There’s no question the tight end position has evolved over time. In today’s modern NFL the tight end can be one of the most dangerous weapons on the field (see Travis Kelce). In the past the NFL game was focused on the run and tight ends were expected to be elite at run blocking. Now, the game has shifted and offenses have become pass heavy. With that, tight ends are now expected to be down the field threats that can open up an offense.
When looking at who are the best tight ends of all time it’s important to focus on the era they were playing. By doing so we can get a more accurate measurement of their impact on the game. Let’s take a closer look and break down the greatest tight ends to play in the NFL.
10. Charlie Sanders
Picking the 10th-best tight end was the toughest choice. Charlie Sanders, the Detroit Lions legend makes the cut. The Hall of Fame tight end was considered one of the best during his 10-year career. Many credit Sanders for revolutionizing the position as he was one of the first great pass catching tight ends. Like many of the tight ends we see in today’s game, Sanders had a basketball background. This allowed him to use his athleticism to high point the ball and come up with acrobatic catches. Sanders was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007 and passed away in 2015.
9. Jason Witten
Throughout his 17-year career, Jason Witten established himself as one of the most consistent and dependable tight ends in the NFL. Known for his high football IQ, precise route-running, and reliable hands, Witten consistently produced at a high level. His toughness and leadership on and off the field earned him immense respect from teammates and coaches. Witten will always be a fan favorite in Dallas and should one day make the Hall of Fame.
8. Mike Ditka
Mike Ditka was the first ever tight end to make the Hall of Fame. As a player, he was a dominant force in both the receiving and blocking aspects of the game. Ditka’s physicality, toughness, and tenacity set the standard for future generations of tight ends. His contributions as a player and later as a successful coach further solidify his legacy. Ditka was one of the most influential figures in the history of the position.
7. Antonio Gates
Antonio Gates unique journey from college basketball player to NFL star exemplifies his exceptional athletic ability and adaptability. Gates seamlessly transitioned into football and became one of the most reliable and productive tight ends of his generation. Known for his basketball-like skills on the field, Gates utilized his size, leaping ability, and strong hands to create mismatches and consistently make big plays throughout his illustrious career with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. He will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2024 and surely will make it in.
6. Ozzie Newsome
Ozzie Newsome’s consistent production and reliability made him one of the most respected tight ends of his era. Throughout his 13-year career with the Cleveland Browns, Newsome showcased exceptional hands, precise route running, and a knack for making crucial plays in key moments. His ability to consistently contribute as a receiver and a blocker earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Oz” and solidified his place among the best tight ends of all time.
5. Kellen Winslow Sr.
Kellen Winslow Sr.’s revolutionary contributions to the passing game set him apart as a true trailblazer at the tight end position. His exceptional receiving skills and athleticism paved the way for future generations of tight ends. Winslow Sr.’s memorable performances, including the legendary “Epic in Miami” playoff game, etched his name in NFL history and solidified his status as one of the all-time greats.
4. Shannon Sharpe
Shannon Sharpe’s remarkable speed and versatility made him a game-changer at the tight end position. His ability to stretch the field and make explosive plays resulted in three Super Bowl victories and numerous records. Sharpe’s impact as both a receiver and a blocker showcases the diverse skill set that sets him apart in the annals of tight end history. Sharpe continues to make an impact in the sports industry as a media personality.
3. Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez’s 17-year career is a testament to his unparalleled consistency and exceptional receiving skills. Known for his precise route running and sure hands, Gonzalez set the standard for modern tight ends. His ability to contribute as a blocker and a receiver, along with his record-breaking statistics, solidifies his position as one of the greatest tight ends of all time.
2. Travis Kelce
At age 33, Travis Kelce is showing no signs of slowing down. Kelce and Patrick Mahomes are the greatest quarterback/tight end duo the game has ever seen. Kelce possesses elite route-running abilities and the shiftiness of a wide receiver. With 2 Super Bowl titles already under his belt, the 8-time All-Pro tight end will no doubt be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
1. Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski’s combination of size, strength, and athleticism makes him a matchup nightmare for any defense. His ability to overpower defenders and make acrobatic catches in the red zone has made him one of the most dominant tight ends in history. Gronkowski’s rapport with Tom Brady resulted in numerous record-breaking seasons and four Super Bowl championships, cementing his legacy as the best tight end of all time.
Looking for more all-time great lists? Check out our top 10 quarterbacks of all time feature.