the No. 5 slot on our all-time tight ends list.
Winslow played for the San Diego Chargers from 1979-1987. He was a first-round draft pick for the Chargers in 1979 because he was a unique tight end that had the ability to stretch the field due to his speed. Winslow was 6'5" and weighed 250 pounds.
There was a stretch of years that Winslow was unstoppable, as he caught at least 88 passes in 1980, 1981 and 1983. You can imagine that defensive coordinators must have stayed up late trying to figure out how to defend him.
Winslow played a key role in the epic 1981 AFC playoff game between the Chargers and the Miami Dolphins that went into overtime.
Playing in humid Miami, Winslow had to be helped off of the field at the end of the game due to exhaustion (see picture). In the game, Winslow caught 13 passes for 166 yards and blocked a key field-goal attempt at the end of regulation.
He was selected as the first-team tight end for the NFL All-Time Decade Team of the 1980s and along with Mike Ditka, are the only tight ends selected to be members of the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Winslow was voted to five Pro Bowl teams and to four All-Pro teams.
His career totals are 541 receptions for 6,741 yards and 45 touchdowns. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1995.
Shannon Sharpe played for the Denver Broncos from 1990-1999 and then played for the Broncos again from 2002-2003. He also played for the Baltimore Ravens from 2000-2001.
Sharpe was a seventh-round draft pick for the Broncos in 1990. He was selected with the No. 192 overall pick. Sharpe is another of the smaller tight ends on our list, as he was 6'2" and weighed 230 pounds.
When Sharpe finally retired after the 2003 season, he was the all-time leading tight end in NFL history in these categories: receptions (815), receiving yards (10,060) and touchdowns (62).
He was on three Super Bowl championship teams in Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII with Denver and in Super Bowl XXXV with the Baltimore Ravens.
Sharpe was elected as the first-team tight end for the NFL All-Time Decade Team of the 1990s. He was named to eight Pro Bowl teams and was All-Pro four times. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in the 2011 class.
Tony Gonzalez just continues to tick along like Father Time. He shows no signs of slowing down, but we all know that the end is getting closer and closer.
A college basketball player at the University of California, Gonzalez uses his box-out skills as a rebounding power forward to seal off defensive backs and shield them from the pass. The skills he learned in basketball have served him well in the NFL.
Gonzalez is 6'5" and weighs 243 pounds. He played for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1997-2008, and he has been playing with the Atlanta Falcons from 2009-current. Gonzalez was selected by the Chiefs in the first round of the 1997 draft and was the No. 13 overall pick that year.
He currently ranks as the No. 1 all-time leading tight end in NFL history with 1,149 receptions. He has gained 13,338 yards and has scored 95 touchdowns.
Gonzalez was elected as the first-team tight end for the NFL All-Time Decade Team of the 2000s. He has been named to 12 Pro Bowl teams and to nine All-Pro games. Amazingly, Gonzalez is still in search of his first NFL playoff win. Maybe he can still make that dream come true before he retires.
Mike Ditka, the legendary tight end and coach for the Chicago Bears, checks in at No. 2 on our list.
He is 6'3" and weighed 228 pounds. Ditka was the first-round draft pick of the Bears in 1961 and was the fifth-overall pick of that draft. Ditka played for the Bears from 1961-1966, and then he played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1967-1968.
His final stop was with the Dallas Cowboys from 1969-1972. Those Cowboys years playing under Tom Landry had a big influence on him later on when he became a head coach in the NFL.
Ditka was one of the two tight ends voted on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team (along with Kellen Winslow).
Interestingly enough, even though he was voted on the 75th Anniversary team, Ditka never was voted on to any of the All-Decade NFL teams. Ditka also has the distinction of being the first tight end ever inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, which was in 1988.
"Iron Mike" was well known for being a fiery competitor who was tough, a good blocker and was able to break multiple tackles after the catch. Was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1961. He was voted to five Pro Bowl teams and was named All-NFL four times.
During his career, Ditka amassed 427 receptions for 5,812 yards and 43 touchdowns. Ditka was part of three Super Bowl winning teams. They were Super Bowls VI, XII and XX, and he served in a different capacity each time, changing from player, to assistant coach to head coach respectively.
Our top tight end in the history of the NFL goes to John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts.
In 1963, Mackey had the distinction of being drafted by both the NFL and the AFL. At the NFL draft, the Baltimore Colts drafted him in the second round with the No. 19 overall pick, while in the AFL draft, Mackey was selected in the fifth round by the New York Jets with the No. 35 overall pick.
Mackey signed with Baltimore and played for the Colts from 1963-1971. He also played in 1972 for the San Diego Chargers before he retired.
If you check out Mackey's brief bio at the NFL Hall of Fame, you will note that they credit him with being the prototype of the modern NFL tight end. Mackey combined the strength to be a solid blocker, but the speed needed to run away from the secondary and the power to break many tackles.
If you ever watch tape of him, he is constantly breaking one tackle after another following his catches. Mackey wasn't huge, as he went 6'2" and 224 pounds, but he was definitely strong. In 1966, Mackey had six touchdown catches that went for more than 50 yards, which showcased his breakaway speed.
The NFL All-Decade teams didn't include listing any tight ends until the 1960s was unveiled. The very first tight end that the NFL voted on to an all-time team was John Mackey, and he was the only tight end that made the NFL All-Time Decade Team of the 1960s.
He was named to five Pro Bowl teams and missed just one NFL game in his 10-year career. During his career, Mackey caught 331 passes for 5,236 yards and scored 38 touchdowns. He was a member of the Colts team that defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V.
Thanks very much for checking out our presentation.