The Best Tight Ends in the History of the NFL

NFL’s all-time greatest tight ends

For lack of a better term, the Tight End position has “glowed up” in recent years. To what extent, though, and which players have TEs been particularly successful?

The offensive tight end is a bit of a chameleon, lining up on either side of the offensive line to block in the running game or the passing game. Most importantly, a tight end can also play the role of receiver in a passing game.

Despite the potential scheme flexibility tight ends could offer coaches, the typical tight end has been used primarily as a blocker for decades. The passing game’s use of the position was limited to the occasional meandering upfield, turn, and pray route for 6 yards.

However, early practitioners of the role have demonstrated to coaches the competitive advantage of a nimble tight end in the passing game.

Coaches in the NFL increasingly view the tight end as a key component of the passing game and one of the team’s most athletic players. In many cases, blocking is not even close to being their primary strength.

How effective, then, were the ancestors who blazed the path before us? Has the NFL seen more talented tight ends in the last few decades who have surpassed them?

This week on The Sporting Blog, we’re going to look at some of the greatest tight ends in NFL history.

Winslow, Kellen

Winslow is one of the pioneers, as he was one of the first tight ends in the NFL to become a household name as a deep threat.

He entered the league with the Chargers after being drafted in the first round, and he never played for another NFL club. The future Hall of Famer missed most of his first season due to injury. However, in 1980 and 1981, he made up for it by finishing first in the league in receptions.

Only two other tight ends had ever led the league in receiving in consecutive seasons before he did it (Mike Ditka was the other).

Winslow was used by the Chargers in ways that, to this point, the rest of the league had never seen very often from a tight end. Winslow’s “Epic in Miami,” in which he set a postseason record with 13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown while also blocking a field goal to force overtime, is widely regarded as the pinnacle of his career.

In a famous scene, Winslow collapsed during a game and had to be carried off by his teammates.

Injuries cut short Winslow’s career in 1987, but not before he had left an indelible mark on the NFL with 6,741 receiving yards and 45 touchdowns in an era when such production from a tight end was unheard of.

Shanon Sharpe

Many NFL fans recognize Shanon Sharpe now for his work as a sports commentator, but he earned that role with his stellar play at tight end during his 14 years in the league.

Sharpe was drafted by the Broncos in the seventh round in 1990, and he struggled mightily at first before finally finding his footing in the NFL.

Sharpe was a wide receiver in college, but scouts didn’t think he was a good fit for his position in the pros because of his size. He is one of the first “oversized receivers” to play tight end professionally.

Sharpe was virtually unstoppable once he got going, and he took advantage of his receiver skills against middle linebackers and safeties who struggled to keep up with his silky smooth routes.

With John Elway at quarterback, he became an integral part of Denver’s offense that won back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1990s (1997 and 1998). Sharpe protected his quarterback, Trent Dilfer, in the middle of the field during those championship seasons and again in 2000 with the Baltimore Ravens.

Two more successful seasons in Denver saw Sharpe finish with over 10,000 career receiving yards.

Antonio Gates

Whenever a tight end “posted up” in the end zone on a play, the name Antonio Gates is likely to come up in the commentary. To play tight end in the NFL, scouts were increasingly looking for and signing former basketball players like Gates.

Gates didn’t even try out for the college football team. But the Chargers signed him as an undrafted free agent, and he may go down as the franchise’s best free agent signing ever.

Gates, like Winslow, spent his entire career with the Chargers and amassed 11,841 receiving yards over the course of 16 seasons.

He ranks seventh all-time among NFL players with 116 touchdown receptions, and he still holds the record for tight end touchdown receptions. Gates and his quarterback, Phil Rivers, were integral parts of the Chargers’ success in the late 2000s.

While neither player won the Super Bowl, they did come close in the AFC Championship Game. Gates, a legend of American Football, will undoubtedly be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2023, when he first becomes eligible. Check out our American Football Guide for more on the history of the game.

Tony Gonzalez

Gonzalez played in the NFL for 17 years, which is remarkable for any position but especially the tight end position. He is as reliable a player as any in the league’s history.

After a slow start to his career, Gonzalez never again had a receiving yard total of less than 600.

Gonzalez started a movement of former basketball players who now play tight end. Gonzalez’s combination of size and speed made him a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses at a time when tight ends were still largely an afterthought in the passing game.

The tight end’s all-time record for receiving yards is 15,127, which the Hall of Famer still owns. Considering that only Gonzalez (a tight end) is in the top 25, that places him sixth all-time among receivers.

Unfortunately, one of the NFL’s best tight ends was never able to take his game to the next level and win a playoff game in his professional career. However, Gonzalez’s numbers are undeniable. During his time with the Kansas City Chiefs, he set a number of franchise records in addition to breaking several NFL marks.

He was only with the Atlanta Falcons for a fraction of a season, but he quickly became a key weapon for Matt Ryan in the passing game and helped the team advance all the way to the NFC Championship Game in 2012, just short of a Super Bowl berth.

After retiring from professional football, Gonzalez has moved on to a career in media covering the NFL and has even dabbled in the film industry. In the 1980s, it would have been unheard of for a former NFL tight end to become a movie star.

Rob Gronkowski

The only active player on this list, “Gronk” is widely regarded as the position’s most prominent representative in the 2010s. In fact, as recently as February of 2021, he won the Super Bowl with two touchdowns and hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.

Without a doubt, Gronkowski’s career has been enhanced by his long association with arguably the best quarterback in NFL history. In any case, Gronkowski and Tom Brady’s chemistry in the passing game is unprecedented. Their 106 touchdown passes together (and counting!) make them the second highest scoring quarterback-receiver tandem in NFL history.

Gronkowski retired for a year after helping the Patriots win three Super Bowls before signing with the Bucs after his best friend and fellow NFL player, Tom Brady, moved to Florida. The Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV in their inaugural season back together by beating the Chiefs 31-9.

Gronk is the first tight end in NFL history to also lead his position in receiving touchdowns, and he already holds a number of positional records (17 in 2011). He has the record for the most receiving yards in a postseason by a tight end and is the only tight end in NFL history to have gained 1,000 or more receiving yards in the playoffs (1,163).

Gronkowski is widely regarded as the greatest tight end in NFL history, and I could go on and on about why that is the case.