The tight end uses to be of little significance to the passing game. Back in the '50s and '60s, and even into the '70s and the '80s, the job of the tight end was primarily to block.
Oh sure, they would catch the occasional pass across the middle on third and six. But their main job was to block for the ball carrier or the quarterback. It was like having an extra offensive linemen. Big, tough guys like Mark Bavaro, Pete Metzelaars, and Dave Casper defined the stereotype of blocking tight ends who paved the way for the running game.
Defenses that sent that extra linebacker in to blitz had to worry about the tight end picking up his rush. Some offenses even implemented a two tight end set—an offense the Indianapolis Colts run to perfection these days. Joe Gibbs was said to be the founder of this system, putting an extra tight end on his line to block the legendary Lawrence Taylor.
Gradually, the tight end has evolved from a brute blocker to a speedy pass catcher. NFL teams nowadays actually prefer a guy who can stretch the field and play a major role in the passing game. Guys who are too big for safeties and too fast for linebackers—these players cause mismatch problems every time they step on the field.
Players like Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey, and Antonio Gates have become major factors of the passing game, putting up numbers that would have been unthinkable just twenty years ago. In '04, Gonzalez hauled in 102 passes, a new record for tight ends, for 1,258 yards. Compare that to John Mackey, the best pass-catching tight end of his generation, who never caught more than 55 passes or totaled more than 829 yards in a season.
Gone is the traditional blocking tight end. Those players have been replaced by a new breed of players. Tight ends are utilized more in the offense than ever before, routinely pulling in 80 catches per season. Coaches are always trying to find those rare tight ends who can dominate the defense with sure hands and sub 4.5 speed.
Tight ends are getting drafted in the first round more and more, with players like Vernon Davis in '06 and Kellen Winslow, Jr. in '04, each selected as the sixth overall pick. With modern players bigger and faster than they used to be, and a constant appreciation for the pass around the NFL, tight ends should continue to play an ever-increasing role of importance in the offense.
With this in mind, I wanted to make a ranking of the top ten tight ends of all-time. I factored in the ability to catch passes, as well as guys who left their legacy through blocking. Here then are the ten greatest tight ends of all-time.
10. Mark Bavaro
He wasn't a pass catcher, but rather a bruising blocker who paved the way for two Super Bowl championships for his Giants. Bavaro was one of the last of his type—a little-used receiver who could lay down a punishing block.
9. Jackie Smith
Let's not remember him for that one drop in the Super Bowl (coincidentally, the last game of his Hall of Fame career). Let's instead focus on his career numbers, which included nearly 500 catches, 8,000 yards, and five Pro Bowl selections.
8. Antonio Gates
He could very well own the number one spot on this list by the time he retires. Gates had made four consecutive Pro Bowls to date, and his 13 touchdown catches in 2004 set a single-season record for tight ends.
7. Dave Casper
He made five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro Bowl teams, while leading the Raiders to a Super Bowl championship in 1976 (Casper just missed a second in 1980, getting traded away in the middle of the season). Casper is famous for two legendary plays—The Ghost to the Post and The Holy Roller.
6. Shannon Sharpe
Sharpe is one of a recent line of great receiving tight ends, retiring with the career record for yardage by a tight end. Sharpe earned eight Pro Bowl selections and took three teams to Super Bowl championships ('97-'98 Denver Broncos, '00 Baltimore Ravens).
5. Ozzie Newsome
The NFL's “Wizard of Oz,” Newsome was as tough as they get, never missing a game for his 13-year career. He retired with 662 catches for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns, earning three Pro Bowls during his Hall of Fame tenure.
4. Mike Ditka
Often called the greatest tight end of all-time, Ditka was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. The fifth overall pick in the '61 draft, the Bears had high expectations for Ditka—and he delivered, earning five Pro Bowl selections. After his retirement, Ditka was the first tight end to be selected into the Hall of Fame.
3. Kellen Winslow
Winslow was the first tight end to ever lead the NFL in receiving yards in consecutive seasons (1980-'81). Winslow made five Pro Bowls during his career. His performance in the 1982 playoff game against Miami is legendary, as Winslow hauled in 13 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown, and blocked a field goal as time expired to send the game into overtime, despite dealing with numerous injuries.
2. Tony Gonzalez
Gonzalez is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, and has completely redefined the position of tight end. Gonzalez holds career records for receptions, yards, and touchdowns by a tight end. He is the only tight end to make nine Pro Bowls and could have been a star at wide receiver during his career.
1. John Mackey
He was the greatest in history at picking up yards after the catch. Few man have been tougher to bring down in the open field. Mackey made five Pro Bowls and caught a 75-yard touchdown pass in a 16-13 Super Bowl V win.