NFL Top 10 Best Tight Ends of All-Time
In the world of the NFL, tight ends play a pivotal role in both the passing attack and rushing attack. The best of the best can serve as versatile players who can catch passes and block defenders. Over the years, the NFL has seen some truly exceptional tight ends who have left an indelible mark on the sport. This article ranks the top 10 best tight ends of all-time, paying tribute to their remarkable talent, skill, and influence on the game. We’ll explore their records, iconic moments, and overall impact on the sport as we honor these legendary athletes.
#10 – Ozzie Newsome
Ozzie Newsome, often referred to as “The Wizard of Oz,” is a legendary tight end who left an indelible mark on the NFL. As one of the top 10 best tight ends of all-time, Newsome’s career spanned 13 seasons with the Cleveland Browns, during which he consistently showcased his remarkable talent and skill.
Ozzie Newsome’s professional career started in 1978 when he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the NFL Draft. Throughout his time with the Browns, Newsome established himself as a premier tight end, earning three Pro Bowl selections (1981, 1984, and 1985) and two First-Team All-Pro honors (1984 and 1986).
Newsome was a prolific pass-catcher, amassing 7,980 receiving yards and 47 touchdowns on 662 receptions in his career. At the time of his retirement in 1990, he held the record for the most receiving yards by a tight end in NFL history. Though his record has since been surpassed, Newsome’s achievements remain a testament to his skill and consistency on the field.
His influence on the game goes beyond his impressive statistics. As one of the first tight ends to excel as a receiver, Newsome helped redefine the position and pave the way for future tight ends to be more involved in the passing game. His route-running, reliable hands, and ability to make contested catches in crucial situations made him a valuable asset to his team, setting the standard for the modern tight end.
Moreover, Newsome’s success extended beyond his playing career. As a front-office executive with the Baltimore Ravens, Newsome became the first African American general manager in NFL history, further showcasing his impact on the sport.
#9 – Mike Ditka
Mike Ditka, also known as “Iron Mike,” truly brought live to his nickname. Ditka’s remarkable NFL career spanned 12 seasons, playing for the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys.
Mike Ditka’s professional career began in 1961 when the Chicago Bears selected him as the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft. He made an immediate impact, winning the NFL Rookie of the Year award in his first season. Ditka was a five-time Pro Bowl selection (1961-1965) and earned First-Team All-Pro honors twice (1963 and 1964).
During his career, Ditka accumulated 5,812 receiving yards and 43 touchdowns on 427 receptions. While these numbers might not be as impressive as those of other top tight ends, it is important to consider that Ditka played in an era when the tight end position was more focused on blocking than receiving. And he was a wrecking ball of a blocker on the field..
Mike Ditka’s impact on the game of football is undeniable. As one of the first tight ends to excel as a receiver, Ditka helped revolutionize the position and set the stage for future generations of tight ends. His tough, physical playing style coupled with his excellent receiving skills made him a force to be reckoned with on the field.
Ditka’s influence extended beyond his playing career. As a coach, he led the Chicago Bears to victory in Super Bowl XX, becoming the first person in modern NFL history to win a Super Bowl both as a player and a head coach. Ditka’s coaching career further solidified his legendary status in the sport.
#8 – John Mackey
John Mackey, an innovative and powerful tight end, has earned his place among the top 10 best tight ends of all-time due to his exceptional talent and influence on the game. While Mackey’s NFL career only spanned 10 seasons, his impact is still felt today.
John Mackey’s professional career began in 1963 when the Baltimore Colts drafted him in the second round of the NFL Draft. He quickly became an integral part of the Colts’ offense, earning five Pro Bowl selections (1963, 1965-1968) and three First-Team All-Pro honors (1966-1968). Mackey was also a key contributor to the Colts’ Super Bowl V victory in 1971.
Over his career, Mackey accumulated 5,236 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns on 331 receptions. These statistics look horrible compared to modern tight ends, but this was an era in which Tight Ends only blocked.
John Mackey was the first of his kind to bring a receiving prowess never seen before. He was a trailblazer in revolutionizing the position. His combination of size, speed, and power made him a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and paved the way for future generations of receiving tight ends.
It’s also worth mentioning that John Mackey has one of the greatest NFL highlights ever. This man broke nearly ten tackles after catching the pass playing a position only known for its blocking.
Mackey’s impact extended beyond the field as well. As a strong advocate for players’ rights, he served as the first president of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) following the AFL-NFL merger. Mackey’s leadership played a pivotal role in improving the working conditions and benefits for NFL players.
#7 – Jason Witten
Jason Witten, renowned for his incredible durability and consistency, is one of the best tight ends in NFL history. Witten’s remarkable NFL career spanned 17 seasons, predominantly with the Dallas Cowboys, along with a brief stint with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Jason Witten’s NFL career commenced in 2003 when the Dallas Cowboys selected him in the third round of the NFL Draft. Witten quickly made a name for himself as a reliable and versatile tight end who did whatever it took to win. He earned 11 Pro Bowl selections (2004-2010, 2012-2014, and 2017) and received two First-Team All-Pro honors (2007 and 2010).
Throughout his career, Witten amassed an impressive 13,046 receiving yards and 74 touchdowns on 1,228 receptions. At the time of his retirement, he ranked second in NFL history for receptions and receiving yards by a tight end, again showcasing his incredible consistency and longevity.
Jason Witten’s impact on the game of football lies in his remarkable dependability and work ethic. He played in 271 career games, missing just one game during his entire NFL career. This exceptional durability earned him the nickname “Ironman” among tight ends. Witten was known for his precise route-running, reliable hands, and outstanding blocking ability, making him a well-rounded player and an invaluable asset to his team.
While I do respect and acknowledge longevity, the reason he is not higher on this list is because he never really had a season in which he was considered the best tight end in the NFL. The players listed ahead of him in their prime were unanimously mentioned as the best of their position.
#6 – Kellen Winslow
Kellen Winslow’s professional career began in 1979 when the San Diego Chargers drafted him in the first round of the NFL Draft. He quickly became an integral part of the Chargers’ prolific “Air Coryell” offense, earning five Pro Bowl selections (1980-1983, 1987) and three First-Team All-Pro honors (1980-1982).
Over his career, Winslow accumulated 6,741 receiving yards and 45 touchdowns on 541 receptions. These were groundbreaking tight end receiving numbers for the time.
As a highly versatile tight end, he helped redefine the position by showcasing his exceptional receiving skills, speed, and agility. Winslow’s ability to line up at various positions on the field created matchup problems for opposing defenses and paved the way for future generations of receiving tight ends.
One of Winslow’s most iconic performances came during the 1981 playoffs in a game known as “The Epic in Miami.” In this game, he caught 13 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown, blocked a crucial field goal attempt, and played through numerous injuries, exemplifying his determination and resilience on the field. He literally had to get carried off by his teammates. That is the definition of leaving it all on the field.
#5 – Shannon Sharpe
Shannon Sharpe, known for his exceptional skills and charismatic personality, has earned his spot among the top 10 best NFL tight ends ever. Shannon Sharpe’s professional career began in 1990 when the Denver Broncos selected him in the seventh round of the NFL Draft. Despite being a late-round pick, Sharpe quickly became a key offensive weapon for the Broncos, earning eight Pro Bowl selections (1992-1998, 2001) and four First-Team All-Pro honors (1993, 1996, 1997, and 1998). His move from wide receiver to tight end turned out to be genius.
Throughout his career, Sharpe amassed 10,060 receiving yards and 62 touchdowns on 815 receptions. At the time of his retirement, he held the records for the most receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns by a tight end in NFL history, though these records have since been surpassed.
Shannon Sharpe’s impact on the game of football can be seen in his game-changing skills and ability to stretch the field as a tight end. He played a pivotal role in the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl victories in the 1997 and 1998 seasons and helped the Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV in 2000. Sharpe’s speed, route-running, and physicality made him a difficult matchup for opposing defenses, paving the way for future generations of dynamic tight ends.
Off the field, Sharpe’s charisma and personality have also left a mark on the sport. Since retiring from the NFL, he has found success as a sports analyst and television personality, bringing his passion for the game and sports in general to a broader audience.
#4 – Antonio Gates
Antonio Gates’ professional career began in 2003 when he signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent, following an impressive basketball career in college. Gates quickly developed into a star tight end, earning eight Pro Bowl selections (2004-2011) and three First-Team All-Pro honors (2004, 2005, and 2006).
Throughout his career, Gates accumulated 11,841 receiving yards and 116 touchdowns on 955 receptions. At the time of his retirement, he held the record for the most receiving touchdowns by a tight end in NFL history, a testament to his remarkable red-zone efficiency.
Antonio Gates’ impact on the game of football can be seen in his extraordinary journey from an undrafted basketball player to an elite NFL tight end. His basketball background contributed to his exceptional athleticism, body control, and ability to box-out and make contested catches, making him a difficult matchup for opposing defenses.
His record-breaking performances, exceptional skills, and inspiring journey from an undrafted free agent to a football legend have left a lasting legacy in NFL history.
#3 – Travis Kelce
Travis Kelce, known for his outstanding athleticism and versatility, has quickly emerged as one of the top 10 best tight ends ever. Kelce’s impressive NFL career has been spent entirely with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he has become an essential part of their high-powered offense that has led to two Super Bowl victories.
Travis Kelce’s professional career began in 2013 when the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in the third round of the NFL Draft. Kelce quickly developed into one of the league’s premier tight ends, earning six Pro Bowl selections (2015-2020) and three First-Team All-Pro honors (2016, 2018, and 2020).
Throughout his career, Kelce has accumulated 10,344 receiving yards and 54 touchdowns on 650 receptions. He became the first tight end in NFL history to record five consecutive seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards (2016-2020), showcasing his exceptional consistency.
Travis Kelce’s impact on the game of football can be seen in his ability to create mismatches and exploit opposing defenses. His combination of size, speed, and agility, along with his precise route-running, makes him a formidable weapon for the Chiefs’ offense. Kelce’s success has helped redefine the role of the modern tight end, with his versatile skill set influencing the way the position is utilized in today’s game. Andy Reid has a once in a generation weapon and continues to use him wisely.
While he was voted first in the fan voting, I decided to have him ranked third on this list. I still believe he has a few more seasons left with the potential to rise to first on this list as the best tight end ever.
#2 – Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez, widely regarded as the gold standard for tight ends, can easily be argued as the best tight end ever. Gonzalez’s exceptional NFL career spanned 17 seasons, with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons in which he was dominant for both teams.
Tony Gonzalez’s professional career began in 1997 when the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in the first round of the NFL Draft. Gonzalez quickly established himself as an elite tight end, earning an impressive 14 Pro Bowl selections (1999-2008, 2010-2013) and six First-Team All-Pro honors (1999-2003, 2008).
Throughout his career, Gonzalez amassed an extraordinary 15,127 receiving yards and 111 touchdowns on 1,325 receptions. At the time of his retirement, he held the records for the most receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns by a tight end in NFL history, and he remains the all-time leader in receptions.
Tony Gonzalez’s impact on the game of football can be seen in his exceptional skill set, consistency, and durability. He missed just two games during his entire 17-year career, showcasing his remarkable longevity. Gonzalez was known for his precise route-running, strong hands, and impressive leaping ability, making him a mismatch nightmare.
Gonzalez’s success has left a lasting impression on the tight end position, with his unmatched career achievements serving as a benchmark for future generations. His ability to create mismatches and exploit opposing defenses has helped redefine the role of the tight end in modern football. As the sport continues to evolve, Gonzalez’s contributions will continue to inspire tight ends and football enthusiasts alike.
#1 – Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski, affectionately known as “Gronk,” is the best tight end of all-time for one simple reason. The position is known for both it’s blocking and receiving ability and in his prime Gronk was the best at both.
Rob Gronkowski’s professional career began in 2010 when the New England Patriots drafted him in the second round of the NFL Draft. Gronkowski quickly became a dominant force at the tight end position, earning five Pro Bowl selections (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017) and four First-Team All-Pro honors (2011, 2014, 2015, and 2017).
Throughout his career, Gronkowski has accumulated 9,286 receiving yards and 92 touchdowns on 621 receptions. He holds the NFL record for the most career postseason receiving touchdowns by a tight end, as well as numerous other records.
Rob Gronkowski’s impact on the game of football can be seen in his unparalleled physicality and ability to dominate opposing defenses. His combination of size, speed, and athleticism, along with his aggressive playing style, made him unstoppable in both the passing and rushing game. Gronkowski’s success has influenced the way tight ends are utilized in modern offenses, with his unique skill set becoming a blueprint for the position.
Gronkowski has also been a key contributor to numerous championship teams, including four Super Bowl-winning squads – three with the New England Patriots and one with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His clutch performances in crucial moments have solidified his status as one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history.
While you may argue for any of the top 3 players to be first on the list, Rob Gronkowski earns the nod due to both his pass catching dominance and run blocking dominance. Run blocking is an art rarely acknowledged by the average fan, but it shouldn’t be considering it helped Gronk win three Super Bowl rings.
Throughout the history of the NFL, these top 10 best tight ends have showcased their extraordinary abilities and reshaped the way the game is played. From setting records to making game-winning catches, these players have provided some of the most memorable moments in football history. As the sport continues to evolve, the legacy of these influential tight ends will be remembered and admired by fans and players alike. They have undoubtedly earned their place among the greatest athletes to ever grace the gridiron.
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