July 15, 2024


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20 greatest tight ends in NFL history

Rob Gronkowski
“87 Rob Gronkowski” flickr photo by pvsbond https://flickr.com/photos/pvsbond/30374749051 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

In the NFL, it’s never been more important to look at the best tight ends of all time. The position is more important than ever and some of the greatest TEs in NFL history have played since the turn of the century and might still be playing today.

But just because a player’s career recently ended or is still playing doesn’t mean that they can’t be considered among the greatest tight ends ever.

Best tight ends of all time

Naturally, we had to extend our list to 20 in order to include the best TEs ever. In addition to all of the recent tight ends to make a huge impact in the league, there are plenty of players from past generations who are among the greatest tight ends of all time.

Of course, even with 20 spots, we weren’t able to include every deserving tight end. But here is our ranking of the 20 best tight ends of all time.

20. Dallas Clark

Despite coming out of Iowa, a traditional hotbed for tight ends, Dallas Clark was often overlooked during his career, appearing at just one Pro Bowl. But he played 11 seasons in the NFL and had one of the most reliable sets of hands of any tight end during his generation.

Clark’s numbers were rarely eye-popping, although he did have one season with 100 catches and over 1,100 receiving yards, which is enough to put him on our list of the 20 best TEs ever.

19. Keith Jackson

In nine short seasons with three different teams, Keith Jackson put together a career that put him in the Hall of Fame.

He was a Pro Bowl selection in six of those nine years and a First-Team All-Pro member in each of his first three NFL seasons. 

18. Vernon Davis

The back half of his career was plagued by injuries, but during his heyday with the 49ers early in his career, there were few tight ends better than Vernon Davis.

He was a phenomenal athlete, making him one of the few tight ends who could be considered a bonafide deep threat.

Davis even led the NFL in receiving touchdowns one season, which is a rarity for tight ends. While he made just two Pro Bowls, Davis put together an impressive career nonetheless.

17. Jimmy Graham

In his prime, there was no tight end more feared than Jimmy Graham. He was essentially a wide receiver who could also play on the line and block.

Unfortunately, his prime only lasted four or five seasons. But during that time, Graham had two seasons with over 1,200 receiving yards and led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 2013. Those seasons and his prime and his five Pro Bowl selections undoubtedly make Graham one of the best tight ends of all time.

16. Greg Olsen

Greg Olsen put in 14 strong seasons before retiring after the 2020 season. His only problem is that he played in an era that was filled with great tight ends.

That limited him to just three Pro Bowl selections. But Olsen also finished his career with over 8,000 receiving yards, racking up over 1,000 yards in a season three times.

15. Jerry Smith

Off the field, Jerry Smith was a fearless trailblazer whose life story should be learned by every fan.

On the field, Smith was also a trailblazer, helping to show that tight ends could do more than block. While he only made the Pro Bowl twice in his 13 seasons, he retired as the all-time leader in touchdown catches by a tight end.

14. Charlie Sanders

While his receiving stats don’t measure up to some of the other great tight ends, Charlie Sanders had an outstanding 10-year career that eventually put him in the Hall of Fame.

He was an exceptional blocker and did amass over 4,800 receiving yards and seven Pro Bowl invitations before an injury forced him to retire early. Nevertheless, he was one of the best tight ends of the 1970s.

13. Ben Coates

With all of the great tight ends in the 21st century, we sometimes overlook Ben Coates as one of the greatest tight ends of all time. He was surely one of the best of the 1990s, spending most of his career with the Patriots before they had Tom Brady making life easier for everyone else.

At one point, he set the single-season record for receptions by a tight end with 96. Coates was also a five-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion who finished his career with over 5,500 receiving yards and 50 touchdowns.

12. Dave Casper

Dave Casper was a part of several iconic moments in Raiders history, making him one of the franchise’s most memorable players. The Hall of Famer was also a five-time Pro Bowler and a four-time First-Team All-Pro Selection.

He also played as an offensive lineman at times and didn’t catch many passers early in his career. However, Casper eventually emerged as a key target in the passing game, amassing over 5,000 receiving yards during his career.

11. Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith is perhaps the perfect example of an old-school tight end combined with a new-school tight end. He could block as well as anyone but also showed incredible grace as a pass-catcher.

Like any true tight end, he welcomed contact and could break arm tackles. Injuries slowed him a little, but in the prime of his career, Smith went to five straight Pro Bowls, ultimately finishing his Hall of Fame career with just under 8,000 receiving yards.

10. Mike Ditka

Most folks probably remember Mike Ditka as a coach, but before then, he was one heck of a tight end. Just by looking at him, it’s easy to see that he was a hard-nosed tight end.

Ditka was an immediate star with the Bears in 1961, winning offensive Rookie of the Year honors and going to his first of five straight Pro Bowls. During his heyday, Ditka could block as well as any tight end in the league, but he was also part of a generation of tight ends that made their presence known in the passing game, as he finished his career with over 5,800 receiving yards.

9. Ozzie Newsome

Before he was a successful executive in the NFL, Ozzie Newsome was one of the best tight ends of his generation.

He set records and made a huge impact during his 13-year career, all coming with the Browns. Newsome was one of the best in the league during the 1980s, going to three Pro Bowls and early All-Pro honors six times.

8. Kellen Winslow

Even though his son never lived up to his full potential, the elder Kellen Winslow is surely among the best tight ends of all time. While he only played nine seasons, he made the most of it, making five Pro Bowls.

Winslow had the skill set that most tight ends can only dream of possessing. He could block like a lineman but catch passes like a wide receiver, which is why he led the NFL in receptions twice.

7. Jason Witten

There aren’t many NFL players who can claim to have gone to 11 Pro Bowls, much less tight ends to reach that mark. But most tight ends aren’t Jason Witten, who played 17 years in the league and was as consistent as any tight end in the league during that time.

Witten was also as durable as any tight end to play the game. He played 16 games in every season except his rookie year when he only played 15 games. That’s a big reason why he’s played in more games than any other tight end and why he finished his career with over 1,200 receptions and over 13,000 receiving yards.

6. John Mackey

John Mackey is arguably the most influential tight end in NFL history, so he must be considered among the greatest tight ends of all time.

Before Mackey, tight ends were rarely used as pass-catchers in a meaningful way. He ended his career with over 5,000 receiving yards, which was a rarity for tight ends of his era. Mackey played 10 seasons, making the Pro Bowl five times, and was eventually elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

5. Antonio Gates

Who could have guessed that an undrafted player who played basketball in college could end up being one of the greatest tight ends ever?

But that’s exactly what happened with Antonio Gates, who still holds the all-time record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end.

He played 16 seasons in the NFL and rarely missed a game in his career. Gates was a 1,000-yard receiver twice, which is a rarity for tight ends. Starting with his second season in the league, Gates went to eight straight Pro Bowls, helping to put him high on our list.

4. Rob Gronkowski

For most of his career, there was no tight end in the league defensive players wanted to guard one-on-one less than Rob Gronkowski. He was an absolute beast who was only slowed down by injuries.

Rob Gronkowski on the #Bucs leaving him in the game to get his catch bonus last season: “I’ve seen that happen before. Not with the Patriots, though. They’ll probably pull you before you hit that bonus there…”
“I shouldn’t have said that.” 😂

In fairness, he had Tom Brady throwing him the ball for most of his career. But Gronk still found ways to get open and do plenty of damage after the catch. In addition to his four Super Bowl wins, Gronkowski was a Pro Bowler five times and still holds the record for most receiving touchdowns in a single season by a tight end.

3. Travis Kelce

Even as an active player, Travis Kelce has done enough to be considered among the greatest TEs in NFL history. At times, he’s simply been impossible to defend one-on-one. In 2015, Kelce began a run of seven straight Pro Bowl selections and counting.

In 2020, he set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end and also owns the tight end record with six straight 1,000-yard seasons (and counting). By the time he’s finished playing, he could have a strong argument for being the best tight end of all time.

2. Shannon Sharpe

Shannon Sharpe is truly only of those players who played tight end in the body of a wide receiver. He was undoubtedly the best tight end of the 1990s, spending the entire decade with the Broncos, helping them win two Super Bowls.

He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and four times was selected as a First-Team All-Pro. Sharpe was the first tight end in NFL history to surpass 10,000 receiving yards, and while many of his records of since been broken, he retired as the all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns among tight ends.

1. Tony Gonzalez

In the history of tight ends, nobody has played the position better than Tony Gonzalez.

Despite how grueling the position can be, he played 17 seasons in the NFL, missing just two games in his entire career. In those 17 seasons, Gonzalez was selected to the Pro Bowl 14 times and was an All-Pro on 10 occasions. He’s also the all-time leader in career receptions and receiving yards for a tight end, leaving no doubt that he’s the best tight end of all time.