The tight end position in football has evolved over the years and is now one of the most important positions on the field. Tight ends are critical to a balanced offense as they have major responsibilities in rushing and passing attacks. Tight ends need to be able to block like linemen and catch like receivers. Undoubtedly, some amazing players have come through the National Football League (NFL), but which are considered the best NFL tight ends of all time?
Before we dive into the list of the best tight ends in NFL history, let’s take a look at some interesting sports fan research. According to a recent study, fans prefer championship teams comprised of homegrown talent as opposed to teams stacked with pricey free agents. Researchers at the University of Kansas surveyed 1,500 Americans. They found that sports fans prefer championship teams comprised of drafted or ‘homegrown’ players as opposed to teams with rosters comprised of expensive free-agent players. Apparently, sports fans appreciate the hard work and dedication it takes to build a championship team from the ground up.
Whether your team is known for signing big-name free agents or drafting and cultivating talent, we can all agree that it’s fun to get out to watch a live sports event in person. However, fans will be happy to learn that attending a live sporting event is also really good for mental health. In fact, a recent study found that attending live sporting events can boost your mental health as much as getting a job. A survey out of England found that respondents who recently attended a live sporting event, professional or otherwise, scored better in terms of ‘life satisfaction’ than those who had not recently been to a game. The survey of 7,000 adults is the first of its kind to examine the mental health benefits of attending sporting events. Overall, sports fans claim that watching live events makes them feel more ‘worthwhile’ and leaves them feeling satisfied. That’s definitely a great excuse to get out and watch your favorite tight ends carve up NFL defenses in the fall.
So, which tight ends are considered the to be among the greats? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 sports and football-oriented websites in an effort to bring you the consensus list of the best NFL tight ends of all time. Our list comprises the five most frequently listed tight ends from across these sites. Think we missed your all-time favorite tight end? Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!
The List: Best NFL Tight Ends of All Time, According to Experts
1. Tony Gonzalez
The top spot on the list of the best tight ends in NFL history belongs to the living legend, Tony Gonzalez. Tony Gonzalez started his career in Kansas City before moving on to the Atlanta Falcons, where he’d team up with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and form one of the NFL’s best offensive units. Gonzalez was an incredibly gifted athlete who possessed some of the best hands the NFL has ever seen.“Gonzalez pioneered the trend of basketball players making the transition to the tight end position. His frame combined with his athleticism created unique matchup problems for defenses, revolutionizing schemes on both sides of the ball. Statistically, he has far and away the greatest resume of anyone who ever played the position,” writes Athlon Sports.
During his football career, Gonzalez was 6’ 5” and weighed around 250 pounds, so he was like a power forward playing tight end in the NFL, and it showed on the field. Gonzalez was truly great at jumping over linebackers and safeties to make a big catch, especially in the red zone. Despite not having much of a supporting cast during his time in Kansas City, Gonzalez managed to consistently make Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl.
“Gonzalez amassed an incredible six All-Pro nominations and 14 Pro Bowls during his 17-year career, both of which are tight end records. He made the All-Pro team in three different decades, which exemplifies his incredible dominance and longevity. Gonzalez recorded 13 seasons with at least 800 yards, including four campaigns with 1,000 yards. He also had 14 years with more than 70 catches. Gonzalez could have easily kept playing too, as some of his most consistent seasons came at the backend of his career. His final numbers are some of the best for any pass catcher in NFL history, let alone at tight end: 1,325 catches, 15,127 receiving yards, and 111 touchdowns. He remains third all-time in receptions and sixth in receiving yards in NFL history,” adds Yardbarker.
Gonzalez is currently third all-time in receptions behind Jerry Rice and Larry Fitzgerald, two of the greatest wide receivers of all time. Gonzalez played over 15 NFL seasons, and he was one of the best players in the NFL for all of them. He’s a true NFL legend. “He owns the majority of receiving records among tight ends, including 1,325 receptions for 15,127 yards. In his career, Gonzalez lost only two fumbles on 1,327 touches. Gonzalez was selected to the Pro Bowl an incredible 14 times, including a stretch of 10 consecutive seasons. He was selected for 10 All-Pro teams and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019—truly an NFL legend,” furthers Sportskeeda.
2. Rob Gronkowski
Next up on the list of the best tight ends to ever play in the NFL is Rob Gronkowski, also known as Gronk. He could block in the run game, and he was a deadly receiving threat in the passing game. For most NFL fans, the argument for the best tight end in NFL history comes down to either Gronkowski or Gonzalez.
“Rob Gronkowski’s combination of size, strength, and athleticism makes him a matchup nightmare for any defense. His ability to overpower defenders and make acrobatic catches in the red zone has made him one of the most dominant tight ends in history. Gronkowski’s rapport with Tom Brady resulted in numerous record-breaking seasons and four Super Bowl championships, cementing his legacy as the best tight end of all time,” explains Pro Football Mania.
Gronkowski was such a great run blocker that it opened him up in the passing game via the play-action pass. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have Tom Brady throw him the ball. Gronk was the beneficiary of a lot of Tom Brady’s touchdown passes, and his legacy as one of the best NFL tight ends of all time is undeniable.
“Rob Gronkowski, affectionately known as ‘Gronk,’ is the best tight end of all-time for one simple reason. The position is known for both its blocking and receiving abilities and in his prime, Gronk was the best at both. Rob Gronkowski’s professional career began in 2010 when the New England Patriots drafted him in the second round of the NFL Draft. Gronkowski quickly became a dominant force at the tight end position, earning five Pro Bowl selections (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017) and four First-Team All-Pro honors (2011, 2014, 2015, and 2017),” furthers SOG Sports.
For about a five-year stretch, Gronkowski was the best tight end in the NFL, and it wasn’t even close. However, part of what sets Gronk apart from his contemporaries is the Super Bowl championships. Gronk won a total of four Super Bowls, and it’s not a coincidence that he and Tom Brady left the Patriots for the Buccaneers and immediately won a title in Tampa.
“Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in NFL history. While he doesn’t have the longevity to match Gonzalez, and he certainly benefited from playing with the best quarterback ever, Gronkowski is truly the best football player to ever play tight end. He ranks second in all-time receiving yards per game (64.9), behind Kelce, with the third-most receiving touchdowns (92) ever by a tight end. Furthermore, Gronkowski boasts the second-best career yards per catch average (15) among tight ends, and he holds numerous postseason records,” adds Sportsnaut.
3. Antonio Gates
The third spot on the list of the best tight ends in NFL history belongs to San Diego Chargers legend Antonio Gates. Like Gonzalez, Gates was a basketball player turned tight end, but unlike Gonzalez, Gates didn’t even play college football before going into the NFL.“After last playing football in high school, all Gates did was become one of the best tight ends in NFL history. Undrafted in 2003, he earned a first-team All-Pro selection in 2004. From 2004-16, he averaged 831 receiving yards and 8.4 touchdowns per season, resulting in eight Pro Bowl trips. Gates is just one of three tight ends with at least 11,000 receiving yards, and he holds the NFL record for most career receiving touchdowns by a tight end (116). Alongside another one of the all-time greats, Tony Gonzalez, Gates opened doors for Kelce and Gronkowski,” writes Sportsnaut.
Similar to Gonzalez, Gates played the tight end position like a basketball player, with grace and fluidity. It’s still so hard to believe that Gates never played a single snap of college football. It wasn’t until Gates was told that he wasn’t going to make it in the NBA that he even considered playing in the NFL. Fast forward to today, and he’s undoubtedly one of the best tight ends to ever step foot on an NFL field.
“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,” explains The Twinspires Edge.
Gates was one of the top tight ends in the NFL for the better part of a decade. Antonio Gates played over 200 NFL games and averaged well over a first down per catch. For his career, Gates averaged 12.4 yards per catch. That stunning average equates to a first down every time he hauls in a pass—astonishing.
“Antonio Gates was one of the most dominant tight ends in the NFL. He eclipsed 50 receptions and 500 receiving yards in 13 consecutive seasons, including a stretch of 700+ receiving yards in eight consecutive seasons. During his peak, Gates was selected to the Pro Bowl in eight consecutive seasons while also being chosen as an All-Pro in five of them, including three straight first-team selections. His 116 career touchdown receptions are the most ever for a tight end,” adds Sportskeeda.
4. Travis Kelce
Coming in at the fourth spot on the list of the best tight ends in NFL history is current Chiefs star tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce picked up where Gonzalez left off as he continued the tradition of great Chiefs tight ends. However, Kelce has been able to do something that Gonzalez could not: win Super Bowls.
“At age 33, Travis Kelce is showing no signs of slowing down. Kelce and Patrick Mahomes are the greatest quarterback/tight end duo the game has ever seen. Kelce possesses elite route-running abilities and the shiftiness of a wide receiver. With two Super Bowl titles already under his belt, the 8-time All-Pro tight end will no doubt be enshrined in the Hall of Fame,” writes Pro Football Mania.
Kelce and Mahomes will forever be linked together, similar to Brady and Gronk. However, Kelce’s career is far from over. It’s scary to think that in a few years, Kelce’s numbers could warrant the top spot on other NFL all-time lists. “Travis Kelce is the best receiving tight end I’ve ever seen. I watched film of Gates, Gonzalez and Witten. Kelce is far and away a better receiver than those guys. He gets open better, runs better routes, and has better hands. When it comes to receiving the football, nobody has done it as well as Kelce. He has seven seasons with at least 1,000 yards, the most for a tight end. He had 1,416 yards in a season, the most by a tight end,” adds The 33rd Team.
To be fair, Kelce hasn’t always had Mahomes throw him the football, and he was highly productive in those seasons as well. Kelce combines the size, strength, and speed needed to excel at the tight end position in today’s NFL. “Travis Kelce’s impact on the game of football can be seen in his ability to create mismatches and exploit opposing defenses. His combination of size, speed, and agility, along with his precise route-running, makes him a formidable weapon for the Chiefs’ offense. Kelce’s success has helped redefine the role of the modern tight end, with his versatile skill set influencing the way the position is utilized in today’s game. Andy Reid has a once-in-a generation weapon and continues to use it wisely. While he was voted first in the fan voting, I decided to have him ranked third on this list. I still believe he has a few more seasons left with the potential to rise to first on this list as the best tight end ever,” furthers SOG Sports.
5. Shannon Sharpe
Rounding out the list of the best tight ends in NFL history is the living legend, Shannon Sharpe. Most of you might know Shannon as a colorful TV personality, but before he was lighting up TV screens with his trademark smile, Shannon Sharpe was destroying NFL defenses with his pass-catching ability from the tight end position. Shannon is widely regarded as one of the best tight ends in NFL history, and for good reason. “Shannon Sharpe’s remarkable speed and versatility made him a game-changer at the tight end position. His ability to stretch the field and make explosive plays resulted in three Super Bowl victories and numerous records. Sharpe’s impact as both a receiver and a blocker showcases the diverse skill set that sets him apart in the annals of tight end history. Sharpe continues to make an impact in the sports industry as a media personality,” writes Pro Football Mania.
Shannon Sharpe was a natural receiver playing tight end, but he wasn’t afraid to block. Shannon helped pave the way for some of the best running backs of his era, but his ability to get open downfield helped make his Bronco teams special. “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 1998 and 1999, 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,” explains The Twinspires Edge.
Shannon Sharpe retired with all of the major all-time records for tight ends, including touchdowns and receiving yards. However, one of the more undervalued aspects of Sharpe’s game was his leadership. Shannon Sharpe was a leader at the position, and that was never more apparent than during his time in Baltimore. “Sharpe’s stat line speaks for itself, but it was his immeasurable impact as John Elway’s and subsequently Trent Dilfer’s security blanket in the passing games of three championship teams that set him apart from others at his position. He was the first of the oversized natural wide receivers who assumed the role of tight end,” furthers Athlon Sports.
You might also be interested in:
- Athlon Sports
- The 33rd Team
- SOG Sports
- Pro Football Mania
- Faceoff Sports Network
- The Twinspires Edge
Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.