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NFL: The Top 5 Tight Ends in League History

Geoffrey MortonCorrespondent IIJanuary 14, 2017

NFL: The Top 5 Tight Ends in League History

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    The tight end is one of the most challenging positions to play in football. To be a tight end, a player must be able to block like an offensive lineman and still be able to run routes and catch like a wide receiver. Over time, the position has been revolutionized by players such as Mike Ditka and Kellen Winslow.

    But do players such as them have a place in the top-five list of tight ends? This slideshow counts down the top five tight ends in NFL history.

5. Dave "The Ghost" Casper

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    While playing for the Oakland Raiders, Dave "The Ghost" Casper seemed to be in the middle of every clutch play and fourth-quarter comeback. When the game was on the line, Casper was unstoppable.

    Casper began his career with the Raiders in 1974, after being drafted out of Notre Dame, and although he caught a total of nine passes over his first two seasons, four of them went for touchdowns. His career took off in 1976, when he caught 53 passes for 691 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    During Casper's career, he was known for being the most-clutch tight end in the league. He was the recipient of the famed "Ghost to the Post" catch in the 1977 Divisional Playoffs, a reception that set up a game-tying field goal for the Raiders, forcing overtime. He then caught the game-winning touchdown, bringing his total stats for the day to four catches for 70 yards and three touchdowns.

    Casper also recovered quarterback Ken Stabler's controversial "Holy Roller" fumble, which made it to the end zone as time expired and gave the Raiders a touchdown to beat the San Diego Chargers.

    Casper was finally elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002, and his career stats read 378 receptions for 5,216 yards and 52 touchdowns. One of the best receiving (and blocking) tight ends in history, Casper absolutely deserves a spot among the top five.

4. "Iron" Mike Ditka

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    In case you haven't already heard, "Iron" Mike Ditka was one of the toughest players ever to play in the NFL. He played with the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys during his career and epitomized how the tight end position should be played.

    Ditka was drafted out of Pittsburgh by the Chicago Bears. And although few tight ends before him were threats in the receiving game, Ditka had an absurd rookie season, catching 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns, which earned him Rookie of the Year honors.

    Ditka continued to find success with the Bears, making the All-NFL team four years in a row while not missing a single start in 84 games with Chicago. He excelled as a receiver as well as a blocker, and was known for being one of the toughest players around.

    After being traded to the Eagles, Ditka struggled, but he finished off his career on a solid note with the Cowboys, even catching the final touchdown in Super Bowl VI.

    Ditka's career stats as a tight end read 427 catches for 5,812 yards and 43 touchdowns, leading him to be the first tight end ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. Although Ditka's stats don't look overly impressive by today's standards, he paved the way for future stars by showing his dominance as a receiver and could also deliver crushing hits as a blocker.

3. John Mackey

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    Before Kellen Winslow, Mike Ditka, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and virtually every other play-making receiving tight end, there was John Mackey. Selected in the second round of the 1963 NFL draft out of Syracuse by the Baltimore Colts, John Mackey changed the way the tight end position was played forever.

    Mackey's career stats read: 331 receptions for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns. This doesn't seem overly impressive by today's standards, but for Mackey's time those numbers were phenomenal.

    Another career stat that represents Mackey's extraordinary ability is his career average of 15.8 yards a catch. Even being a consistent threat in the receiving game was unusual for a tight end, but Mackey possessed incredible speed that helped him become the Baltimore Colts' most dangerous receiver.

    His most famous play came in Super Bowl V against the Dallas Cowboys, when Mackey hauled in a 75-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Johnny Unitas after it had been tipped. This play was huge in lifting the Colts to a 16-13 win on a last-second field goal.

    Mackey excelled as a blocker during his career as well; but he is most remembered for his amazing combination of strength, speed and toughness that made teams start to use tight ends more frequently in their offenses in the hopes that they could have anywhere close to the impact Mackey had on the field.

2. Tony Gonzalez

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    Some say the hardest route in football to defend is the back-shoulder fade. Others say it is a jump ball in the back of the end zone against Tony Gonzalez. After all, the legendary tight end is 6-foot-5 and 247 pounds,  with a 36-inch vertical leap.

    Tight ends such as Mike Ditka and John Mackey paved the way for receiving tight ends, but Gonzalez's career has been unlike any other before. Gonzalez was drafted 13th overall in the 1997 by the Kansas City Chiefs, but was a backup for his entire rookie season.

    In 1998, however, Gonzalez began creating his legacy. He was named the starter and has been one of the league's top receiving tight ends ever since. In his 15 years in the league, Gonzalez has had seven seasons in which he caught 75 passes or more, four seasons with 1,000 or more receiving yards and three years with double-digit touchdown receptions.

    His uncanny ability to make plays with the football and grab seemingly impossible catches has stood out ever since he entered the league. And although his ability is beginning to decline, no other tight end could hold a candle to Gonzalez in the early 2000s.

    No player in NFL history has had the kind of success at tight end Gonzalez has enjoyed, and he will go down as one of the best of all time. His extraordinary athleticism, knack for making huge plays and consistency as a primary receiving threat have cemented his place among the greatest.

1. Kellen Winslow, Sr.

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    There's no other way to put it: Kellen Winslow is the greatest tight end of all time. Sometimes described as a "receiver in a lineman's body," no other tight end could burn defenses and impact games the way Winslow could.

    Winslow was drafted 13th overall in 1979 by the San Diego Chargers, and became a huge part of coach Don Coryell's famed "Air Coryell" offense, catching 541 passes for 6,741 yards and 45 touchdowns in his nine-year career.

    Few players have matched Winslow's willingness to do whatever it took to win, and his most famous performance came during the legendary 1982 AFC divisional playoff game known as "the Epic in Miami." Though Winslow was suffering from dehydration, a gash in his lip, severe cramps and a pinched nerve, he recorded 13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown and blocked Miami's potential game-winning field goal.

    Although many of Winslow's records have since been broken, he has tied the record for most receiving touchdowns in a game (five) and still holds the record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end (1,280). Winslow absolutely dominated and played his heart out in every game he played, and will forever be remembered as one of the game's all-time greats.

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