The Top 10 Tight Ends in NFL History
The tight end (TE) is a position in American football on the offensive team. The tight end is sometimes the last man on the offensive line, but has a slightly different build and, in some cases, a different role than other linemen.
The role of tight ends can change depending on the philosophy of the head coach, but their main jobs are: block for the running back or quarterback who is carrying the ball, catch passes from the quarterback, and help create a stronger pocket by assisting fellow linemen in blocking during passing plays.
The tight end usually lines up next to an offensive tackle, adding a man to that side of the offensive line. Therefore, whichever side the tight end is on is referred to as the "strong side", and the side without is called "weak side."
Linebackers are, by extension, given "strong-side" and "weak-side" roles depending on which side of the defense they line up on; similarly, the safeties take their places in the secondary according to which side the opposing tight end is.
Tight ends can also come in motion during a play.Though usually lined up on the offensive line unless an open call is made in the huddle call, the TE is not considered an offensive lineman, yet as a 'Y' receiver.
10. Charlie Sanders
To show I’m not biased against era (on the contrary, I think its the NFL Network’s list that is clearly era biased), if I am kicking Jackie Smith, I am going to replace him with a contemporary who was considered better than Smith by the voters of the time.
I’ll trust their evaluation. Sanders was the best tight end in 1970 and 1971, after a second place finish in 1969. He also played in seven pro bowls. He never finished in the top 10 in any receiving category, which is why he comes in at number 10. But he was clearly considered the top tight end of the early merger period, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.
9. Ozzie Newsome
How could I place the Wizard so low? Well, several of the people interviewed for the NFL Network piece even noted that he was a terrible blocker. I’m sure that this had something to do with Newsome only making three pro bowls and one unanimous first team all-pro in his career.
To be fair, he was in the AFC and most of the top tight ends were in the AFC during his career, so if he was in the NFC, he would have probably made more pro bowls. He also played at the same time as Kellen Winslow.
But it's not like he was the clear second choice throughout his career. At various points during his prime, he split votes for awards with Raymond Chester, Junior Miller, and Dan Ross. It was Todd Christensen, not Newsome, that emerged as the best tight end when Winslow got hurt and declined.
8. Todd Christensen
How did he not make the NFL Network List? Is he that unpopular? The black ink test favors Christensen to be even higher, and certainly ahead of his contemporary Newsome.
It does appear that the tight ends of his era were more dominant statistically as a whole, particularly in the reception category, so this may require us to reign in his receiving numbers.
He also started his career later than most of the elite tight ends. But he was considered one of the two best tight ends in the game for every season between 1983-1987, and that gets him on my list.
7. Antonio Gates
I could make a pretty good argument that he could be higher, but that depends on what he does the rest of his career. Plenty of guys have been the best tight end for a three year stretch.
He’s not considered the most willing blocker despite his size, but he could move up this list with another elite season, joining Ditka, Gonzalez, and Sharpe with four.
6. John Mackey
I know I am risking being accused of all sorts of things with this placement, considering the NFL Network had him at No. 1. I saw the highlights, and he certainly was a physical specimen. I’ll just say that if I was going by only numbers (relative rankings, all-pro seasons) he wouldn’t even be this high, so I am trying to be somewhat deferential to the opinions expressed in the piece, to a point.
There are just too many questions that bother me about Mackey when I am considering whether the ranking at No. 1 is merited or a case of revisionist history.
If he is the best of all-time, why did he only appear on awards list in three seasons? More to the point, why did he not sweep the awards in the middle of his prime?
In 1967, the UPI gave their first team all-pro honor to Jerry Smith, not Mackey. Now, maybe the voters for the UPI had some axe to grind, but I just have to go by what I see.
Also, Mackey and Ditka both retired in 1972. The Hall of Fame was unfairly slow to recognize the game’s top tight ends from the early years, but if Mackey is the best ever, why was it that Ditka went into the Hall in 1988, and Mackey not until in 1992?
5. Dave Casper
Casper was a touchdown machine and the most dominant tight end of the late 1970s. He is the fourth player to receive first team all-pro votes in four different seasons. Three were unanimous (1976-1978), and in 1979, he split votes with Newsome and Chester.
4. Shannon Sharpe
You could make an argument for Sharpe to be higher. But this is my rant. Sharpe and Gonzalez’ careers overlapped, so we do not really need an era adjustment to the raw numbers.
Gonzalez is still going strong, and has passed or will soon pass Sharpe in every career tight end receiving record. If you want to put Sharpe ahead of Gonzalez based on three Super Bowl rings, well, I’m sorry, I cannot accept that. If your going to bump Gonzalez down because he played with Grbac instead of Elway, or with a team with no defense when the offense was at its peak, I’ll just agree to disagree.
Sharpe is one of the top tight ends, but in a straight up comparison, Gonzalez is ahead of Sharpe. If I were to find one reason, it’s that he lost out to Ben Coates twice in the middle of his career. But his numbers and longevity merit being near the top.
3. Kellen Winslow
If we want to measure absolute dominance in the passing game during a player’s peak, Winslow is number one. His prime was much shorter than the other guys at the top.
His seasons from 1980-1982 were among the best ever. This is a matter of preference, and where you place Winslow depends on your view of peak versus longevity.
2. Tony Gonzalez
Surprised? I think I’ve set forth the case for Gonzalez appearing at the top of the list, and I’ll lay out some rationale for the final player below (one of which is fear for my life should I ever meet him).
I’ll just add this in Gonzalez’ favor. As we have seen, Ditka did not actually cost Mackey any awards. The same is not true for Gonzalez and Gates. Not only does he have the most first team all-pro seasons of any tight end with five (1999-2003), but he had the best season of all time for a tight end who was not selected first team all-pro.
All Gonzalez did in 2004 was lead the league in receptions with 102, have 1258 yards receiving, and score 7 TDs. But Gates was even better. How many other seasons, even era adjusting the numbers, would a tight end season like that not have resulted in a unanimous first team all-pro selection? Are there any? Maybe one or two of Winslow’s?
So not only does Gonzalez have the most first team all-pro seasons, he has the best season among the rest. If Gates had not emerged, Gonzalez would have absolutely shattered the first team all-pro records at the position.
1. Iron Mike Ditka
I am more impressed with Ditka’s playing career after re-examining the numbers. As far as elite seasons and longevity, he comes in only behind Gonzalez.
And I can accept that the nature of the game at the tight end position, compared to today where passing is more prevalent and tight ends get more involved in receiving, could shorten the effective length of tight end careers when Ditka played.
That makes his dominance even more impressive. If you put Ditka and Mackey side by side in a comparison, it is no contest.
Ditka was a dominant receiver for the first four years of his career, and known as a nasty blocker throughout his career. He basically revolutionized the position and turned the tight end into an offensive weapon. For that, he gets my top spot.