With the news that Jason Witten is considering retirement, and Antonio Gates will not be returning to the Chargers (as well as Rob Gronkowski’s flirtation with the idea of retiring before saying he would return) I thought it would be a good time to re-visit ranking the best tight ends of all-time. The position basically came into common usage right after the AFL was formed in 1960, and the NFL expanded with teams in Dallas and Minnesota by 1961. The first award was given in the 1961 season (Mike Ditka was the first team all-pro at tight end that year).
It’s a position that has seen many changes over the years, from more in line blocking to usage all over the field. It can also be a brutal position playing in the middle of the field, and one where careers used to be significantly shortened (something I try to account for here). There’s always a question of peak versus longevity, I’m more of a peak guy, but longevity is good as long as it is higher end longevity. In compiling these rankings, I looked at a variety of things:
- Yearly awards (Pro Bowl and more heavily, all-pro selections) and Decade Awards, as well as Hall of Fame voting;
- Statistical ranks at the position on a yearly basis, weighted toward top finishes;
- Fantasy points over baseline (yards + TDs) using TE12 as the compiler/baseline for determining peak value;
- Stats and percentage of team offense in four best seasons.
Here is the list:
#1 Tony Gonzalez
Easily the top on the list. Yes, Tony Gonzalez played forever and has over 15,000 receiving yards. He also has the most all-pro selections and pro bowls at the position. If anyone questions whether he was just a compiler who lasted forever, point to 2008, at age 32, in his last year in Kansas City. He had over 1,000 yards and 10 TDs on a team where Tyler Thigpen made 11 of his 12 careers starts in the NFL. Most tight ends dream of those numbers with a really good QB. You won’t find any other top one who did that with a third stringer.
#2 Shannon Sharpe
Shannon Sharpe was the dominant tight end of the 1990’s, made four 1st team all-pros, and won three Super Bowls with Denver and Baltimore. His numbers may not look quite as dominant compared to the recent offensive passing explosion of the last decade, but he has both the longevity and dominance to be the next of this tightly grouped five some that follows Gonzalez.
#3 Mike Ditka
Iron Mike Ditka was the first great tight end, and was the best tight end in football through 1965. After that, injuries slowed him down, and you wonder if he would have held up better in today’s game. How dominant was he? On a Bears team that won one title during his peak, he accounted for 31% of the passing yards and 34% of the passing touchdowns, which puts him near the top in peak dominance. (For comparison, in Rob Gronkowski’s four best years, he is at 25% of yards and 34% of TDs.) The game has changed but he should be recognized as the best of the early tight end movement.
#4 Antonio Gates
Gates ahead of Winslow among Chargers’ tight ends? There’s actually a good case for it based not only on longevity, but also dominance. Gates played way longer, and was also named all-pro four times to Winslow’s three. The Chargers of the mid-2000’s didn’t throw the ball as frequently as the Air Coryell teams, and Gates accounted for a ridiculous 40% of Chargers’ receiving touchdowns between 2004 and 2007. For those that think the case for Witten over Gates is close, Gates has twice the all-pro selections and nearly double the number of touchdowns, while having similar receiving yard totals.
#5 Rob Gronkowski
“Gronk” could move higher on this list if his health holds up. He’s already near the top based on his impact on the Patriots’ offense when healthy. He’s been selected all-pro five times, which is already second only to Gonzalez. He’s already got 76 career touchdowns, which is more than several guys below on this list who played much longer.