With the retirement of Antonio Gates, the NFL is saying goodbye to one of the greatest tight ends in league history. Gates was part of an era where things started to change for the tight end, and the future Hall of Famer helped bring a renaissance to the position and set a new path for future NFL tight ends.
Where does Gates stand among the all-time greats? Find out with this list of the best 25 tight ends in NFL history:
The 2019 All-Pro tight end is one of the toughest players to rank on this list. He's played in the league for only three years, but he's also posted two of the most dominating seasons ever from a tight end. Last season, Kittle set a record for the position with 1,377 receiving yards, and he followed that up with 85 catches and 1,053 yards this season. He benefits from playing in the passing era, but Kittle is well on his way to becoming one of the best tight ends in history.
Young started his career similarly to the way Kittle has: an All-Pro nomination and a few Pro Bowls. As a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1973, Young posted 55 receptions for 854 yards and six touchdowns. Unfortunately he never built upon that success and didn't return to the Pro Bowl after his third season. Young was still great enough to make this list, though, as he finished with 418 catches, 5,106 receiving yards and 27 touchdowns in 13 seasons.
A key contributor for the New York Giants on two Super Bowl winning teams, Bavaro made two All-Pro teams in his career. His best season came in 1986 when he led the Super Bowl champions with 66 catches and 1,001 receiving yards. Bavaro ended his 10-year career with 351 receptions, 4,733 receiving yards and 39 touchdowns.
It's hard to believe Clark made only one Pro Bowl. He made a living being Peyton Manning's security blanket for most of the 2000s. In 2009, Clark posted 100 catches for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns on his way to his only All-Pro team. He set a career high with 11 touchdowns in 2007 and won the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in 2006. Clark also played one season each for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens. He finished his 11-year career with 505 catches, 5,665 yards and 53 touchdowns.
Smith unfortunately died of AIDS before quite a few tight ends on this list began their careers, but he remains one of the best ever at his position. He posted career highs of 67 receptions, 849 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 1967 and then made the All-Pro team with 54 catches, 682 yards and nine scores in 1969. Playing his entire career for Washington, Smith posted 421 receptions, 5,496 yards and 60 touchdowns.
There were so many weapons on the Cowboys during their dynasty in the early 1990s that it's easy to forget about Novecek. But from 1991-95, he was arguably the best tight end in the NFC, posting 280 catches and nearly 3,000 yards and helping the Cowboys win three Super Bowls. His best season came in 1992 when he made the All-Pro team with 68 receptions, 630 yards and six touchdowns. He also recorded 705 yards during his final season, in 1995. Prior to arriving in Dallas in 1990, Novacek played for the then St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals.
One of just three tight ends in NFL history to become a top-five pick, Odoms lived up to his draft hype, making four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams in his 12-year career. He earned his All-Pro bids in 1973 and 1974, posting 85 catches for 1,268 yards and 13 touchdowns combined in those two seasons. Yep, it was a different era back then. Odoms registered 396 receptions, 5,755 yards and 41 touchdowns in his career.
Olsen is one of the tougher tight ends to rank on the list. He was underrated early in his career, which is why he has only three Pro Bowls, but he wasn't quite good enough to make the All-Pro team either. There's no shame in not beating out Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski for All-Pro, but compared to the older tight ends, Olsen also benefits from having played in a pass-heavy era. There's no denying, though, that Olsen belongs somewhere in the top 20 based on his steady production throughout his 13-year career. Olsen has posted five seasons of at least 800 receiving yards, including three years with more than 1,000 on his way to 718 catches and 8,444 career receiving yards.
Just like Odoms, Coates was the league's most dominant tight end for two seasons, earning a pair of All-Pro nominations in back-to-back years, during the 1994 and 1995 seasons. Starting in 1994, Coates also made five straight Pro Bowls. Coates caught 96 balls for 1,174 yards (both career highs) and seven touchdowns in 1994. He helped lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 1996 and then won a Super Bowl in his only season not in New England, with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.
No tight end has started a career better than Jackson. He recorded 194 catches and more than 2,000 receiving yards in his first three seasons on his way to three All-Pro nominations. Jackson also made the Pro Bowl with the Dolphins in 1992 and Packers in 1996. Jackson helped the Packers win the Super Bowl in his final season during 1996. He finished his career with 441 receptions, 5,283 yards and 49 touchdowns.
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Christensen to play fullback but after missing his entire rookie season in 1978, the team asked him to play tight end. He refused, and the team released him after training camp. He then experienced an unmemorable season with the Giants in 1979, after which he finally agreed to play tight end, with the then Oakland Raiders in 1980. Christensen broke out in 1982 and became an All-Pro in 1983. He made five straight Pro Bowls starting that season and again made the All-Pro team in 1985. Christensen posted three 1,000-yard seasons and led the league in catches twice.
It's hard not to imagine where Graham would be on this list had the New Orleans Saints not traded him to the Seattle Seahawks. Graham was an absolute star in New Orleans, posting four straight seasons with at least 80 catches and 880 receiving yards. He registered a career-high 1,310 receiving yards in 2011 and then led the NFL with 16 touchdowns in 2013. Since the trade after the 2014 season, Graham hasn't been quite as dominant, but he made the Pro Bowl again in 2016 and 2017. During 2016, Graham reached 900 receiving yards just a season after tearing his patellar tendon.
The Chiefs tight end has made each of the five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams since 2016. He hasn't shown any signs of slowing down either, and with Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback, Kelce should remain one of the best tight ends in the NFL for a few more years, giving him the opportunity to move up this list. Kelce has posted at least 80 catches and 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last four years. He's arguably in the midst of the greatest four-year stretch for any tight end in history.
Smith never made All-Pro, but he was one of the best tight ends in the 1960s and thus received enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He did some things tight ends never did, starting with five straight Pro Bowls in 1966. In 1967 Smith recorded 56 receptions and averaged 21.5 yards per catch on his way to 1,205 yards. He also had a career-high nine touchdowns that year. Smith registered more than 4,000 receiving yards during his five-year peak. He played 16 seasons in the NFL and also punted early in his career. He ended his NFL playing days with 480 catches and nearly 8,000 receiving yards, averaging 16.5 yards per catch and 40 touchdowns.
The 1968 Lions third-round pick never caught 50 passes or reached even 700 receiving yards in a season, but his three All-Pro bids and seven Pro Bowl appearances speak for themselves. From 1969-71, he was the clear cut best tight end in the NFL, making the All-Pro team each year. He posted a career-high 656 receiving yards in 1968 and six touchdowns in 1970. Sanders received enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
Playing his entire career for the Browns, Newsome was one of the best tight ends of the 1980s. He made All-Pro in 1984 with 89 catches, 1,001 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Newsome also reached the 1,000-yard receiving mark in 1981. Newsome surpassed 700 receiving yards five times and made three Pro Bowls. He received his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
His numbers aren't as outstanding as some of the other tight ends in the top 10, but Casper's four-year run on the All-Pro team from 1976-79 speaks for itself. He made the Pro Bowl in all of those seasons and also in 1980. During that five-year stretch, Casper posted four seasons with at least 690 receiving yards. He also helped the Raiders win two Super Bowls. Casper received his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
This ranking might seem a little low for Sharpe, but he dropped a few spots because of his reputation as a poor blocker. As a receiver, there's no denying Sharpe was one of the best tight ends of all time. He made four All-Pro teams, posting three 1,000-yard seasons. In 1996 and 1998, Sharpe scored 10 touchdowns. He made three of his All-Pro squads from 1996-98, and during that stretch he helped the Broncos win back-to-back Super Bowls. He was the leading receiver for the Super Bowl champion 2000 Ravens as well. Sharpe had nine seasons of at least 700 receiving yards on his way to 815 receptions and more than 10,000 yards in his career. Sharpe received enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
The longevity of Witten's career will get him in the Hall of Fame alone, but he also was one of the best tight ends of the 2000s. From 2004-09, Witten averaged more than 80 catches and 900 receiving yards per season, which has rarely been done by any other tight end over a six-year span. He recorded two All-Pro seasons with more than 1,000 receiving yards in each. Overall, Witten has registered 12 seasons of more than 700 yards. Add it all up, and he's among the leaders in receptions and receiving yards not just at tight end but also counting all pass catchers in NFL history. Witten has 1,215 catches, nearly 13,000 receiving yards and 72 touchdowns.
Similar to Witten, Gates displayed dominance and longevity while playing all of his career with one team. Starting in his second season, he made three straight All-Pro teams from 2004-06. Gates had 900 receiving yards in all three of those seasons and added a fourth 900-yard year in 2007. Gates never made All-Pro after 2006, but he posted 1,157 receiving yards in 2009 and two more double-digit touchdown seasons in 2010 and 2014. Gates retired this month with 10 seasons of 700 receiving yards, 955 catches and almost 12,000 career receiving yards.
Ditka retired almost 50 years ago, so it's quite difficult to compare him to more modern-day players, but he's one of those classic football stars who could have played in any era. Ditka burst onto the scene as a rookie to record 56 catches, 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1961. The yardage, touchdowns and yards per catch average he posted that season turned out to be career highs. He made five straight Pro Bowls to begin his career and two All-Pro teams, in 1963 and 1964. During his first five seasons, he posted more than 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns, which would have been incredible numbers for a wide receiver during that era. Ditka finished with 427 catches, 5,812 receiving yards and 43 touchdowns. The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted him in 1988.
The 1979 first-round pick didn't star as a rookie like Ditka did, but Winslow made three straight All-Pros starting in 1980. He made All-Pro in 1982 despite only playing in nine games. Winslow posted more than 85 catches and 1,000 receiving yards three times in his career; in 1980 and 1981, he led the NFL with 89 and 88 receptions, respectively. His team never advanced to the Super Bowl, but Winslow was part of an offense that began transforming the NFL into more of a passing league, and his play began to set a precedent for more athletic players lining up at tight end. He finished his career with 541 receptions, 6,741 yards and 45 touchdowns.
His career was cut too short, and he was often injured, but when healthy, Gronkowski could do anything Bill Belichick wanted him to do at tight end. From 2011-17, if he played more than 14 games he made the All-Pro team, which unfortunately was only four times. If not for injuries, Gronkowski probably would have reached 1,000 receiving yards in seven straight seasons. As it is, he posted four 1,000-yard campaigns and five seasons of at least 10 touchdowns. Gronkowski also helped the Patriots usher in a new era of Super Bowls, winning three championships, in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Gronkowski retired at 29 with 521 catches, 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns.
Mackey is widely regarded as the best tight end of the 20th century and still among the greatest at the position of all time despite not having the receiving numbers comparable to the modern players. Mackey was the best tight end in the league in the late 1960s, recording five seasons of at least 600 yards, including three of more than 725 yards, in the decade. He made three All-Pro teams from 1966-68. Mackey and Johnny Unitas were the Colts' two best players during that time. Without Unitas for much of the 1968 season, Mackey and backup quarterback Earl Morrall led Baltimore to a near perfect 13-1 regular season in 1968. Mackey ended his career with 331 catches, 5,236 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
As great as all of these tight ends were, there really is no debate for No. 1. Gonzalez amassed an incredible six All-Pro nominations and 14 Pro Bowls during his 17-year career, both of which are tight end records. He made the All-Pro team in three different decades, which exemplifies his incredible dominance and longevity. Gonzalez recorded 13 seasons with at least 800 yards, including four campaigns with 1,000 yards. He also had 14 years with more than 70 catches. Gonzalez could have easily kept playing too, as some of his most consistent seasons came at the backend of his career. His final numbers are some of the best for any pass catcher in NFL history, let alone at tight end: 1,325 catches, 15,127 receiving yards and 111 touchdowns. He remains third all time in receptions and sixth in receiving yards in NFL history. Gonzalez became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2019.
Dave Holcomb began working as a sports writer in 2013 after graduating from Syracuse University. Over the past six years, he has covered the NFL, NHL, MLB, fantasy sports, college football and basketball, and New Jersey high school sports for numerous print and online publications. Follow Holcomb on Twitter at @dmholcomb.
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