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Top Ten Tight Ends of All-Time

Posted by Jason Lisk on July 1, 2008

So I finally sit down to watch the "Top Ten Tight Ends of All-Time" on the NFL Network, which has been airing over the last month. Full disclosure: I am from Kansas City and have watched Gonzalez his whole career. He is one of my all-time favorite players. He's a great team player and team leader, he practices hard, he sacrifices for the team, he blocks well in the running game, can run and make plays in the open field, and catches touchdown passes and makes tough catches in traffic. I settle into a comfortable spot on the couch, the kids are napping, and I have a few moments to bask in the glory that will be Tony Gonzalez appearing somewhere at the top of this list. It's like the NFL Draft, my team may not be drafting for a while, and I'm comfortable knowing this, but I am going to enjoy the lead up.

The list leads off with Antonio Gates is Number 10. Okay, he's been pretty dominant recently, but we still do not know where his career will end up. Probably a little low, but debateable.

Number 9 is Mark Bavaro. Interesting. By career numbers probably shouldn't be on this list, but again, debateable.

Number 8 is . . . Tony Gonzalez? What? My day is ruined. Am I crazy for having thought Gonzalez would be considered one of the best of all-time? He holds the tight end records for career receptions and touchdowns, and will pass Shannon Sharpe for most yards early next year. It's not like he is sticking around past his prime to just pad stats either. He was second team all-NFL in 2007, and played in a pro bowl for the ninth straight season (another tight end record). After this shock to the system, I can't even listen to what they are saying on the show, I'm so amazed.

So I get up and go to the laptop, pull up this website called, and start comparing some numbers. And I am getting even madder. Bavaro and Gonzalez next to each other? To me, this is like saying Terrell Davis should be next to Walter Payton and Jim Brown on the all-time running back list.

Next up at #7 is Dave Casper. My blood pressure improves just a little bit. Casper had a nice career and was the dominant tight end of the late 1970's. Well-deserved on this list, just not in front of Gonzalez. The brief improvement in mood is immediately reversed by the revelation of Jackie Smith at #6. Talk about revisionist history. Why not just put Jay Novacek in front of Gonzalez instead? You know how many times Smith was acknowledged as the best tight end in the league by all-pro voting? The same number as me. Gonzalez--five times. You would have to engage in some serious "I walked to school uphill both ways, and every player was so much better back in my day" thinking to justify this ranking of Smith ahead of Gonzalez. Jackie Smith was a good tight end and had a nice long career, but he certainly was no Tony Gonzalez.

The remaining top five were (in order) Ozzie Newsome, Shannon Sharpe, Mike Ditka, Kellen Winslow, and John Mackey. I could continue to complain and rant, but let's get to some objective analysis first. Probably the best place to start, similar to what I talked about in comparing Jackie Smith to Gonzalez, is how the tight end was perceived at the time he was playing. Tight end is a unique position, in the sense that we have some statistics and can see how many receptions and touchdowns the tight end scored. But it also entails other things that aren't measured by statistics directly, such as how the tight end affected the game plan, and how good or bad of a blocker he was for the running game--all things that are part of the job description. Also, I wasn't around to see Ditka, Mackey, Smith, or Casper, and I have some vague memories of Winslow in the 1981 playoff game against the Dolphins.

So I'm not going to rely on my own opinions. And I'm surely not going to rely on the opinions of someone thirty years after the fact, particularly about a former teammate or contemporary that they are biased towards, as absence may tend to make the heart grow fonder. No, I'm going to rely on what writers and other people said about each tight end at the time they were playing, as represented by all-pro voting. This is especially important because it allows us to see how a tight end was perceived, beyond his raw numbers, when he was playing.

I went through the all-pro selections since 1960 at the tight end position in detail. The number of awards has varied greatly over the years, with alot of different organizations giving awards thirty years ago compared to today. I went through each season and marked down the top tight ends each season, noted whether the leader was unanimous or not, and put it together.

A couple of comments on my methods. First, though this website officially lists Ditka with three all-pro seasons, I credited him with four because there was no first team all-pro tight end his rookie year, and so even though he was a second team all-pro in 1961, it was second team to presumably split ends or flankers, and he was the clear top tight end. In fact, before Ditka, there was no all-pro selection for the tight end position. He changed the way the awards were done, and he was recognized as the clear top tight end in the league for four straight seasons.

Second, if you check the fine print, this site lists all-pro seasons as those designated by the AP all-pro selections. However, numerous other organizations made first and second team selections, both all-pro and all-conference. Most years, the selections at tight end were unanimous, but if they were not, I noted the plurality and how many selected each player to first team all-pro. As a result, my numbers may not match up with the all-pros listed on a player's page. Also, not all awards gave all-pro selections, some instead just designating all-conference selections.

The below chart presents four different columns. The first is the number of unanimous first team all-pro selections a player had. The second column represents other seasons in which the player received at least one selection as a first team all-pro, but was not the unanimous choice. The third column represents all additional seasons where a player was not selected for any first team all-pro award, but received at least one award as a second team all-pro (I did not separate this one out into unanimous and non-unanimous second team all-pros). Finally, the fourth column represents all other seasons when a player received an award, such as first team all-conference (but not on any all-pro teams) or second team all-conference. For example, in 1978, Casper was the unanimous first team all-pro, and Russ Francis was the unanimous second team all-pro and all-AFC selection. Billy Joe Dupree and Henry Childs received the all-NFC awards, but neither got any all-pro consideration, and these are the types of seasons that would go into this fourth column.

Here is the NFL Network's top ten in reverse order:

		    unan. 1st 1st tm	2nd tm	other
Antonio Gates		3	0	0	1
Mark Bavaro		1	1	0	0
Tony Gonzalez		4	1	3	0
Dave Casper		3	1	0	0
Jackie Smith		0	0	1	4
Ozzie Newsome		1	1	2	3
Shannon Sharpe		4	0	1	1
Mike Ditka		4	0	2	0
Kellen Winslow		3	0	0	1
John Mackey		2	1	0	0

Gonzalez, Sharpe and Ditka are the only tight ends who were the clear top player in four different seasons. Gonzalez also had a fifth season where he split first team all-pro votes with Shockey (2002). Gonzalez so far has eight total seasons where he was either first or second team all-pro at tight end, ahead of Ditka's six seasons, and Sharpe's five. Gonzalez laps the rest of the field. Yeah, eighth best tight end sounds about right.

For further comparison, here is the same chart format, with a list of all other tight ends who played in the NFL since 1960, (and were not included in the NFL Network's list) who were selected to at least one all-pro first team in their career, listed in descending order of unanimous first team finishes:

		     unan. 1st	 1st tm	2nd tm	other
Todd Christensen	2	1	2	0
Charlie Sanders		2	0	1	3
Ben Coates		2	0	1	1
Riley Odoms		1	2	0	2
Keith Jackson		1	2	0	2
Pete Retzlaff		1	0	1	1
Ted Kwalick		1	0	0	2
Jason Witten		1	0	0	1
Marv Cook		1	0	0	0
Charle Young		0	3	0	0
Jay Novacek		0	1	1	3
Mickey Shuler		0	1	1	1
Jerry Smith		0	1	1	0
Raymond Chester		0	1	0	0
Jeremy  Shockey		0	1	0	0


I've also left off the AFL-only guys from 1960-1969. Fred Arbanas was the class of the AFL, finishing as the unanimous top choice twice (1964 and 1966), splitting votes for first team twice (with Dave Kocourek in 1963 and Billy Cannon in 1967), and finishing second team all-AFL twice (behind Kocourek in 1962 and Willie Frazier in 1965). Other notables besides the aforementioned Kocourek, Cannon and Frazier: Jim Whalen and Alvin Reed split the awards in 1968, and Bob Trumpy took top honors in 1969 (and followed it with a second team all-pro finish behind Charlie Sanders in 1970 after the merger).

With only eight teams for most of the seasons, coupled with the fact that the NFL guys from the same period are subjectively considered better, and the fact that Arbanas never was the unanimous selection consecutively and only twice, and I don't think I can justify putting him in the top ten, though he certainly merits mention in the next tier.

We probably want to focus on the first five guys in that second list, because they are the only other ones who either (1) were selected as a first team all-pro unanimously in two different seasons, or (2) were selected as a first team-all pro in three different seasons, but not unanimously in more than one.

This next chart is akin to Bill James' black ink test. It lists top ten finishes in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Now, I place greater weight on the first chart than this one. If a tight end is leading in receiving categories but not winning awards, that tells you something about how he is perceived by his peers at the time as an all-around tight end. Also, even though this method is better than looking at raw numbers, it still needs some era adjustment. It is a lot harder to finish top ten in a category in 2007 than in 1967, because you are competing against not only other tight ends, but also wide receivers and receiving backs in these categories. Having 32 teams increases the competition for a top ten finish exponentially compared to having 14 or 16 teams to compete against. On the other hand, the tight end usage has changed. Tight ends were generally not the huge receiving threats that they are today back in the 1960's. After the 1978 passing rule changes, the tight ends as a group seemed to have benefitted in terms of receptions, while today's tight ends seem to be more involved in red zone scoring than at any other time. The chart presents two columns for each category. The first lists the number of top ten seasons the player had in each category. The second weights those finishes, so that leading the league in receptions garners 10 points, while a tenth place finish gets only 1. Thus, the higher numbers in the second category reflect more statistical dominance in the receiving categories relative to the rest of the league.

		    Top 10	Rank	Top 10	Rank	Top 10	Rank
		    Recept	Recept	Rec Yds	Rec Yds	Rec Td	Rec Td
Todd Christensen	5	37	2	12	3	10
Charlie Sanders		0	0	0	0	0	0
Ben Coates		1	7	1	1	3	8
Riley Odoms		0	0	0	0	2	8
Keith Jackson		1	5	0	0	1	6
Antonio Gates		1	5	0	0	3	18
Mark Bavaro		0	0	0	0	1	8
Tony Gonzalez		3	15	1	4	3	17
Dave Casper		3	11	1	1	5	27
Jackie Smith		2	8	3	10	1	6
Ozzie Newsome		3	25	1	4	1	6
Shannon Sharpe		2	6	1	1	3	17
Mike Ditka		4	26	3	12	2	11
Kellen Winslow		4	37	3	20	4	26
John Mackey		2	4	1	2	2	9

With that as background, let's move to my Top Ten. First, we need to talk about who misses the cut, and why, because I have fifteen names here. First, I am going to kick off two guys from the NFL Network list.

Jackie Smith is gone because I want dominance on my list, and he is the only tight end on the list who never received any first team all-pro selections, to go with only one second team selection. He put up good receiving numbers, particularly in the yards category. If we were assessing tight ends just as receivers, he makes the list. And he certainly had a longer career than his contemporaries. But it is clear from reviewing the all-pro list that he was not viewed as favorably as the raw numbers might support, nor considered as much of an all-around tight end as others of his era who garnered greater award recognition.

Bavaro is gone because he just did not do it long enough. My list is not about what might have been, and you need more than two seasons of top level play to make it, considering the alternatives available.

Riley Odoms and Keith Jackson miss the cut for similar reasons. Both were first team selections in three different seasons, but each was the unanimous selection only once. Odoms is very under-rated, but he and Charle Young split votes in the mid-1970's, before Casper emerged. Keith Jackson was the best tight end in what was probably the valley period for elite tight ends, after the retirement of guys like Christensen, Winslow, and Newsome, and the decline of Bavaro, but before the emergence of Sharpe and Coates. If he was a unanimous selection during this era, he would make my list. But he split votes with Mickey Shuler in 1988 and Rodney Holman in 1989. Good players each, but if you want to be considered one of the best of all-time, you cannot split votes with those players in your prime. Jackson's run was also ended by Marv Cook in 1991, the biggest one-hit wonder at the tight end position. For those reasons, I cannot justify Jackson despite his three all-pro seasons.

Just missing the cut is Ben Coates, and quite frankly, it's too close to call. He had two top seasons where he finished ahead of an elite tight end in Shannon Sharpe, and also had another second team finish. I think Coates merits consideration for an all-time list, and if he had been productive for just a little longer, would be there.

Which brings me to the Top Ten.

10. Charlie Sanders. To show I'm not biased against era (on the contrary, I think its the NFL Network's list that is clearly era biased), if I am kicking Jackie Smith, I am going to replace him with a contemporary who was considered better than Smith by the voters of the time. I'll trust their evaluation. Sanders was the best tight end in 1970 and 1971, after a second place finish in 1969. He also played in seven pro bowls. He never finished in the top ten in any receiving category, which is why he comes in at number 10. But he was clearly considered the top tight end of the early merger period, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.

9. Ozzie Newsome. How could I place the Wizard so low? Well, several of the people interviewed for the NFL Network piece even noted that he was a terrible blocker. I'm sure then, that this had something to do with Newsome only making three pro bowls and one unanimous first team all-pro in his career. To be fair, he was in the AFC, and most of the top tight ends were in the AFC during his career, so if he was in the NFC, he would have probably made more pro bowls. He also played at the same time as Kellen Winslow. But its not like he was the clear 2nd choice throughout his career. At various points during his prime, he split votes for awards with Raymond Chester, Junior Miller, and Dan Ross. It was Todd Christensen, not Newsome, that emerged as the best tight end when Winslow got hurt and declined.

8. Todd Christensen. How did he not make the NFL Network List? Is he that unpopular? The black ink test favors Christensen to be even higher, and certainly ahead of his contemporary Newsome. It does appear that the tight ends of his era were more dominant statistically as a whole, particularly in the reception category, so this may require us to reign in his receiving numbers. He also started his career later than most of the elite tight ends. But he was considered one of the two best tight ends in the game for every season between 1983-1987, and that gets him on my list.

7. Antonio Gates. I could make a pretty good argument that he could be higher, but that depends on what he does the rest of his career. Plenty of guys have been the best tight end for a three year stretch. He's not considered the most willing blocker despite his size, but he could move up this list with another elite season, joining Ditka, Gonzalez and Sharpe with four.

6. John Mackey. I know I am risking being accused of all sorts of things with this placement, considering the NFL Network had him at #1. I saw the highlights, and he certainly was a physical specimen. I'll just say that if I was going by only numbers (relative rankings, all-pro seasons) he wouldn't even be this high, so I am trying to be somewhat deferential to the opinions expressed in the piece--to a point. There are just too many questions that bother me about Mackey when I am considering whether the ranking at #1 is merited or a case of revisionist history. If he is the best of all-time, why did he only appear on awards list in three seasons? More to the point, why did he not sweep the awards in the middle of his prime? In 1967, the UPI gave their first team all-pro honor to Jerry Smith, not Mackey. Now, maybe the voters for the UPI had some axe to grind, but I just have to go by what I see. Also, Mackey and Ditka both retired in 1972. The Hall of Fame was unfairly slow to recognize the game's top tight ends from the early years, but if Mackey is the best ever, why was it that Ditka went into the Hall in 1988, and Mackey not until in 1992?

I'd also like to dispel the notion that Ditka and Mackey cost each other awards. It's true that they played at the same time for a great part of their careers, and both retired after the 1972 season. But the notion they cost each other numerous awards, and thus the first chart I posted undervalues each, is not true. Ditka was the acknowledged best tight end in the game his first four seasons (1961-1964). In 1965, Ditka fell off greatly stat-wise, still finishing 2nd team all-pro, but the unanimous first teamer was not Mackey. It was a 34-year old Pete Retzlaff, an interesting player who seems a cross between a Frank Wychek and a Larry Centers, starting his career as a receiving back, moving to end, then ending his career as a tight end once it became an acknowledged position. Mackey's first all-pro season was the next year, in 1966. Ditka did finish as a 2nd teamer that year, along with a young Jackie Smith, but it was Ditka's final season garnering any awards. The following year, 1967, Mackey was the choice (with the UPI going with Jerry Smith), but Ditka was done as far as league honors went. Mackey was the unanimous choice in 1968, finishing ahead of Jackie Smith in Smith's only unanimous 2nd team all-pro season. That was Mackey's last season getting any awards. Jerry Smith was the unanimous selection in 1969, followed by the first two post merger seasons where Charlie Sanders took top honors unanimously. Mackey's career as the best tight end in the league was framed by Pete Retzlaff and Jerry Smith, not Ditka.

5. Dave Casper. Casper was a touchdown machine and the most dominant tight end of the late 1970's. He is the fourth player to receive first team all-pro votes in four different seasons. Three were unanimous (1976-1978), and in 1979, he split votes with Newsome and Chester.

I think there is a divide between here and the top four tight ends of all-time.

4. Shannon Sharpe. You could make an argument for Sharpe to be higher. But this is my rant. Sharpe and Gonzalez' careers overlapped, so we do not really need an era adjustment to the raw numbers. Gonzalez is still going strong, and has passed or will soon pass Sharpe in every career tight end receiving record. If you want to put Sharpe ahead of Gonzalez based on three Super Bowl rings, well, I'm sorry, I cannot accept that. If your going to bump Gonzalez down because he played with Grbac instead of Elway, or with a team with no defense when the offense was at its peak, I'll just agree to disagree. Sharpe is one of the top tight ends, but in a straight up comparison, Gonzalez is ahead of Sharpe. If I were to find one reason, it's that he lost out to Ben Coates twice in the middle of his career. But his numbers and longevity merit being near the top.

3. Kellen Winslow. If we want to measure absolute dominance in the passing game during a player's peak, Winslow is number one. His prime was much shorter than the other guys at the top. His seasons from 1980-1982 were among the best ever. This is a matter of preference, and where you place Winslow depends on your view of peak versus longevity.

2. Tony Gonzalez. Surprised? I think I've set forth the case for Gonzalez appearing at the top of the list, and I'll lay out some rationale for the final player below (one of which is fear for my life should I ever meet him). I'll just add this in Gonzalez' favor. As we have seen, Ditka did not actually cost Mackey any awards. The same is not true for Gonzalez and Gates. Not only does he have the most first team all-pro seasons of any tight end with five (1999-2003), but he had the best season of all time for a tight end who was not selected first team all-pro. All Gonzalez did in 2004 was lead the league in receptions with 102, have 1258 yards receiving, and score 7 td's. But Gates was even better. How many other seasons, even era adjusting the numbers, would a tight end season like that not have resulted in a unanimous first team all-pro selection? Are there any? Maybe one or two of Winslow's? So not only does Gonzalez have the most first team all-pro seasons, he has the best season among the rest. If Gates had not emerged, Gonzalez would have absolutely shattered the first team all-pro records at the position.

1. Iron Mike Ditka. I am more impressed with Ditka's playing career after re-examining the numbers. As far as elite seasons and longevity, he comes in only behind Gonzalez. And I can accept that the nature of the game at the tight end position, compared to today where passing is more prevalent and tight ends get more involved in receiving, could shorten the effective length of tight end careers when Ditka played. That makes his dominance even more impressive. If you put Ditka and Mackey side by side in a comparison, it is no contest. Ditka was a dominant receiver for the first four years of his career, and known as a nasty blocker throughout his career. He basically revolutionized the position and turned the tight end into an offensive weapon. For that, he gets my top spot.

What say the rest of you?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 1st, 2008 at 3:54 am and is filed under History, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.