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Best tight ends of all time: Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski among best in NFL history

Who is the greatest tight end of all time? Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce aren’t just two future Hall of Famers, they help define the position itself. As we look at the best tight ends of all time, it should be no surprise that some of the best in NFL history all starred in recent years.

The past two decades of pro football have changed the way everyone views the tight end position. While physicality, moving the chains and blocking remain core contributions from some of the best at the position, some of the best tight ends of all time were game-changing athletes.

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Former basketball players like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez refined tight end. NFL teams started focusing on massive human beings who could run in the open field like a wide receiver, outrunning linebackers and outmuscling defensive backs.

Let’s dive into our rankings for the best tight ends of all time.

Just Missed: Ozzie Newsome, John Mackey, Jason Witten

Best tight ends of all time: Kellen Winslow, Shannon Sharpe started a new era

7. Mike Ditka

USA TODAY Sports-Historical
David Boss-USA TODAY Sports
  • Mike Ditka career stats: 427 receptions, 5,812 receiving yards, 43 touchdowns

While Mike Ditka is recognized more now for his coaching career and sweater vest, we can’t talk about the best tight ends of all time without mentioning Ditka. He is the reason for the tight end position truly being created, the first player to change the course of NFL history and created careers for those after him. A five-time Pro Bowl pick and five-time All-Pro selection, he’s a member of the NFL 100th Anniversary Team and tight ends aren’t in the same spot without him.

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6. Shannon Sharpe

NFL: Pro Bowl
VJ Lovero-USA TODAY Sports
  • Shannon Sharpe stats: 815 receptions, 10,060 receiving yards, 62 touchdowns

Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, Shannon Sharpe still holds the NFL record for most receiving yards in a game by a tight end (214). Sharpe is just one of 52 players in NFL history with 10,000 receiving yards in a career, accomplishing that feat in a far less pass-heavy era as a tight end.

An eight-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time Super Bowl champion, the 6-foot-2 tight end was drafted with the 192nd pick out of Savannah State in the 1990 NFL Draft and became one of the best tight ends of all time. Keep in mind, all of his production happened when pass-catchers put their bodies on the line to make plays over the middle.

5. Kellen Winslow

USA TODAY Sports-Historical
Rod Hanna-USA TODAY Sports
  • Kellen Winslow career stats: 541 receptions, 6,741 receiving yards, 45 touchdowns

While Kellen Winslow played fewer games than some of the other best tight ends of all time, his production is still absurd for the era. From 1980-’87, he averaged 810.7 receiving yards and 5.4 touchdowns per season, right on pace with the best years of Sharpe’s career (818.1 receiving yards and 5.3 touchdowns per season from 1993-’03). Winslow Sr. also earned four All-Pro selections, led the NFL in receptions twice (1980-’81) and earned a spot on the NFL’s 100th Anniversary Team.

Winslow is another example of a player who changed how the NFL uses tight ends. As Ty Dunne described, Don Coryell used the 6-foot-5 tight end all over the field, taking advantage of his size and athleticism. It provided a blueprint for tight end usage today. We’d be doing a disservice to Winslow if we didn’t recognize “The Epic in Miami”, when. he hauled in 13 passes for 166 receiving yards and blocked a field goal, an unforgettable performance in one of the best NFL games ever.

Greatest tight ends in NFL history: Modern game takes over

4. Antonio Gates

NFL: Buffalo Bills at San Diego Chargers
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

When Nick Saban told him he couldn’t play both football and basketball by Nick Saban, Antonio Gates made his way to Kent State to focus on basketball. He shined in two seasons, averaging 18.1 point sand 7.9 rebounds per game. When an NBA career was taken off the table, NFL scouts offered Gates a life-changing opportunity.

After last playing football in high school, all Gates did is become one of the best tight ends in NFL history. Undrafted in 2003, he earned a first-team All-Pro selection in 2004. From 04-’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.

3. Travis Kelce – Best tight end in NFL now

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
  • Travis Kelce career stats: 907 receptions, 11,328 receiving yards, 74 receiving touchdowns, 12.5 yards per reception, 598 first downs, 71.7 receiving yards per game

It’s not hard to understand why Travis Kelce is already viewed as one of the best tight ends of all time considering his list of accomplishments. Selected with the 63rd pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, picked after Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz, Gavin Escobar and Vance McDonald – Kelce’s resume is truly absurd and already cements his future enshrinement into the Hall of Fame.

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He holds NFL records for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons by a tight end (seven), most seasons with 1,000 receiving yards (seven), most games with 100-plus yards among tight ends (35), most seasons with 100-plus receptions by a tight end (three) and the single-season record for receiving yardage (1,416) by a tight end.

He’ll pass Antonio Gates on the all-time receiving yardage list for tight ends by 2024, too. A seven-time All-Pro selection, Kelce likely has at least three years remaining in his legendary career. By the time he retires, Kelce will become just the third tight end in NFL history to eclipse 1,000 receptions and he could become just the second with 12,000 career receiving yards.

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At the end of the 2023 NFL season, Kelce will become just the fourth tight end in NFL history to record 900 career receptions, joining a legendary group that includes Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. Kelce already became the sixth tight end in NFL history with 70-plus receiving touchdowns, too. While he’s made it clear he won’t hang around long enough to break all-time NFL records, Kelce remains one of the best tight ends of all time.

In the 2023 AFC Championship Game, Kelce passed Jerry Rice’s record for the most career receptions in the NFL playoffs. With no plans to retire in 2024, the future inductee in Canton will have even more opportunities to distance himself from an all-time record no one thought would be broken. Kelce also holds the NFL playoffs record for career playoff games with 10-plus receptions (six), twice as many as the next closest player.

Travis Kelce playoff records

  • Most games with 10-plus receptions: 6
  • Most career receptions in the NFL playoffs: 156

2. Tony Gonzalez

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos
Byron Hetzler-USA TODAY Sports
  • Tony Gonzalez career stats: 1,325 receptions, 15,127 receiving yards, 111 touchdowns

Tony Gonzalez (14) ranks second behind Tom Brady (15) for the most Pro Bowl selections in NFL history. Picked 13th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1997 NFL Draft, Gonzalez holds multiple records to this day and he never had a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing to him.

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From 1999-2013, Gonzalez averaged 942.5 receiving yards and 6.9 touchdowns per season. He still played at a high level in his final season, earning four consecutive Pro Bowl selections to close out his career and hauling in 83 receptions for 859 receiving yards and eight touchdowns at age 37.

Gonzalez holds the records for the most career receiving yards by a tight end (15,127) and the most career receptions by a tight end (1,325). He is second behind Gates on the all-time touchdown leaderboard (111). While some view him as the best tight end in NFL history, Gonzalez comes in second on our rankings for the all-time greats.

1. Rob Gronkowski – Best tight end in NFL history

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
  • Rob Gronkowski career stats: 960 receptions, 9,286 receiving yards, 92 touchdowns
  • When is Rob Gronkowski eligible for the Hall of Fame? 2027

Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in NFL history. While he doesn’t have the longevity to match Gonzalez and he certainly benefitted from playing with the best quarterback ever, Gronkpwski 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.

Being one of the most physically dominant offensive weapons in NFL history helps Gronkowski be viewed as one of the best tight ends of all time. What puts him No. 1 on our list is everything else he did. On top of his unique receiving abilities, Gronkowski was an outstanding blocker for his position, finishing as one of the highest-graded run blockers among tight ends in Pro Football Focus’ history. When you boil it all down, Gronkowski is the best to ever do it.

Most receiving yards by a tight end in a season

  1. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs – 1,416 (2020)
  2. George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers – 1,377 (2018)
  3. Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens – 1,361 (2021)
  4. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs – 1,338 (2022)
  5. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs – 1,336 (2018)

Career receiving yards tight end – Tight ends with most receiving yards in NFL history

  1. Tony Gonzalez – 15,127 receiving yards
  2. Jason Witten – 13,046 receiving yards
  3. Antonio Gates – 11,841 receiving yards
  4. Travis Kelce – 11,328 receiving yards
  5. Shannon Sharpe – 10,060 receiving yards
  6. Rob Gronkowski – 9,286 receiving yards

Tight ends with most career touchdowns

  1. Antonio Gates – 116 touchdowns
  2. Tony Gonzalez – 111 touchdowns
  3. Rob Gronkowski – 92 touchdowns
  4. Jimmy Graham – 86 touchdowns
  5. Travis Kelce – 74 touchdowns
  6. Jason Witten – 74 touchdowns
  7. Vernon Davis – 63 touchdowns
  8. Shannon Sharpe – 61 touchdowns
  9. Greg Olsen – 60 touchdowns
  10. Jimmy Smith – 60 touchdowns

Most career receptions by NFL tight ends

  1. Tony Gonzalez – 1,325
  2. Jason Witten – 1,228
  3. Antonio Gates – 955
  4. Travis Kelce – 907
  5. Shannon Sharpe – 815
  6. Greg Olsen – 742
  7. Jimmy Graham – 714
  8. Zach Ertz – 702
  9. Ozzie Newsome – 662
  10. Rob Gronkowski – 621

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