NFL Analysis


7 min read

Ranking The Top 10 Tight Ends in NFL History

2023 was the year of the tight end, with several young stars having breakout seasons.

Sam LaPorta and Dalton Kincaid are two that come to mind and are poised for big sophomore seasons. But they both have a long way to go before they crack this list.

So without further ado, here are the top-10 tight ends in NFL history, ranked from No. 10 to No. 1.

>> Other Rankings: QB | RB | WR

Top Tight Ends In NFL History

10. Ozzie Newsome

The No. 10 spot might have been the most difficult to rank as players like Jimmy Graham, Dave Casper, and Todd Christensen were left off the list. But Ozzie Newsome deserves to be mentioned among the greatest tight ends in history.

Newsome played 13 years in the NFL, all with the Browns from 1978 to 1990. His best season came in 1981 when he caught 69 passes for 1,002 yards and six touchdowns. Surprisingly enough, that didn’t even earn him first-team All-Pro honors (Casper). Newsome was named to the 1980s All-Decade Team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was inducted into Canton in 1999.

Los Angeles Chargers tight end Antonio Gates (85) runs after a catch against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports.

9. Antonio Gates

No tight end in NFL history has scored more touchdowns than Antonio Gates (116). From 2004 to 2014, Gates scored 97 touchdowns in 161 games. However, Gates wasn’t just a touchdown machine. He racked up nearly 12,000 receiving yards, with his best season coming in 2005. That year, Gates averaged 73.4 yards per game and scored 10 touchdowns, despite being just his second full season as a starter.

What is so cool about Gates is he played his entire career with the Chargers. He started 190 games and was one of NFL history's most dominant tight ends. Gates was one of the first basketball-to-NFL stars and opened the door for several other athletes to make the transition to tight end.

8. Mike Ditka

Mike Ditka was the first tight end in NFL history to record 1,000 yards during his rookie season. He accomplished that during the 1961 season despite playing only a 14-game season. Only one other tight end in NFL history accomplished that feat: Kyle Pitts (2021) during a 17-game schedule.

Ditka made the Pro Bowl in his first five seasons and was a two-time champion with the Bears (1963) and the Cowboys (1971). Ditka was as tough as they come, and his 12-year NFL career was as impressive as it gets.

7. Shannon Sharpe

Sharpe was one of the most dynamic receiving tight ends in NFL history and ultimately helped lead the Broncos and the Ravens to a combined three Super Bowl wins. Sharpe was a Pro Bowl selection from 1993 to 1998, racking up four first-team All-Pro nominations.

During that stretch, he caught 447 passes for 5,698 yards and 40 touchdowns for the Broncos. Sharpe played 14 years in the NFL, finishing his career with more than 10,000 yards.

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) is confronted by Eagles' cornerback Lito Sheppard (26) during a 2007 game at Texas Stadium.

6. Jason Witten

The words “consistent” and “reliable” are often used to describe Jason Witten's career. While that is accurate, Witten was more than just a serviceable tight end. He was arguably the NFL's best tight end for nearly a decade. From 2004 to 2010, Witten made the Pro Bowl every season. He was a two-time All-Pro selection and finished his career with 11 Pro Bowl nods.

Witten missed just one game in his career due to injury during his rookie season after he suffered a broken jaw. But of course, he found a way to get back onto the field the next week despite a mouth that was wired shut. Witten’s toughness, durability, and consistency are the reasons why he deserves to be ranked so high on this list.

5. John Mackey

The award for the best tight end in college football is named after John Mackey, who was one of the first great tight ends in NFL history. As a rookie (1963), Mackey racked up 726 yards in 14 games, which was among the most ever by a rookie tight end.

But get this; Mackey caught just 35 passes in Year 1. That means he averaged a whopping 20.7 yards per reception, which is unheard of for a tight end.

Mackey finished fifth all-time (15.8) in yards per reception by a tight end. He finished his career with five Pro Bowl selections, three All-Pro awards, a Super Bowl, and an NFL champion (AFL). Mackey retired after the 1972 season, leaving football as the all-time greatest tight end at the time.

San Diego Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow (80) carries the ball against the Denver Broncos at Jack Murphy Stadium. Rod Hanna-USA TODAY Sports.

4. Kellen Winslow

The tight ends ahead of Winslow all had much longer careers, but his peak was just as good as anyone’s on this list. Winslow led the NFL in receptions in back-to-back seasons and made three-straight All-Pro teams. His postseason performance against the Dolphins (13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown) is one of the greatest individual playoff games in NFL history.

Despite playing just nine seasons (94 starts), he was a trailblazer in NFL history, helping create the receiving tight end position with the Chargers.

3. Tony Gonzalez

Any list ranking the top tight ends of all-time has to include Tony Gonzalez near the top. Not only is he the all-time leader in receiving yards at tight end (15,127), he has 2,000 more yards than anyone else. He is second all-time in receiving touchdowns (111) and is one of two players with 95 or more receiving touchdowns at tight end.

Gonzalez was a 14-time Pro Bowl selection and a six-time first-team All-Pro selection. He appeared in a whopping 270 games and was the model of consistency for nearly two decades.

Chiefs Travis Kelce makes the catch in front of Dolphins Eli Apple
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) runs the ball against Miami Dolphins cornerback Eli Apple (33). Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports.

2. Travis Kelce

By the time Travis Kelce retires, he’ll own just about every postseason-receiving record not just for tight ends, but for all players.

He's already played 22 playoff games, recording 1,903 yards and 19 touchdowns. His postseason numbers are nuts, but his regular-season numbers are just as silly. He has already posted seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons and is a nine-time Pro Bowl selection. Since 2014, he's averaged more than 1,130 yards per season, four of which were with Alex Smith and not Patrick Mahomes.

Kelce was named to the All-Decade Team for the 2010s, and his start to the 2020s has been even more impressive. The only thing holding him back from being higher on this list is his blocking, but does it even matter if you are this dominant of a receiver?

1. Rob Gronkowski

There are tight ends with better overall numbers than Rob Gronkowski, but there was never a more complete player.

Gronk was everything you could ever ask for in a tight end. He was a dynamic receiving threat that could run every route. Gronk was a special athlete who could make ridiculous plays after the catch. He averaged a whopping 15.0 yards per reception, the 10th-most ever by a tight end.

Not only was Gronkowski a great receiver, but he was also an all-time great blocker who thoroughly enjoyed mixing it up with defensive linemen in the run game. Gronk’s ability to do everything at a high level is why he has four Super Bowl rings and was the most unstoppable tight end in the NFL for an entire decade.

Gronkowski played "only" 11 seasons but did catch 621 passes for 9,286 yards and 93 touchdowns. As good as he was in the regular season, he was even better in the postseason.

During his nine seasons in New England, Gronkowski averaged 72.7 receiving yards per game in the postseason and scored 12 touchdowns in 16 games. We will never see a tight end be as dominant as him in all phases of the game, and that’s why he was an easy choice at No. 1.