No tight end in history can match the numbers put up by Tony Gonzalez.
Welcome to the fourth of a 12-part series where we look at the better NFL players at their respective positions and whom they may compare to from the past.
We have gone through quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. Now the focus is on a position that has seemingly never been more important in terms of the passing game: the tight end.
In no particular order, here are nine current standout players at the position and who they remind us of in regards to the game’s glorious past. We even included a pair of 2013 Pro Bowlers that burst onto the scene this past season.
The criteria are multi-faceted, and one legend doesn’t fit all. We are talking style as much as anything because, after all, the eye test is still the best pop quiz ever. Other factors, however, will be taken into account when making comparisons.
More importantly, it's an exercise in having fun and bringing back great memories.
Similar to Russ Francis
It was tempting to put Tony Gonzalez in this spot due to their backgrounds in basketball, but we’re talking throwback here, not throw-to-here.
Okay, no more puns.
At times, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham appears unstoppable. His ability to get downfield appears almost superhuman for a player of his size (6’7”, 265 pounds).
In 2013, he led the National Football League with 16 touchdown receptions. Graham totaled 86 receptions for 1,215 yards, an average of 14.1 yards per catch. That’s from the tight end position. It’s simply amazing.
Back in the day, New England Patriots tight end Russ Francis was a tremendous athlete. He was named to three Pro Bowls in his days with the Pats. He later went onto Super Bowl glory with the San Francisco 49ers, and in 14 seasons in the NFL, he totaled 393 receptions.
Back to Graham and Gonzalez for a second. Wouldn’t you love to see a game of “H-O-R-S-E” between them?
Similar to Kellen Winslow Sr.
Simply put, the numbers are mind-boggling and the consistency is remarkable.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez totaled a combined 17 seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. Only Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice has caught more passes in NFL history than the amazing tight end.
Gonzalez’s final career totals (we think) read 1,325 receptions for 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns. He ranks fifth in league history in receiving yards and sixth in touchdown catches. He was also named to 13 Pro Bowls, one shy of the record (14) held by Bruce Matthews and Merlin Olsen.
How consistent was Gonzalez, who spent the first 12 years of his career with the Chiefs before being traded to the Falcons in 2009? He totaled at least 70 catches in each of his final 15 seasons and fumbled just once in his final 14 campaigns.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow's career playing days and statistics might not parallel Gonzalez’s, but his impact certainly did. The former first-round pick was a big-time downfield threat and a perfect fit for head coach Don Coryell’s emerging offense with the San Diego Chargers.
Similar to Mark Bavaro
In the game of football, the ability to gain yards after the catch by dragging the opposition down the field is a nice commodity. It makes your quarterback happy and has a tendency to demoralize the other team.
When healthy, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has shown that he is awfully hard to stop. This past season, unfortunately, he’s found that tackling injuries have been quite a problem.
Still, the statistics are impressive.
In three-plus years and a total of 50 regular-season games, Gronkowski has totaled 226 receptions for 3,255 yards and an astounding 42 touchdowns. We can all only hope that the sure-handed target recovers completely from a knee injury.
Of course, when you think of dragging defenders down the field, you instantly flash back to tight end Mark Bavaro. The former Golden Domer was an important part of two Super Bowl championships for the New York Giants (XXI, XXV), and his catch and assault on the San Francisco 49ers defense on a Monday night in 1986 can’t be seen enough.
Similar to Dave Casper
It goes without saying that Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells has an eye for talent.
And obviously, he had his eye on University of Tennessee tight end Jason Witten for a bit.
Witten was part of Bill Parcells’ first draft class in 2003 in Dallas. The third-round selection has been named to eight Pro Bowls in 11 seasons, and his 879 career receptions rank 17th in league history. He has arguably been the franchise’s most consistent offensive player for more than a decade.
Speaking of consistent, sure-handed Dave Casper elevated the Oakland Raiders’ offense in the 1970s. The tackle-turned-tight end is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was a pivotal cog in the team’s Super Bowl XI season in 1976, when the Raiders finished 13-1 and rolled the Minnesota Vikings in Pasadena, 32-14.
And while Casper made his share of clutch catches during his career, he also found some other ways to win.
Similar to Keith Jackson
The numbers are impressive and perhaps made even more so since San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates went undrafted. Of course, Gates also didn’t play football at Kent State.
In 11 seasons, the eight-time Pro Bowler has totaled 719 catches for 9,193 yards. And his 87 career touchdown grabs are tied for the 12th-most in NFL history. Only prolific Tony Gonzalez (111) has scored more touchdowns from the tight end position than Gates.
In 2013, Gates led the Chargers with 77 catches, rebounding (pun intended) from a 2012 campaign that saw the reliable target catch only 49 passes in 15 games.
Five-time Pro Bowl tight end Keith Jackson caught 441 passes for 5,283 yards and 49 scores in nine seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers. In four seasons at the University of Oklahoma, Jackson totaled only 65 receptions, 15 for scores.
In his first season in the NFL in 1988 with the Eagles, Jackson rang up 81 catches for Buddy Ryan’s team.
Similar to Mike Ditka
As the team’s first-round pick in 2005, tight end Heath Miller’s rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers resulted in a Super Bowl championship, a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
Three years later, the versatile tight end was part of another NFL championship when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Co. rallied to beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
In nine seasons, Miller has totaled 466 catches for 5,273 yards and 40 touchdowns, and he has caught at least 50 passes in each of his last three seasons. The two-time Pro Bowler also brings an attitude to the offense in terms of the ground game.
Attitude? Desire? Passion? Call it what you want, and call it all three when it comes to Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka.
As a rookie in 1961 with the Chicago Bears, Ditka totaled more than 1,000 yards receiving. He was one of the most feared blockers at any position in the league and was the first tight end inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Similar to Shannon Sharpe
First, both can make the big play for their quarterback in a big moment.
Davis snared the game-winning score from Alex Smith to beat the New Orleans Saints, 36-32, in the 2011 NFC Divisional Playoffs. Sharpe’s catch-and-run for 96 yards in the 2000 AFC title game is the longest reception in NFL postseason history and propelled his Baltimore Ravens past the Oakland Raiders.
Throughout the last five seasons (2009-13), Davis has totaled 294 catches for 4,064 yards and 44 touchdowns in 80 games. In his first three years in the NFL, the former first-rounder totaled 103 receptions and only nine scores in 40 contests.
Sharpe’s career numbers are impressive. Throughout a four-year span from 1997-2000, he won three Super Bowl titles with the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens.
Similar to Jackie Smith
Sadly, Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith is perhaps known for one catch he didn’t make.
The focus here, though, is on the accomplishments for the five-time Pro Bowler.
In 15 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals and one with the Dallas Cowboys, Smith totaled 480 catches for 7,918 yards (16.5 yards per reception) and 40 touchdowns.
Although the Cleveland Browns suffered through yet another disappointing season, Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron was a force to be reckoned with in 2013. The former fourth-round pick totaled 26 catches and one touchdown in his first two seasons in the NFL, but the third time proved to be the charm as the sure-handed tight end totaled 80 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.
All of those numbers this past season came with three different starting quarterbacks in the form of Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell.
Cameron may just be scratching the surface when it comes to his football potential.
Similar to Bennie Cunningham
Julius Thomas, we never knew you…until now.
A fourth-round pick in 2011 from Portland State, the imposing target played in nine games during his first two seasons and caught one pass.
With quarterback Peyton Manning at the helm for the second straight season in Denver, Thomas lived up to his potential. In 14 games in 2013, the 6’5”, 246-pound target caught 65 passes for 788 yards and a dozen scores.
He was one of four Denver Broncos to catch at least 10 touchdown passes this season and one of five players for John Fox’s club to reach double-digits in total touchdowns.
Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers will remember tight end Bennie Cunningham, who was the team’s first-round pick in 1976. Though his final numbers weren’t gaudy, at 6’5” and 254 pounds, he could make big plays downfield. Who could forget his 37-yard game-winning touchdown reception off a flea-flicker in overtime against the Cleveland Browns in 1978?