With just eight inductees, tight end is by far the most underrepresented fantasy position in the initial class of the GridFe Hall of Fame. Of those eight, one played primarily in the 1960s, two in the 80s, one in the 90s, four since the turn of the century, and none in the dead ball era of the 70s. It may reflect some recency bias in our committee that we could only agree upon one tight end who started his career prior to the Mel Blount Rule.1
Hall of Fame Tight Ends
Mike Ditka (1961-1972)
Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 4 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Iron Mike Ditka made his impact on the league right away, topping a thousand yards and scoring twelve times on his way to changing the tight end position forever.2 He was a dangerous receiving threat, giving nightmares to the typically run-first linebackers of his era. However, Ditka maintained the requisite blocking skill incumbent upon the position. He was hardnosed and tough and didn’t just want to win games – he wanted to win every play. When he became a coach, he brought that passion to the sideline and helped guide the legendary ’85 Bears to one of the most dominant seasons in NFL history.
Ozzie Newsome (1978-1990)
2 First Team All Pros; 4 Second team All Pros; 3 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Gonzo Award
The Wizard of Oz was a well-rounded, classic tight end who was an aerial threat as well as a solid blocker. He was remarkably consistent, with high effort and production regardless of the man throwing him the ball. In his prime, he averaged 83 catches and 1012 yards per 16 games (1981-84). As an older player, Newsome put his toughness and cunning to good use, enabling him to play in 198 consecutive games with a 150-game catch streak. By the time he retired, Newsome was the all-time leader in catches and yards by a tight end. He also proved to be a successful executive. Since taking over as general manager of the Ravens in 2002, he has seen the team reach the playoffs eight times and win one Super Bowl, while suffering only four losing seasons.
Kellen Winslow (1979-1987)
San Diego Chargers
3 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Sweetness Award; 3 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Under Don Coryell, Winslow revolutionized the tight end position. The original Joker tight end, he could line up tight, in the slot, or even split out wide and create mismatches with his unfair combination of size, speed, and athleticism. Essentially, he was a chess piece for an innovative head coach and legendary quarterback. A knee injury cut his rookie campaign to seven games, but he rebounded with a five-year run of modern receiving numbers.3 Unfortunately, that included a nine-game strike season and another season cut to just seven games due to injuries. The cumulative effects of those knee injuries ultimately cut his career short, but Winslow was as dominant as any receiver in history for the first half of the 1980s.
Shannon Sharpe (1990-2003)
Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens
4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 4 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Sharpe was the next step in the evolution of the tight end position. Seemingly undersized at just 228 pounds, he wasn’t the prototypical inline blocker who happened to catch passes. Instead, Sharpe was a receiver first, capable of overpowering defensive backs and speeding by linebackers. With his receiving prowess, keeping him in to block was a waste of the team’s best receiver. That’s not hyperbole; Sharpe led his teams in receiving yards in seven different seasons. By the time he called it quits, he had helped two different franchises win their first Super Bowl and set the positional record for receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
Tony Gonzalez (1997-2013)
Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons
7 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 14 Pro Bowls; 6 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Gonzo is another in a storied line of evolutionary tight ends. He was a successful collegiate basketball player and used many of those skills to thrive in the NFL. In particular, Gonzalez was adept at boxing out defenders in order to make easier catches. He also put his rebounding skills to work, using his excellent body control and concentration to high point the ball and snatch it out of the air, often in heavy traffic. Despite heavy usage as his team’s primary receiving threat for most of his career, Gonzalez’s impeccable conditioning provided him with unrivaled longevity. By the time he retired, he ranked second in receptions, sixth in receiving yards, and seventh in receiving touchdowns. Those numbers would cement a player’s legacy as a wide receiver. To do it as a tight end is a remarkable achievement.
Antonio Gates (2003-present)
San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 3 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Antonio Gates isn’t thought of as an evolutionary player at the tight end position, but perhaps he should be. From the merger in 1970 through Gates’s arrival in 2003, there were 12 double-digit touchdown seasons from 9 different tight ends. Nobody in history had more than two such seasons, a total Gates managed to match in 2004 and 2005 alone. The copycat league took note, and teams scrambled to find their own large, powerful, agile tight ends to create favorable matchups in the red zone; from 2007 to 2017, the position accounted for 22 double-digit touchdown seasons by 11 different players, (including two more from Gates). While other tight ends were reaching the end zone, Gates remained a standout, developing a preternatural rapport with his quarterbacks and anchoring the Chargers’ passing game amid a rotating cast of wide receivers and running backs.4
Jason Witten (2003-present)
4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 11 Pro Bowls; 3 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Witten’s success hardly makes sense. He’s not particularly fast, quick, strong, or athletic in the traditional sense. But he has incredible spacial awareness, allowing him to run near-perfect routes and get open seemingly at will against man coverage or find any hole in zone coverage. Those skills don’t wow viewers as much as speed and vertical leaping, but they have enabled Witten to pull in at least 60 catches in fourteen straight seasons.5 He’s a throwback at the position, playing tough and angry, and supplementing his receiving skill with proficient blocking.
Rob Gronkowski (2010-present)
New England Patriots
5 First Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 2 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 4 GridFe Gonzo Awards
Gronk is a terrific blocker, in the mold of Dave Casper and Mark Bavaro before him. His ability to control the edge of the line makes one believe he could be a backup right tackle if he really wanted to. However, blocking didn’t get him in the Hall of Fame. He has been an utterly dominant receiver, even though he came into the league with back problems and has never been close 100%. Despite missing 26 regular season games in his eight seasons, he ranks third among all players in receiving touchdowns through age 28.6 No tight end in history has more seasons with over 1000 yards or 10 touchdowns. He has a higher yards per catch average than many speedy deep threat receivers of his era, and he is an animal after the catch. Gronk has a measurable impact on his offense’s productivity and is already the greatest postseason performer in the history of the position.7 He may lack the longevity to be called the greatest of all time, but he is almost certainly the best.
- Others receiving votes: John Mackey*, Jackie Smith, and Dave Casper* ↩
- Pete Retzlaff gained 1190 yards in 1965, and Jackie Smith gained 1205 in 1967. No other tight end topped 1000 till Kellen Winslow in the expanded schedule of 1980. Jerry Smith scored 12 touchdowns in 1967, and no one else at the position matched that mark until Todd Christensen in 1983. ↩
- From 1980-84, Winslow had a per-16 game average of 94 catches, 1240 yards, and 9 touchdowns. ↩
- Thanks to Adam Harstad for contributing this lovely blurb on Gates. ↩
- Only Jerry Rice (17) and Gonzalez (15) have more such seasons. ↩
- Only Randy Moss and Jerry Rice have more. ↩
- His 12 playoff receiving touchdowns are five more than second place Casper and Vernon Davis. In fact, only Jerry Rice has more receiving touchdowns in the postseason. He also leads the position in postseason catches and yards. ↩