Top 10 tight ends of all time

Profile Picture: Ashley Anderson

July 30th, 2021

Tight ends don’t get much glory, but the position may be most responsible for the way football has changed in the last decade.

Travis Kelce and George Kittle are some of the most lethal players in today’s pass-happy NFL, with their ability to block and beat defenses down the field. The pair may one day go down as two of the best at their position, but for now, let’s see where they rank among the top 10 tight ends of all time. 

10. Mike Ditka

He may be best known for coaching the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl in 1986, but Mike Ditka was once one of the most famous tight ends of his era.

As Rookie of the Year in 1961, the brutal blocker caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The five-time Pro Bowler went on to win the NFL championship with Chicago in 1963 and later won a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys during the 1971 season.

Ditka also won a Super Bowl as an assistant coach for Dallas in 1978. He and Tom Flores are the only people to win an NFL title as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.

9. Ozzie Newsome

Like Ditka, Ozzie Newsome has enjoyed success in the NFL, both as a player and staff.

A longtime offensive captain of the Cleveland Browns, Newsome made seven playoff appearances between 1980 and 1989, and played in three conference championship games, each of which resulted in losses to the Denver Broncos.

The three-time Pro Bowler is one of five Browns players to play across three decades and was the leading tight end in NFL history, with 662 receptions for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns, at the time of his retirement in 1990.

Nicknamed the “Wizard of Oz,” Newsome competed in 198 consecutive games and caught at least one pass in 150 straight games — a streak that ended a year before he retired.

His best single-game outing was against the New York Jets in 1984, when he caught 14 passes for 191 yards.

In addition to his success with the Browns, Newsome won two Super Bowls as general manager of the Baltimore Ravens.

8. John Mackey

A fast, elusive runner who could break tackles and lay down ferocious blocks, John Mackey added a new element to the tight end position as a long-distance threat who could blow past defenses.

In 1966, six of his nine touchdown catches were on plays of 51, 57, 64, 79, 83 and 89 yards.

The second tight end to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Mackey was named to five Pro Bowls and beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl V, a game in which he snagged a deflected pass from Johnny Unitas and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown (then a Super Bowl record).

Throughout his 10-year career, which included a one-year stop at the San Diego Chargers, Mackey missed just one game and retired with 331 receptions for 5,236 yards and 38 touchdowns.

As a testament to his impact, college football named the honor awarded to the best tight end in the country after Mackey.

7. Travis Kelce

Eight-year Kansas City Chiefs veteran Travis Kelce has already established himself as one of the greats, and he still has a lot of football left to play.

The Super Bowl champ and six-time Pro Bowler has posted more 1,000-yard receiving seasons (5) than any tight end in history, and is likely to add a few more before he retires.

Kelce also holds the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end, with 1,416, which he set in 2020. His two 100-reception seasons are another record for his position, and in 2019, he became the fastest tight end to record 500 catches.

In 2020, only wideout Stefon Diggs racked up more receiving yards, while Kelce also ranked fifth among all receivers in touchdowns (11) and receptions (105).

6. Jason Witten

Like another player on our list, longtime Cowboys star Jason Witten spent a brief stint in retirement, before he returned to the league to pad an already packed résumé.

An old-school tight end who could block, run routes, and catch passes with excellence, Witten was a reliable piece of the Cowboys’ offense for 16 seasons and helped the team to four division titles and six playoff appearances.

When he officially retired at the end of one season with the Las Vegas Raiders, in 2020, the 11-time Pro Bowler ranked fourth all time in receptions (1,228) in NFL history and played the most consecutive games by a tight end (243, including the postseason).

He set a single-game record for receptions (18) by a tight end in 2012, was the fastest at his position to reach 600 receptions, and caught 71.4% of his targets on the way to 13,046 career receiving yards (19th all time).

5. Shannon Sharpe

In the 1990s, Shannon Sharpe laid the blueprint for the future of the tight end position. Defenses consistently double-teamed the imposing route-runner, and yet he continued to haul in catches from legendary QB John Elway, as well as Trent Dilfer, during Sharpe’s two-year stint with the Ravens.

Sharpe won three Super Bowl titles (two with Denver in ’98 and ’99, and one with Baltimore in 2001), and was named to the Pro Bowl eight times. He became the first at his position to accumulate 10,000 receiving yards and finished his career as the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions (815), receiving yardage (10,060) and receiving touchdowns (62) by a tight end. Tony Gonzalez and Witten later surpassed Sharpe in all three of those categories, but it was the longtime Bronco who demonstrated the type of influence a tight end can have on the passing game.

4. Antonio Gates

A former power forward at Kent State, Antonio Gates intended to play in the NBA, but scouts told him he lacked a future in basketball. Gates then arranged a workout with the NFL and signed with the San Diego Chargers in 2003 as an undrafted free agent, despite having never played college football.  

In his first season, Gates ascended from third-string tight end to starter and recorded his first 100-yard receiving game in Week 15. He spent his entire career with the Chargers (2003-18) and retired as the league's all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (116) by a tight end. That mark also ranks seventh among all players in NFL history.

The eight-time Pro Bowler ended his career with 955 receptions and 11,841 receiving yards, both third all time at his position.

3. Kellen Winslow

Another TE who excelled with the Chargers, Kellen Winslow ushered in a new era of the tight end, when he began running wide receiver-type routes in the Air Coryell offense made famous by former coach Don Coryell.

Before Winslow, tight ends mainly focused on blocking and ran shorter drag routes. Winslow changed all of that and became nearly impossible to defend because of his versatility. Winslow achieved a then-record 89 catches in 1980, which broke Ditka’s record (75) at tight end. That same season, Winslow posted 1,290 yards, a single-season record at his position, at the time.  

The five-time Pro Bowler finished his eight-year career with 541 receptions, 6,741 receiving yards, and 45 touchdowns through 109 games. His 61.8 yards per game is third all time among tight ends, behind Rob Gronkowski and Kelce.

2. Rob Gronkowski

Exuberant tight end Gronkowski helped make the New England Patriots one of the most dominant franchises in recent history when he teamed up with Tom Brady in 2010. Now he and Brady are on their way to turning the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into another dynasty.

The 6'6", 268-pound force of nature won three Super Bowl titles with the Pats, plus one with the Bucs in 2020, a year removed from a one-year stint in retirement.

In nine NFL seasons, Gronk has earned five Pro Bowl nominations and set a multitude of records.

In 2011, he became the only tight end to lead the league in touchdown receptions, with 17, which also set a single-season record at his position. That same season, he put up a record 1,327 receiving yards, which was later broken by Kittle’s 1,377 yards in 2018, and Kelce in 2020.

Gronkowski is the first tight end to achieve three seasons with 10 or more touchdowns and at least 1,000 receiving yards (2011, 2014–15). His 1,273 yards and 14 receiving TDs in the postseason are a career record at his position.

1. Tony Gonzalez

Another basketball player who transitioned to tight end, Tony Gonzalez had an astounding career with the Chiefs (1997-2008) and Atlanta Falcons (2009-13). During that time, Gonzales only missed two games out of a possible 272, and consistently put up solid numbers, even in the latter part of his career.

By the time he retired, the tight end had tallied 15,127 receiving yards and 1,325 receptions, both the most by anyone at his position. He’s also third all-time in receptions by any player, trailing wide receivers Jerry Rice and Larry Fitzgerald. Amazingly, Gonzales only lost two fumbles on those 1,325 touches.  

A 14-time Pro Bowler — tied for the most selections in history — Gonzales was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. When he left the NFL at the end of the 2013 season, Gonzalez had finished in the top 10 of many receiving categories for any position, proof of his excellence and impact on the game.