The position of tight end has changed so much in the last decade, with players like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates becoming just big wide receivers for their teams. Without a doubt they have changed the game, and nowadays argument could be made that the best tight ends deserve to be part of the top ten receivers lists.
For this list I will judge tight ends based on their receiving abilities, blocking skills and the quality of their performance.
I hope you enjoy!
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The best way to describe Marcedes Lewis is that he is a tank. He stands 6'6" tall and tips the scales at 275 lbs. He was picked 28th overall in the 2006 NFL draft, 22 places behind another tight end who may garner mention in this list. Like his class mate, he had a lack lustre start to his NFL career, being used almost solely as a in line blocking tight end. That was, at least, until the 2010 season.
He was a combine sensation, who lifted 225 lbs 23 times and leaped 37" on the day. He is also very athletic for such a big tight end. He is fast (for his size) in and out of his breaks and plucks the ball very nicely out of the air.
Not surprisingly, he has also become a major red zone threat. He can out leap a lot of defenders, and his bulk makes it easy for him to get the best position on the pass. He can also make serious yards after the catch, bowling through tackles from defensive backs, who are in general close to 80 lbs smaller than him. He did average 16 yards per catch in 2009 after all.
Although a dangerous receiver, Lewis is best known for being the best blocking tight end in the league. Part of the reason why his receiving numbers have been small is because he is often used to bolster the weak Jaguars offensive line, even in passing plays.
He has developed great run blocking technique, giving his opponent a jolt when he engages and then using his size, strength and athleticism to maneuver them away from the play. His downfield blocking a big reason why Maurice Jones-Drew has been reeling off longer runs since 2006.
2010 stats: 700 yards, 58 receptions, 12.1 yards per catch, 10 TD's
Although Finley missed most of the 2010 season with injury, before he went down he was quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best pure pass catching tight ends in the league.
Finley came into the league in 2008 as the 91st pick of the draft. This slide was due to his inability to block effectively at even the college level, and his disappointing combine. He only ran a 4.82 40, and his vertical jump was measured at 27.5 inches. As a projected H-back, unsurprisingly these numbers dropped him off most draft boards.
However, Finley has what I like to call game speed. He looks fast on the field, and his impressive acceleration masks his lack of elite speed. Also, because he stands at 6'5", he is a dangerous red zone target. His basketball experience shows, as he "boxes out" smaller players very well.
He is also a natural pass catcher who can take amazing grabs because of his soft hands and body control. His athleticism and surprising speed also makes him a dangerous runner after the catch.
These attributes have already made him Aaron Rodgers favourite target.Although not endowed with prototypical in line blocking girth, and lacking great technique, Finley is a strong athlete who bench pressed 225 lbs 20 times at the combine, and who is physical at the point of attack.
Despite having limited statistical success in his career so far, Finley was ready to explode onto the scene this season before it was cut down to five games, and instead will do so in 2011.
2011 stats: 301 yards, 21 receptions, 14.3 yards per catch, 1 TD
There is no more physically imposing player in the NFL than Vernon Davis. The 49ers standout was drafted 6th overall in the 2006 NFL draft after a combine for the ages. After weighing in at 255 lbs, the 6'3" tight end ran a 4.38 40, recorded a 42 inch vertical leap and bench pressed 225 lbs 33 times.
For three years, Davis looked for all the world like a prime draft bust. However, in 2009 he got his act together, amassing 900 yards and 13 touchdowns. Since then, Davis has been one of the most dangerous receiving tight ends in the game.
His speed and leaping ability would be impressive for a wide receiver, so in the frame of a tight end it makes him virtually impossible to cover and lets him rack up plenty of yards after the catch. His route running has improved over the years, and while not amazing, is more than sufficient given his natural talents.
Davis is one of the best jump ball players in the league, using his large frame to "box out" defensive backs. He is also a good blocker, using his strength and explosiveness to jolt defensive linemen and line backers with his first hit. He is even better blocking downfield, and is a big reason for Frank Gores effectiveness running.
With a solid quarterback, Davis would be a statistical superstar, and one can only hope that before he reaches the twilight of his career coach Harbaugh can find him one.
2010 stats: 914 yards, 56 receptions, 16.3 yards per catch, 7 TD's
Witten is one of the few receivers who can't run away from anybody, yet always seems to be open. This paradox made Witten the best wide receiver in the league this season after Antonio Gates hobbled off the field. He lead tight ends in yards and receptions in 2010, all while catching balls from Jon Kitna and missing most of one game with a concussion.
Witten may not be remarkably athletic, but what he lacks in speed and acceleration, he makes up for with his route running and catching. Witten is one of the smartest tight ends, and uses this to find holes in the coverage every play. He is also a well practised route runner, who gains separation through his rapid cuts.
You rarely see a ball thrown his way hit the turf either. He uses his bulk to shield players covering him from the ball, and plucks the ball out of the air as well as anyone.
Witten is also a great blocker. Before converting to a tight end, he was a nasty defensive lineman, and he brings that same intensity to the other side of the line. He has long arms and weighs 265lbs, so is more than a match for linebackers and defensive ends. He has impeccable technique after so many years in the league, and a mean streak when it comes to finishing blocks.
2010 stats: 1,002 yards, 94 receptions, 10.7 yards per catch, 9 TD's
Through the first 10 games of the season, Gates was having the best season ever by a tight end. If he had played the full 16 games, he would have recorded 80 catches for 1,251 yards and 16 TD's. Sadly, it was ended through injury, but Gates certainly made a statement to the rest of the league.
Gates is one of the best undrafted free agents ever, who entered the league with the Chargers in 2003 and had success immediately as a receiving tight end. Since then, he has been one of the best tight ends ever, recording 7,000 yards at an average of 13.2 yards per catch and 69 TD's.
Gates never went to the scouting combine, but if he had he would have been one of the most athletic tight ends ever to attend. Despite being 260 lbs and 6'4" tall, he is fast, agile and very fluid in his movements. He is a good route runner, has a very sticky pair of hands and is explosive after the catch. His physical talents have also been combined with a savvy understanding of coverages, which lets him find seams and holes in coverage on most plays.
When he entered the league, Gates was one of the worst blockers at his position. After seven seasons, he is now a passable downfield blocker, who uses his size to blanket the much smaller defensive backs. He still is overwhelmed as an in line blocker, but his receiving abilities more than make up for this.
It says a lot about the value of Gates to the Chargers offense that in the Chiefs upset victory in week one of the season, often three defenders were tasked with covering Gates in the red zone, using a complex jamming system to limit his effectiveness. No other player in the league is dealt with in the same way.
2010 stats: 782 yards, 50 receptions, 15.6 yards per catch, 10 TD's
The elder statesman of the bunch, Gonzalez is the most successful tight end ever. He holds all the important receiving records for his position, and despite not being an explosive player as he once was, he still remains productive through his experience, route running and safe hands. He is another player who is often open despite having pedestrian speed. He made 70 catches, 7 of which were touchdowns.
Another young gun, Pettigrew had a great 2010 season after going in the first round of the 2009 draft. He reeled in 71 passes, good for third in the league. He was a reliable target over the middle for the rotation of quarterbacks for the Detroit Lions. He is also a good blocker, who can deal with defensive linemen and linebackers, or dominate defensive backs downfield. One knock on him is his lack of touchdowns, but with Calvin Johnson in the line up, that is not all that surprising.
There was an obvious difference in the Colts offensive potency this season once Clark was lost for the season. He is Manning's most reliable target, who reads coverages as well as anyone. He is also surprisingly athletic for his stocky build, and can run away from line backers. Although not a great blocker, he can hold his own, and to be honest, run blocking is not an important part of Indianapolis' offense. However, this and the fact that he is being thrown so many perfect passes by Manning is what pushes him out of the top five.