All-time NFL tight end rankings: How Patriots, Buccaneers great Rob Gronkowski stacks up after retiring

Rob Gronkowski called it an NFL career (again) on Tuesday, saying farewell not only to the Buccaneers but to football. Tom Brady will undoubtedly miss the tight end in 2022, but so will fans who have seen Gronk steals headlines on and off the field over the course of his career. Where, exactly, does Gronkowski rank among all-time players at his position?

Let’s rank the 10 best TEs to ever play the game and see where he fits in:

10. Mike Ditka

Teams: Chicago Bears (1961-1966), Philadelphia Eagles (1967-1968), Dallas Cowboys (1969-1972)

Before he made history as coach of the Bears, Ditka showcased his toughness on the field. He never topped his explosive Rookie of the Year campaign, in which he burst onto the scene with 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1961, but he came to resemble Chicago’s trademark attitude over the course of six years with the team. He also averaged more yards per catch than most of the other great TEs in NFL history, racking up an efficient 5,812 career receiving yards.

9. Jason Witten

Teams: Dallas Cowboys (2003-2017, 2019), Las Vegas Raiders (2020)

USED

While he was never the fastest or most dynamic at his position, Witten quietly and steadily rewrote the NFL record books as perhaps the most reliable offensive player in Cowboys history. A model of durability, his impact faded a bit late in his career, but few players have ever been as consistent. A lock for the Hall of Fame, he was the fastest TE to reach 600 career catches and owns the record for most consecutive games played by a tight end, with 235+ under his belt.

8. Ozzie Newsome

Teams: Cleveland Browns (1978-1990)

Before taking his football IQ to NFL front offices, where he led the Baltimore Ravens to two Super Bowl wins, Newsome was the total package at TE, both on and off the field. Discounting his Man of the Year efforts and team-first mentality, he was still one of the 1980s’ premier targets at his position. Holder of several Browns receiving records, he logged a pair of 1,000-yard seasons and finished his career with 47 TD catches, the fifth most in franchise history, all while modeling durability along the way.

7. John Mackey

Teams: Baltimore Colts (1963-1971), San Diego Chargers (1972)

Mackey’s numbers will continue to get surpassed on the all-time charts as more TEs emerge as receiving threats, but when it comes to all-time influences on the position, he’s up there with the best of them. A size-and-speed phenomenon during his day, Mackey not only missed just one game over his 10-year career but became just the second pure TE to enter the Hall of Fame. In an era that predated today’s pass-heavy offenses, he had eight-straight seasons with at least 400 receiving yards and owns 38 career TD catches.

6. Travis Kelce

Teams: Kansas City Chiefs (2013-present)

He’s had the benefit of playing in a pass-happy NFL, and not only that, but for one of the league’s pass-happiest teams and coaches. But he’s also delivered time and again as the most trusted outlet for MVP QB Patrick Mahomes. A model of both durability and production, he enters 2022 having topped 80 catches and 1,000 receiving yards in six straight seasons, and his career 70.8 catch percentage proves how reliable his hands have been for an annual Super Bowl contender.

5. Shannon Sharpe

Teams: Denver Broncos (1990-1999, 2002-2003), Baltimore Ravens (2000-2001)

Like a wide receiver playing tight end, Sharpe became the first player at his position to post more than 10,000 career receiving yards. He might also have the closest thing to Gronkowski’s postseason resume thanks to three Super Bowl rings and a pivotal role in each of those championship runs. Sharpe was productive until his retirement, recording at least 60 catches in nine of his final 10 NFL seasons, and he ranked among the league’s top pass catchers in his prime with three 1,000-yard campaigns.

4. Antonio Gates

Teams: San Diego / Los Angeles Chargers (2003-2018)

USED

You can make the case that he should be higher. While the eight-time Pro Bowler didn’t necessarily revolutionize the position or serve as an absolute matchup nightmare to the Gronk, he was about as consistent as they come. Absent for just 20 games in 16 years, the former basketball player was the safety valve in the Chargers’ offense for almost the entirety of his career, hauling in at least 60 passes nine different times and leading all NFL tight ends with 116 career touchdown catches .

3. Kellen Winslow

Teams: San Diego Chargers (1979-1987)

If Gronk redefined the TE position for his generation, then Winslow defined it for his. While most players at his position were used as extra blockers, he exploded as a true deep threat for Chargers Hall of Famer Dan Fouts and produced numbers that, at the time, were unprecedented for TEs. Once called a “wide receiver in an offensive lineman’s body,” he played even fewer games than Gronk but started 94 of his 109 outings, logging three 1,000-yard seasons in a time when passing was far from what it is today.

2. Rob Gronkowski

Teams: New England Patriots (2010-2018), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2020-2021)

USED

This isn’t recency bias. In fact, at its peak, Gronkowski may have been the most fearsome TE to ever take the field. Not only was he 6-foot-6 and almost 270 pounds, but he played with more physicality and speed than that frame would suggest, further reinventing the position as a receiving threat in the 2010s, playing his best when it mattered most and producing a Hall of Fame resume in half as many games as some of his fellow all-time greats. Durability has always been the biggest knock against Gronk. But even in nine injury-riddled years, he became one of his generation’s best all-around players, with the best playoff stats of any TE and perhaps the most efficient stats overall, averaging a TD every 6.6 catches. His run may have been shorter, but it was always a treat, and his seamless reunion with Brady in Tampa helped bring the Bucs a Lombardi Trophy.

1. Tony Gonzalez

Teams: Kansas City Chiefs (1997-2008), Atlanta Falcons (2009-2013)

USED

No one did it as well as Tony for as long as Tony. Numbers alone don’t tell the story, but you also don’t rack up 1,300 catches and 15,000 yards by accident. Gonzalez may not have been quite as much of a physical freak as Gronkowski as far as matchups go, but he was the definition of dependable – both in terms of durability and production. In 17 seasons, he missed a grand total of two games, and it’s not as if he was just serviceable in addition to being available. His four 1,000-yard seasons, 11 straight seasons of at least 70 catches, 16 straight seasons with at least 600 total yards and 14 Pro Bowl selections are all proof of his sustained dominance. A true touchdown threat into his late 30s, Gonzalez remains the gold standard for his position.

Honorable Mention

To be fair, a top 10 list just doesn’t do justice to some of the greatest tight ends of all time. If you’re listing the best to ever play the position, these guys deserve their shout-outs as well:

  • Dave Casper: Oakland Raiders (1974-1980), Houston Oilers (1980-1983), Minnesota Vikings (1983), Los Angeles Raiders (1984)
  • Jackie Smith: St. Louis Cardinals (1963-1977), Dallas Cowboys (1978)
  • Charlie Sanders: Detroit Lions (1968-1977)
  • Greg Olsen: Chicago Bears (2007-2010), Carolina Panthers (2011-2019), Seahawks (2020)
  • Todd Christensen: Dallas Cowboys (1978), New York Giants (1979), Oakland / Los Angeles Raiders (1979-1988)
  • Ben Coates: New England Patriots (1991-1999), Baltimore Ravens (2000)
  • Jerry Smith: Washington Redskins (1965-1977)
  • Keith Jackson: Philadelphia Eagles (1988-1991), Miami Dolphins (1992-1994), Green Bay Packers (1995-1996)
  • Dallas Clark: Indianapolis Colts (2003-2011), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2012), Baltimore Ravens (2013)
  • Jimmy Graham: New Orleans Saints (2010-2014), Seattle Seahawks (2015-2017), Green Bay Packers (2018-2019), Chicago Bears (2020-2021)
  • Riley Odoms: Denver Broncos (1972-1983)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: