Originally, tight ends were really just additional linemen.
They were there to block, mainly because throwing the ball was not nearly as common even 30 years ago as it is today.
Today, tight ends are expected to have perhaps the best skill-set of any position on the field. They are expected to be able to block like a tackle, but catch like a wide receiver. Since the decline of the H-back, they are the true utility players on offense.
Let's also not forget that many of them are expected to play an H-back type of role from time to time.
To be the best at the tight end position, one must have natural size. Most are in the 6'3" to 6'6" range and between 230 to 250 pounds. That's not exactly an easy body type to find. Then, if you do find someone like that, they also must have the natural ability to block and catch the football.
It goes without saying, good tight ends are tough to come by.
The respective teams of these players, however, have tested the odds and hit the jackpot.
5. Chris Cooley (Washington Redskins)
73 games started, 314 receptions, 3,457 yards, 11 YPR, 28 TDs, two-time Pro Bowler
Originally, this spot was for Owen Daniels. However, after looking at the numbers and some film a second time, I decided to go with Cooley.
Cooley has averaged around seven touchdowns a season, where Daniels has averaged around four. Daniels brought in 70 receptions last year, a great number for a tight end. However, Cooley racked up 83 receptions.
The only stat that Daniels had over Cooley was that Daniels had two touchdowns last year, where Cooley only had one.
However, looking at the entire career, Cooley has played in much more of a run-first type of offense where Daniels has had a wide-open passing attack, which gives him more of an opportunity.
Cooley also plays the H-back position on occasion, and plays it well. Daniels is not asked to do that, so the advantage has to go to Cooley.
Overall, Cooley is a very complete tight end with natural ball-catching ability. He's a very good blocker and a good route-runner. He's also now made back-to-back Pro Bowls, and if the Redskins can decide on how to deal with the quarterback position, he will more than likely be headed to more.
4. Dallas Clark (Indianapolis Colts)
79 games started, 256 receptions, 3,082 yards, 12 YPR, 31 TDs
Playing in the same conference as Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez has prevented Dallas Clark from gaining the recognition to get a Pro Bowl nod.
Because those guys always get in, he gets snubbed. Even after having 58 receptions and 11 touchdowns in 2007, Clark still could not find his way into the Pro Bowl.
Even last year, 77 receptions and six touchdowns should have earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl, but again no dice.
With Gonzalez out of the conference, I expect Clark to make his first Pro Bowl about four years too late, but better late than never.
He is Peyton Manning's go-to guy above Reggie Wayne. Even when Marvin Harrison was in Indy, Clark was Manning's go-to guy.
Look for big things from Dallas Clark, even playing in the toughest division in football, the AFC South.
3. Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys)
85 games started, 429 receptions, 4,935 yards, 11.5 YPR, 25 TDs, five-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro
As far as toughness goes, there may not be a tight end in the league tougher than Jason Witten.
He brings back visions of Mike Ditka and Mark Bavaro because of the hard-nosed way he plays the game.
The most famous example would have to be during a night game against the Eagles in which he was hit by two Eagles, bounced off the hit, but lost his helmet. He continued to run down the field, nearly scoring before finally being brought down.
That, my friends, takes guts.
On top of the toughness he's a very good blocker. He is probably the best blocker on this list, but while he can catch very well, he does not have the pass-catching ability of the other guys.
Witten will be a focal point of the Cowboys' offense this season with the departure of Terrell Owens, so don't be surprised to see his receptions in the triple digits, and his touchdowns in double digits.
2. Antonio Gates (San Diego Chargers)
89 games started, 400 receptions, 5,066 yards, 12.7 YPR, 51 TDs, five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro
Antonio Gates is the best tight end to ever play for the San Diego Chargers. And yes, that includes Hall-of-Famer Kellen Winslow.
His basketball background allows him to use his body to shield away a defender and make the tough grab. Whether it's a linebacker, safety, or corner, he beats every single one of them.
Even while nursing a nagging injury last season, he was able to haul in 60 receptions, eight touchdowns, and make the Pro Bowl. With numbers like that, the AFC West does not want to see this guy healthy.
For that matter, neither does the rest of the league.
Of all the offensive weapons that the Chargers possess, Gates is probably the best of the bunch.
1. Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta Falcons)
174 games started, 916 receptions, 10,940 yards, 11.9 YPR, 76 TDs, 10-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro
This is a fairly obvious pick, but the right one.
Gonzalez is the best tight end to ever play the game, and is still the best doing it. Nearly 100 receptions, over 1,000 yards, and 10 touchdowns certainly warrant a first-place spot on this list.
He already holds the record for receptions, yards, and touchdowns by a tight end. Each year that he plays he is only adding on to records that will never be broken.
He will most likely go over 1,000 receptions for his career, which is an incredible feat for a wide receiver, much less a tight end.
He's already reached double-digit Pro Bowls, but that was all in the AFC. I'm sure he'd love to wear a blue jersey for the NFC this year, and he most likely will do just that.
He wants to win a Super Bowl before his career is over, and him being on the field gives the Falcons a much better chance to win their first, and his first.
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