Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Best Tight Ends of All-Time

OPINION
By John Turney
Tight end is a fairly new position in the NFL. Back in the day, the 'ends' were both tight so everyone was a 'tight end'. But in the 1950s teams, in earnest, split out one end and also split a halfback (who became the flanker). So, the end left on the flanker side became the tight end.

Many of them in the 1950s would still be called halfbacks but they might be 6'4 and 245 pounds. So in reality, the 1950s were a transition period. Also, not all teams lined up the same. Some may have used a tight end, others would use a halfback as a wing. So, for our purposes, we are looking at the tight end as a phenomenon of the last 60-70 years or so.

As always we look at stats, All-Pros, intangibles, testimonials, comments by scouts we've found in the literature of the day—the whole smash. And this is the list we've come up with.

However, before we get to the overall list, here are some breakdowns—
Best Hands
1. Pete Holohan
2. Jerry Smith
3. Ozzie Newsome
4. Todd Christiansen
5. Tony Gonzalez
6. Wesley Walls
8. Kellen Winslow
9. Jimmy Graham
10t. Jay Novacek
10t. Rob Gronkowski

Best Blockers
1. Ed West
2. Hoby Brenner
3. Russ Francis
4. Ron Kramer—Ditka said he "had no peer" as a blocker.
5. Jason Dunn
6. Marv Fleming
7. Larry Brown—Great blocker, hands of stone, converted to tackle
8. Bob Klein—There was serious talk of converting him to tackle.
9. Adrian Cooper
10. Dave Casper
11. Mark Bavaro
12. John Mackey
13. Mike Ditka
14. Don Warren
15. David Hill
16. Heath Miller
17. Ronnie Lee—Such a good blocker, moved to guard and then tackle.
18. Jamie Williams
19. Clarence Kay
20. Eric Green
21. Mark Bruener
22. Dwayne Carswell
23. Howard Cross
24. Mike Barber
25. Kyle Brady
26. Willie Frazier
27. Terry Nelson
28. Fred Arbanas
29. Rich McGeorge
30t. Jim Kleinsasser
30t. Zach Miller
30t. Anthony Becht
30t. Fred Baxter
30t. Paul Seymour
30t. Marcedes Lewis
30t. Marlin McKeever

Best Speed
1. Vernon Davis—a sub-4.4 guy.
2. Rickey Dudley—A legit 4.45 guy
3. Darren Waller—4.45
4. Walter White—No, not that Walter White
5. Oscar Roan
6. Rich Caster—Enough speed to play wide receiver.
7. Russ Francis—A legit 4.6 guy
8. Alvin Reed
9. Jackie Smith
10. Keith Jackson
11. Henry Childs
12. Tony Gonzales

Best Athlete
1. Russ Francis
2. Vernon Davis
3t. Kellen Winslow
3t. Tony Gonzales
3t. Antonio Gates
6. Jackie Smith
7. Todd Christensen
8. Rob Gronkowski

Tallest (35 or more career catches)
6'10"
1. Morris Stroud 
All 6'8"
2. Zachary Hilton
Leonard Pope
Levine Toilolo
All 6'7"
5t. Leonard Pope
Levine Toilolo
Courtney Anderson
Kevin Boss
Scott Chandler
Darren Fells
Jimmy Graham
Demetrius Harris
Don Hasselbeck
Jesse James
David LaFleur
Pete Metzelaars
Evan Moore
O.J. Santiago
Matt Spaeth
Jerramy Stevens
Mike Tice

Heaviest (35 or more receptions)
Brandon Manumaleuna—295
Dwayne Carswell—290ish
Steve Bush—280
Eric Green—280
Orson Mobley—280 (listed less but he was at least 280)
Mike Lucky—280
Kyle Brady— 278
Jason Dunn— 276
Martellus Bennett—275
Alge Crumpler—275
Will Heller— 275
Erron Kinney—275
David Hill—???? Around 230 when he was in Detroit. With Rams pushed three bills.

Here is the overall list—
1. Rob Gronkowski
We will be accused of recency bias because we are picking Gronk as number one. But as someone who held out for John Mackey for years, at this point, like with Unitas, someone as supplanted him

Gronk was not asked to blocked a ton, more than many of the 'receiver-type' tight ends on this list but he did it well. It was not a deficit in his game. "He likes to block and takes pride in having a good block. He gets excited about that. He does a pretty good job," said Bill Belichick.

Maurice Jones-Drew, said, "No one played the game like Gronkowski, who's head and shoulders above all other TEs and it's not close. Don't get me wrong: Tony Gonzalez was great. But Gronk is one of the biggest mismatches of all time, and his ability to be a playmaker in the pass and run games has changed the way the position is viewed. Gronk had the attributes of Gonzalez, but he also blocked like a right tackle. When healthy, the former Patriot was superior in every aspect of the position."

He was a major, major factor in playoffs and championships ( with 81 career receptions for 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns) and he was a five-time All-Pro (four consensus) and a five-time Pro Bowler.

As far as the Hall of Fame it's not a question of 'if' by 'when'. His injuries have kept him from accumulating massive career totals in numbers so he may not be a first-ballot Hall of Famer due to that (if media reports can be believed that quote some voters). However, he will get in quickly.

As for receiving, he ranks among the best. Per 16 games he averaged 72 receptions for 1094 yards (best ever) for a fine 15.1 yards per catch and 11 touchdowns (best ever and nearly three more per 16 games than number two on the list).

And even when players from the past have their numbers adjusted for the era they still don't measure up to Gronkowski. So, when one looks at the numbers, the honors, the 'eye test', the rings, it's hard not to conclude that Gronk has surpassed all other tight ends. His only negative is that he got hurt a lot. And durability is an important factor in the NFL. But, as we say, all things considered, he's the best.

2. John Mackey
The former number one is still a favorite of ours. We still rank him #1 in terms of running after the catch, in that he's the best tight end ever. He was a major force in the Unitas-led Colts offenses of the 1960s.

He was known as a devastating blocker, looking to put defensive ends on the ground. In fact, that's what he loved to do, calling himself a "lineman who could catch". His only flaw was he did drop a few passes too often. Well, no one's perfect.

He's the best at "run after catch" on this list, tough to bring down. Especially if there were worms on the field. He hated them and in Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, after a rain the field would be covered in them and there was no way in Hell that Mackey was going to be tackled and land in those nightcrawlers.

Ernie Accorsi called him the "greatest tight end who ever lived". Deacon Jones said Mackey "defined the position. He could catch the ball a take it all the way—80 yards"

We'd say that Mackey, Mike Ditka, and Mark Bavaro on the short list of toughest to take down. Mackey just seemed to have better balance than anyone and when you couple that will his will to not go down, it made it seemingly impossible at times.

Mackey was All-1960s, a Hall of Famer and a three-time consensus All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler. He was voted as the tight end on the NFL's 50th Anniversary Team while he was still active in 1970. He also made a key reception in Super Bowl V on a tipped (double tipped) pass and took it 75 yards for a score.

He ended his career with a couple of nondescript seasons in 1971 and 1972, the latter in San Diego.

3. Tony Gonzalez
Gonzales is the receiving king of the tight ends. he made 1,325 catches for 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns. He was invited to 14 Pro Bowls, a Seven-time First-team All-Pro (six consensus) and was a Second-team All-Pro three additional times and was All-2000s. He was also a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

No tight end can match these honors and total numbers—1,325 catches for 15, 127 (11.4 avg) and 111 touchdowns.  In some ways, they are Rice-esque—meaning there is so much distance between his and those who trail him.

Like Winslow, Gonzales was a fine hoopster and could run extremely well and had great, great hands. And also like Winslow, he was a mismatch for defenders—the slot corners and safeties were too small, the linebackers were too slow.

He was a "competent" blocker after a few years of working on it, not dominant but much better than when he first came into the NFL.

4. Kellen Winslow
Winslow, like Gronk, had injury issues and didn't get to have a full career. But per 16 games he's still tied for first among tight ends (79) and is second in yards (990) and had an average of 12.5 for 7 touchdowns.

He was transformative, a 6-5, 250-pound former basketball player, he could get downfield and make plays on balls that no tight end before him could do, at least consistently. As part of Air Coryell, he was simply a mismatch on the slot player, whether a linebacker, safety or corner.

His role re-revolutionized the position of tight end taking it from what Mike Ditka and John Mackey made it into something new, more athletic with height and size. Winslow was 25-30 pounds heavier than those two and 2-3 inches taller and faster with better leaping ability.

Joel Buchsbaum of Gannett News Service wrote, "Size makes him difficult to cover and difficult to tackle after the catch. Although not known for in-line blocking he blocks well on the move and can block in-line when it's important. He has great body control for someone so large, like that of a wide receiver"

So, he never got the hang of blocking like Tony Gonzalez did but could do it in a pinch. And he had  serious knee problems. Those are the two negatives.

Winslow was All-Decade, a Hall of Famer, All-1980s and on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994. He was a four-time All-Pro (three consensus) and a five-time Pro Bowler.

5. Mike Ditka
Ditka was a four-time All-Pro (three consensus) and a Second-teamer twice more. He won rings in 1963 and 1971. He was a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team, announced in 1994. He was the first tight end to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988.

He was the equal of John Mackey in terms of blocking and was a fine receiver, too. More than anyone, we think Ditka revolutionized the position. Before him, teams used 'tight ends' but they could be as small as a Raymond Berry and some could be bigger like a Pete Pihos.

In the late-1950s some the Rams would put a smaller player at tight end, and but a big Leon Clarke split as a flanker. There was no uniformity in it. And as we mentioned some teams were still using a fullback and two halfbacks in the early 1960s.

However, after Ditka's monster rookie season in 1961, every team began moving to using a tight end, in a "we gotta get us one of these" they seemed to show by how they began aligning.

Ditka was mean, nasty, tough.

After averaging 60 catches for 858 yards and six touchdowns per 16 games from 1961-66 he was traded to the Eagles and then to Dallas where he wasn't even a full-time starter. From 1967-72 he averaged 24 receptions for 283 yards and 2 TDs per 16 games, as primarily a blocker, often in two tight end sets.

Really, it's a tale of two careers. One as the one of the best-ever and another as a role player.

Maybe a bit better blocker than Mackey and Ditka he also had very soft hands. He could get open but he didn't have much speed. He was All-1970s, a four-time consensus All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler and a Hall of Famer.

He was one of Paul Zimmerman's favorites and Gannett News Services' Joel Buchsbaum's comment was that Casper was "a devastating blocker when the chips are down".

From 1976-82 Casper averaged 56 receptions for 782 yards and  7 touchdowns per 16-games (all first among tight ends during that span). He was productive and durable and was a key 'go-to guy' when Ken Stabler needed a first down or touchdown. His had a touchdown percentage of just under 14%, among the best-ever among tight ends with 300 or more receptions.
Sharpe was All-1990s, an eight-time Pro Bowler, a four-time All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro an additional time and a Hall of Famer and earned three Super Bowl rings. He played some wide receiver early in his career and though not a devastating blocker, he'd stick his nose in there and do the job. He took pride in it and graded well.

Sharpe played a lot of "move" tight end early in his career, with someone else next to the tight end or and H-back in you will. He played more on the line as his career advanced and he got stronger and put on some size. He caught a slew of passes and recorded 62 touchdowns (7.6% of his total catches—Half of Gronkowski's percentage of touchdowns) which indicates more of a chain mover than a red zone weapon.

When we think of Sharpe we are reminded of Rod Tidwell, the fictional wide receiver in the film "Jerry Maguire". He can talk and can be hilarious, but he's really 'all heart'. A guy his size really shouldn't have been a top 10 tight ends in NFL history but he achieved that. So, yeah, he's all heart. Well, maybe 90% are and 10% asshole, but we mean that in a good way.

In the category of Shannon Sharpe, a smaller receiving tight end but who would give good effort in run blocking but he was never great at it. Twice an All-Pro (one being consensus) and four other seasons he was Second-team All-Pro and he was invited to three Pro Bowls. He was a Second-team All-1980s and a Hall of Famer.

If Ditka standardized the position Newsome (along with Kellen Winslow) revolutionized it. They made it a receiving first position. In some ways they took the position to more of what it was in the 1950s, lining up tight, in a wing, wide, in a slot just everywhere.

"Fantastic athlete with superb hands. Has deep speed and runs terrific routes. He lacks Winslow's size but is niftier and more maneuverable", according to Buchsbaum. One coach said, "There is no one better at making a tough catch in traffic on one play then juking a strong safety on another for a 25-yard gain."

He put up great numbers from 1978-86 (per 16 games) with averages of 66 catches 831yards and 5 touchdowns. The last five seasons (1987-90) his averages were less than half those averages.

9. Russ Francis
Maybe the best athlete among all these players, and that is saying a lot. He was a 6-6, 245-pound marvel who ran a 4.6 barefoot (legendarily). He played with the Patriots when they were a run-heavy team and then traded to the 49ers (after sitting out a season) where they threw a lot but Francis had to split time with other tight ends. He just didn't get targeted much but if he came out today he'd be like a more athletic/faster Travis Kelce or a smaller, faster Gronkowski.

Buchsbaum said that wandering concentration caused him to not make the most of his skill set (6-6, 245, 135-138 IQ) and that if he converted his talent into production he would be the NFL's best-ever tight end. "A large, athletic receiver who blocks like a third tackle", wrote Buchsbaum.

Proscout Inc., is even higher on Francis, rating him as one of top three blockers from the tight end position ever based on film study. In fact, they rate him even high all-time than we do. They ask, as a WR "who would cover him?".

He could have been the best ever but in our view, he likely looked at football as a paycheck to fund things we wanted to do in life, like flying, surfing, etc. Also, in his era, there were few offensive coordinators that were creative in the use of tight ends.

The Chargers and Browns featured their tight ends but the Patriots and 49ers didn't. And incredibly Francis played for a pair of the best-ever offensive coordinators,—Ron Erhardt and Bill Walsh. But both of them just didn't do what a couple of others did, and they likely had great reasons.

Erhardt was a fun-first/play action guy and Walsh liked to run but featured short passing game, looking deep to short. It's not a criticism to say they didn't feature Francis, it's just a reality. They featured his blocking more and the occasional lightning strike up the pipe.

So, it adds up to the fact that Francis was a Hall of Fame talent that was asked to do the dirty work of a tight end but he had the skills/talent that exceeds almost everyone on this list. He also played hurt, had a career-high in receptions in 1985 when he began the season with a neck injury.

He was a Pro Bowler/First- or Second-team All-AFC level in 1976, 77, 78, and 80 and a Second-team All-Pro in 1976-78.

10. Jackie Smith
Smith was twice All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler. A tough, tough player, a great blocker and early in his career he could run like a wide receiver. Of all the players on this list, given a modern weight program, Jackie Smith may have the closest skill set of Gronk.

He wasn't as big, of course, in but relative terms he was close, meaning players today are bigger and for his era, Smith was a good-sized one who could really move.

Baltimore writer John Steadman (who saw John Mackey every week) said that Jackie Smith was the finest tight end he ever saw.

One fun stat is in 1972 he rushed 12 times and had 3 rushing touchdowns. Today, folks talk about creativity. We'd love to see some more tight end reverses and maybe a George Kittle can have three rushing touchdowns in 2019.

Smith catches some guff for his dropped pass in Super Bowl XIII but we don't look at that, all these players have some flaws in their careers, some are just more visible than others.

Another excellent basketball player, no tight end has caught more touchdowns. Three times a consensus All-Pro and twice a Second-team Pro Bowler and an eight-time Pro Bowler. He was also Second-team All-2000s, Gates has built a Hall of Fame resume.

 He's in the 'receiver-first' mold like Winslow, Gonzalez, Sharpe, and Newsome, and his blocking ranged from adequate to less than adequate, but he was paid to split seams and to move the chains and is an excellent red zone target.

12. Charlie Sanders
A complete end, when he was in his prime he drew comparisons to John Mackey. A Hall of Famer, Second-team All-1970s, a seven-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro.

He beat out Ron Kramer as a rookie in Detroit and held the job for a decade. He was a good receiver and a good blocker, again similar to Mackey but not quite as explosive a player.

13. Pete Pihos
Not listed as a tight end, but he was one much of the time, but so were almost all the other receivers at the time. But to be accurate he also played outside sometimes, too. Offenses of the 1950s are often hard to categorize in modern terms, there were lots of different looks used. What set him apart was his size and blocking ability. He was also tough enough to be an All-Pro at defensive end the year he played that position regularly.

In his last three seasons, he led the NFL in receptions and on a per-16 game basis he averaged 82 catches for 1,238 yards and 12 touchdowns in those final three seasons. What would that kind of production by a tight end bring in today's market?

14. Jason Witten
Witten is coming back in 2019 after a year in the MNF booth he will add to some impressive numbers. Already he's been All-Pro three times and been invited to 11 Pro Bowls, he is second to Tony Gonzales in receptions and yards among tight ends.

He's a good all-around player, a good, blocker, not devastating and a great third-down target.

15. Mark Bavaro
A complete tight end. He could catch, and when featured he put up impressive numbers, but his best skill was blocking. He had a few good offensive seasons but his lack of sustaining that has hurt his Hall of Fame chances.

He had a "nasty, physical style" and "learned to uncover, caught the ball out front and shields defenders from the ball".

He was All-Pro twice and a Pro Bowler twice and has two rings. We named him to our 1985-95 All-Mid Decade Team, based on his overall play (receiving and blocking).

Stat-wise his career is front-loaded, but blocking wise he was still a factor through the end of his career.

16. Todd Christensen
Christensen was a converted running back who was a fine special teams player early in his career but when he moved to tight end fulltime in 1982 he put up amazing numbers averaging 82 catches for 1048 yards and 7 touchdowns per 16 games from 1982-87.

In that time he was All-Pro three times (two consensus) and Second-team All-Pro once and went to five Pro Bowls. He'd give blocking the old college try but he was never going to be like Bavaro or players like that he knew that catching the rock is what paid his bills. He was known for being a heads up player, one who'd make a smart play with the game on the line.

More of a receiver, in fact, he spent plenty of time outside but was mostly a tight end. His 14.3% of his catches going for touchdowns is second only to Gronk among tight ends with 300 or more catches.

He ranks among the top tight ends in terms of hands, he was known as having "glue fingers" and he could run very well. he was one of the era's smaller tight ends, at about 210 pounds on a 6-3 frame.

Smith was All-Pro in 1967 and 1969 ('69 was consensus) and he went to the Pro Bowl both those seasons. Was known for having excellent hands.

18. Fred Arbanas
Arbanas had post-season honors from 1962-67 including four-time First-Team All-AFL. He was the tight end on the AFL's All-Time team and won a Super Bowl ring in 1969 (and a trio of AFL Championship rings). A noted blocker and from 1962-67, his prime, he averaged 27 receptions a year and 6 touchdowns.

19. Ron Kramer
Mike Ditka said that Kramer "had no peer as a blocker". He played behind Gary Knafelc for a few seasons and served his time in the military but in 1961 he took over the spot and performed very well. Well enough to keep Lombardi happy. In 1962 he was All-Pro and in 1963 he was a Second-team All-Pro. Lombardi called Kramer one of the "best two tight ends in the league" and said he was such a strong and vicious blocker that he allowed him to block defensive ends or one-on-one whereas before always had his "closed ends block in conjunction with the tackle".

Kramer, though, was almost cut by Lombardi in August 1961, "His legs were bad and his attitude was worse".

Kramer, one of the NFL's first free agents played out his option and signed with the Lions. (It wasn't really 'free' agency. The Lions had to give the Packers as #1 pick, part of the 'Rozelle' rule). He had one good year there. he split time in 1965, had a good year in 1966 and lost his job to Charlie Sanders in 1967.

20. Travis Kelce
Coming on big-time, look for him to go up the list if he keeps up the current pace. In just six seasons (five full seasons) he's been All-Pro three times (twice consensus) and been to four Pro Bowls. Has some attitude, but has the skill set, size, and speed to really shoot up this list.

In some ways is a poor man's "Gronk" because he's not the blocker that Gronk is. But also think of this, though Kelce is closing on Gronk's gross numbers in just six seasons his touchdown percentage is 7.8%. Gronkowski's touchdown percentage is 15.2%, the most-ever for tight ends with more than 300 career catches. We show that to illustrate the gap between Gronk's advanced metrics and others.

21. Pete Retzlaff
A player who played more of a split position early in his career and was a very good tight in the 1960s. Retzlaff is one of the players who were kind of a tight end in the 1950s, but kind of not. He's the type we mentioned when discussing Ditka, the one who standardized the position. Retzlaff would play tight or in the slot, or split. It wasn't until his final years that he was a 'pure' tight end.

He was the consensus All-Pro tight end in 1965, however, and he won the hometown Bert Bell Trophy for the NFL's Top Player from the Maxwell Club of Philadelphia.

22. Riley Odoms
Was going to be the new Charlie Sanders, who was the new John Mackey. And for a few years it was true. But he had a tendency to get out of shape and for a year or two, he could have made the "heaviest tight end list".

"Not fast but quick and strong as a bull. Can be a great blocker when he chooses to" by Buchsbaum.

He was a three-time All-Pro (one consensus) and a Second-team pick once more. He received postseason honors  (First- or Second-team All-Pro, first- or Second-team All-AFC, Pro Bowl) every season from 1973-78 and he led all tight ends in receptions and yards in that time and was second in touchdown catches.

Was on the way to the Hall of Fame early in career, but didn't get a lot of postseason honors in the middle of his career. He was a Pro Bowler his first three seasons (1970-72), then one more, in 1979 (He was also All-Pro, though not consensus, in 1979. He was a very good blocker, close to making our top blocker list, he did it all

While with Colts, Chester was his usual self, it's just that the Marchibroda offense didn't throw to the tight end a lot and he didn't rack up numbers. Chester blocked, caught, got deep (especially in 1976 and 1977) and was really terrific, but he didn't put up the numbers that Dave Casper and others did and the Pro Bowls eluded him.

The Colts like to throw to Lydell Mitchell and take deep shots to Roger Carr and use the tight end less than some teams. Actually, not unlike what happened with Russ Francis—a great coach, a great scheme but didn't feature the tight end.

24. Ben Coates

Three All-Pro seasons (two consensus) and five Pro Bowls, Coates was also Second-team All-1990s. he won a ring with the Ravens in 2000.

From 1993-99 Coates averaged 67 catches for 757 yards and 7 touchdowns per 16 games, among the best in the NFL for that span. He was not a one-dimensional receiver, either, he'd block (not sure Bill Parcells would have allowed anything different).

25. Keith Jackson
Also three All-Pros and five Pro Bowls, he was a very good receiver, fair blocker. Had good speed early in his career. We named him Second-team All-1985-85 for his accomplishments in that mid-decade.

One of his Pro Bowls came in his final season (1996) when he caught ten touchdown passes and took home a Super Bowl ring.

26. Jimmy Graham
A tall, athletic, receiving tight end who is still active. In the Saints offense, he was a dynamo, but after leaving there he has not matched that production.

He's been All-Pro and to five Pro Bowls but none recently. Per 16 games he's averaged 71 catches for 868 yards 12.2 (average) for 8.3 touchdowns, that last number is the second-most ever, behind Gronk.

The next couple of years will determine if he will be one of those with more production in the first part of his career (front-loaded). It looks that way now, but he has some time.

Could run and catch, and according to his coaches was "the best blocking tight end in the game". Holman was All-Pro in 1989, Second-team All-Pro in 1990 and a Pro Bowler from 1988-90. He didn't have great speed but enough to "make a defense pay if they didn't cover him with a good athlete".

28. Jim Mutscheller
One of the early tight ends but not called that. When the Colts got halfback Lenny Moore they liked to flank Mutscheller with him. Mutscheller would stay tight on the line, as he usually was, but with Moore outside, Mutscheller would have to be covered by a linebacker or safety since the cornerback would be on Moore.

And in this formation, he thrived. Per 16 games, from 1955-59 he averaged 48 receptions for 798 yards and 10 touchdowns (and a 16.5 yards per catch average). Of course, it was a 12-game season back then and the numbers were not that gaudy but to do an apples-to-apples comparison we have to convert to a standard season and we chose 16 games.

Mutscheller's touchdown catch as a percentage of receptions is 18.2%, the highest ever for any tight end with 200 or more catches. He was a Second-team All-Pro in 1957 and has a championship ring from 1958 and 1959.

29. Jeremy Shockey
Almost the pre- or poor man's Gronk. 6-5, over 250 pounds and could run. Began his career on fire, but the fire died. He was All-Pro once and went to four Pro Bowls. In his first five seasons, per 16 games he averaged 73 catches for 837 yards and 6 touchdowns. The last five seasons those figures are: 56-605-3. Definitely a 'front-loaded' career.

30. Jimmie Giles
A very good all-around tight end, could block well (he's in the John Mackey/Charlie Sanders mold), catch well, and run after the catch. Wasn't as consistent as he needed to be to tap his talents. He was likely the NFC's best tight end from 1970-85. During that time he went to four Pro Bowls.

He had "size and speed" but didn't "live up to his talent" enough, said Buchsbaum.

An excellent blocker, Mitchell one of the best after the catch, hard to bring down. Not quite a Mackey or Bavaro but not far off, either. Sometimes he'd just carry tacklers.

He was Second-team All-Pro in 1972 and a Pro Bowler in 1969 and 1972 and his best seasons may have been 1970 and 1971. In our book, he's a Pro Bowl quality player all four of those years. 

32. Jay Novacek

Troy Aikman's security blanket, a possession tight end, good hands, smart, could find holes in zones. He was All-Pro in 1992, Second-team All-Pro in 1991, and a Pro Bowler from 1991-95. Throw in his Second-team All-AFC pick in 1990 he got postseason honors in his final six seasons. In that span, he also earned three Super Bowl rings. He was a fine athlete, was a world-class decathlete at the University of Wyoming.

33. Bob Trumpy
A tall tight end who could run, and was a solid, but not spectacular blocker, but he was a receiver first. Trump was All-Pro in 1969 and Second-team All-Pro in 1970 and a Pro Bowler from 1968-70 and 1973. Tall (6-6) but not big (about 230 pounds).

34. Steve Jordan
Not very big, but a very good receiver with brains and was a team leader. A Second-team All-Pro once and a six-time Pro Bowler. Especially good seasons in 1985, 86, and 88. One scout said, "Didn't scare anyone with his speed or blocking but he had a good feel for zone coverage and had soft hands"

In a sense, Peyton Manning's security blanket. In 2009 he was a consensus All-Pro when he caught 100 passes for 1106 yards and ten scores.

36. Wesley Walls
Really good hands and a good blocker, too. Walls was Second-team All-Pro three times and a five-time Pro Bowler. As much as any of these tight end, Walls was money in the red zone, a true weapon close to the end zone.
As good an athlete as there ever has been and one of, if not the fastest. He was Second-team All-Pro in 2013 and was a Pro Bowler in 2009 and 2013. Could really get upfield and really, could do it all, but he was not as consistent as he should have been.

38. Bob Schnelker
Similar to Mutscheller's career, but he played long. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and a Second-team All-Pro in 1959. Though they didn't do it as much as the Colts, the Giants flanked out Frank Gifford and that gave Schnelker a size advantage over safeties and a quickness advantage over linebackers assigned to cover him. he had a career yards per catch average of 17.4 and 15.6% of his catches resulted in touchdowns.

39. Brent Jones
Was to Steve Young what Jay Novacek was to Aikman. All-Pro in  1992 and Second-team All-Pro in 1993 and 1994. He was a four-time Pro Bowl and owns three Super Bowl rings (two as a starter).

40. Greg Olsen
Very good in all areas, in a way a poor man's Gronk. Second-team All-Pro in 2015 and 2016 and a three-time Pro Bowler. Injuries have wrecked his last two seasons.
A receiver first, blocker second. But up great numbers in Philly was essentially traded to Rams for Ron Jaworski and didn't play much. because he was such a mediocre blocker he couldn't beat out Terry Nelson. Rams send him to 49ers and he revives his career in the West Coast Offense.

Young began his career as the new "it" tight end. He was First-team All-Pro as a rookie in 1973, Second-team All-Pro in 1974 and First-team All-Pro in 1975. (1973 and 1975 were consensus). He was also, early in his career, good at the tight end reverse.

42. Dave Kocourek
Twice All-AFL (once consensus) and three times Second-team All-AFL. Kocourek was tall and had good size (240 pounds) and ran well.

43. Rich Caster
Fast enough that he actually moved to wide receiver during his career. Could really get deep, especially with a healthy Namath.

As a tight end from 1972-76, he averaged 44 catches for 784 yards and 6 touchdowns for an amazing 17.8 yards per catch. Caster was a 6-5, 228 pound player with very good speed.

44. Delanie Walker
Still active, a very solid and versatile tight end (plays H-back) who is excellent blocker and receiver.

45. Alge Crumpler
Four Pro Bowls for one of the NFL's great names. Crumpler was an all-around tight end, good receiver and very good blocker—one of the bigger tight ends of his time.
Solid type. A Second-team All-Pro once and a three-time Pro Bowler.

47. Paul Coffman
Was a receiver first, but good blocker. He was Second-team All-Pro in 1984 and was a Pro Bowler in 1982-84. He was a solid Lynn Dickey security blanket. "Is not big, fast or athletic looking but this blue-collar gets open, makes catches and blocks well", said Joel B.

48. Heath Miller
Another excellent Steeler tight end who blocked well. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and owns two Super Bowl rings. He was a pop icon for Steeler fans.

A receiver, but according to Fran Tarkenton, Tucker was a good blocker as well. Tucker played 11 seasons and was All-Pro in 1972 and from 1970-73 he averaged 60 catches per 16 games for 832 yards and 5 touchdowns.

50. Todd Heap

Good receiver, good hands, good blocker. He was Second-team All-Pro in 2003 and a Pro Bowler in 2002-03. He ended his career with 499 receptions for 5,869 yards and 42 touchdowns.

51. Billy Joe DuPree
Tough to bring down, punishing runner. Likely best-ever Cowboy blocking tight end. "Superb athlete, quick and powerful and catches well. Strong runner after the catch", according to Buchsbaum

52. Hoby Brenner
Thirteen-year vet, a Pro Bowler in 1987. Like West, Klein blocker first and according to Proscout one of top three blockers ever—no one could set an edge like him. And he had some receiving skills, too. According to one scout, "He was adequate in receiving. Limited in speed and not nifty but gets the job done".

53. Mickey Shuler
Shuler played 14 seasons and was a two-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in 1988. As his peak from 1984-88, he averaged 70 receptions for 773 yards for 5 touchdowns per 16 games. He was "tough as nails, and while his blocking is coming along, it's his receiving that keeps him in the lineup".

54. Eric Green
Excellent blocker and could catch very well. He was huge, 6-5, 280 and ran well for his size. Scout were in awe of his talent. He was Second-team All-AFC in 1990 and a Pro Bowler in 1993 and 1994.

Got in trouble with the NFL's substance abuse policy and missed times with a suspension because of it. He left the Steelers in 1994 with a big-money contract with the Dolphins but just played one season for them before he was released. He played for three teams in five years, actually, after leaving the Steel City.

Could have been a contender for the top twenty had he sustained his early-career production.

55. Ted Kwalick
For three years Kwalick was the best tight end in football (three Pro Bowls, All-Pro once, Second-team All-Pro once) when he averaged (per 16 games) 53 receptions, 817 yards and 7 scores. Impressive numbers for that era.

Then, it was over. He lost his job to Tom Mitchell then he was traded to the Raiders where he only played in certain situations, backing up Dave Casper.

56. Marv Fleming
Tremendous blocker. Owner of five Super Bowl rings, started for a decade in the NFL and blocked for a pair of the greatest rushing attacks ever, the 1960s Packers and the early 1970s Dolphins.

57. Bob Klein
Great blocker, there was talk of moving him to tackle in middle of his career. He was traded to the Charges when Terry Nelson was projected to be the Rams starter. He put is solid service with the Chargers and with Air Coryell, in 1979, Nelson set career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns. 

58. Doug Cosbie
Tall target, good hands. Fair blocker. He went to three Pro Bowls He was to Danny White what Jay Novacek was to Troy Aikman. "Catches almost everything he gets his hands on. He reads coverages well and can find the soft spot in the zone", wrote Buchsbaum. He was "a big target with good hands but average speed and quickness and a mediocre blocker" according to another scout.

59. Ed West
Blocker first, played fourteen years. Dominant on halfback runs to six or right hole (or 7 or 9). According to Proscout, Inc., the best-ever inline blocking tight end. Receiving left a lot to be desired.

60. Don Warren
Had a long career, started for all three Super Bowl wins for the Redskins. He eas a great blocker, one of the best and over the years helped the Hogs running game with his edge-setting blocks.

He could catch okay but usually left the field in passing situations for a tight end who whose skill set was more receiving than blocking. But when asked to run routes could sit down in a zone and post-up in it and make a key grab.

61. Ben Watson
Very talented, moved well, blocked well. Never attained all-star status but was solid regardless.

Other interesting names worth mentioning:
Gary Ballman
Mike Barber
Zach Ertz
Freddie Jones
Jackie Harris
Dan Ross
Milt Morin
Kyle Rudolph
Jermaine Gresham
Keith Byars
Kellen Winslow, Jr. 

Bubba Franks
Jerome Barkum
Martellus Bennett
Aaron Thomas
Marcedes Lewis
Ken Dilger

Mark Chmura 

Tom Mitchell—All he did was replace All-Pros, first John Mackey, then Ted Kwalick.
Zach Miller


Jean Fugett
Billy Truax
Brent Celek
Randy McMichael
Marcus Pollard
Tony McGee
Pete Holohan
Pete Metzelaars
Jared Cook
Chris Cooley
Gary Knafelc
Stu Voigt
Owen Daniels
Ferrell Edmunds
Dave Moore
David Sloan
Marv Cook
Julius Thomas

16 comments:

  1. Awesome job as always but I would put Henry Child as honorable mention somewhere.

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  2. awesome as always....your top 3 are perfect and I have a "Baltimore Colt" bias.....nice recognition for Jim Mutcheller…..thought Greg Olsen would be ranked higher, but of course defer to your expertise

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  3. Really enjoying these. I'd probably have Casper a little higher. I actually think he has at least an argument for best ever, though I would say Gronk's the best I've seen first hand (I'm late 30s). Outside of not being the fastest, I can't think of a knock on him. In addition to what's in his write up, I would add that he had to mostly sit for his first couple seasons behind an entrenched vet (Bob Moore). Like his contemporary Francis was in some run heavy offenses + had to share targets with Biletnikoff and Branch (and eventually Chester) for a while. Then he's traded to Houston in the middle of Campbell's biggest season. Might be a few other small changes but, hey, these things are always subjective.

    Is the Wide Reciever list next? Hope you do sub-categories for that one, too. Think it's a great idea

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    1. Casper could be higher, but who goes down? TEs are a dual position and it's hard to ignore the difference-makers who had big numbers...I think the fact he was traded in his prime says something about his attitude, he didn't love football I think he was great at it, but he's a different guy. But if someone put him higher than I do, I'd be fine with it. I didn't discout his "numbers" because I realize he was in run-heavy offense. But anyone else's picks are as good as mine.

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  4. I'd probably have him ahead of Winslow. The other four all have 'best ever' arguments of their own. Re: Winslow - From 1980-82 he was the best, at least receiving wise. His overall numbers in '83 are big, but I think it was Dr. Z who wrote about how a good chunk of that came in the Wk 15 shootout with KC. Still talking a 1,000 yard season without that game (and have to factor in Fouts missing considerable time with a shoulder injury), but I think Christensen and Newsome were a little better. Then he missed quite a bit of time in '84 and '85 with injuries. He did have a stronger finish to his career than Casper, though.

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  5. "I think the fact he was traded in his prime says something about his attitude"

    Could be, but at the point he was traded the Raiders were 3-3 and had recently lost their starting QB for the season. Looked like they were heading for their third straight non-playoff season and probably on the verge of a rebuild. With the Oilers very much in "win now" mode, they got a kings' ransom for Casper - a first and two second round picks (one of which would end up being Howie Long). Turns out that win over SD was the start of a very surprising run to a SB behind a cast off QB.

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  6. TanksAndSpartansMay 20, 2019 at 10:00 PM

    I like seeing Pete Pihos on the list, but in Mickey Herskowitz's "Golden Age" book, he made a pretty convincing argument for Tom Fears as the first modern TE. Going back a little further, I'd like to see Guy Chamberlin and Bob "Nasty" Nash on the list too. Chamberlin was a fixture in early championship games seemingly making big plays in every one. Nash played both tackle and end and was known as the only player who could bring down Jim Thorpe without help consistently. Finally, glad you have Bavaro so high, growing up with the Giants on TV, he was a favorite of mine to watch.

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  7. John, if you had to pick 3 TEs for an all star team would you go right down the line with Gronk/Mackey/Gonzo or would you skip around a little and pick a slightly lower rated player that maybe has a complimentary skill set?

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  8. Great list John, though I would rank Jay Novachek and Heath Miller a lot higher...

    Based on the combination of both blocking and receiving, I think Casper is the best, but I do like Gronk and Ditka alot. Mackey was great, but dropped alot of balls which frustrated Johnny Unitas, who was more comfortable with Mutschellers hands...

    Witten should get in the Hall before Gronk though, he had everything but the championships...I hope Bavaro can get in as well...

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    1. Well, I get it. My list is not more special than anyone else's. We all try to do our research and try and has as much info as we can before listing, but if you disagree, I cannot say that I am right and you are wrong. You have as much ability to do this as I do.

      I just give it an honest shot and hope people can enjoy

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  9. I'm curious as to where you'd start to put Kittle now that he's had two great seasons in a row. Obviously sample size and consistency over several seasons is nowhere near there, but I feel like his play in these two seasons has been some of the best I've seen

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    1. clearly rising fast...once a guy gets 5 years in we put them on lists...so he needs 2-3 more to be here but if he plays those 2 like last 2 he's debut in top 10

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  10. Where would you put Elbie Nickel? TE or WR and would you ever look closer at him to be placed on the TE list?

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    1. He was not a TE, he was end end like all the other ends of the day---like Fears, Lavelli, etc... no more a TE than they were. All ends were tight most of the time back then. not the speciifc "tight" end when there was a flanker and a split end in offense

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  11. Overall good assessment. Of course I disagree with a few such as Heath Miller being a bit low(i hate the steelers) and I would drop Gronk down to 5. I am so glad to see someone rate TEs based upon both pass catching and blocking. awesome job! Watch out for Mr.Kittle if he can stay healthy.

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