Today we continue our series discussing the best to play each position (which I now call the “Stars and Legends” series) with a look at the game’s best tight ends. As I noted in my post on the tight end position, this player has many jobs: protecting the quarterback, blocking for the ball runner and catching passes. By necessity, players at this position must possess strength, athleticism and intelligence. They also provide peace of mind for their quarterback. The players on the list below exemplify these qualities, and two of Yesterday’s Legends, Dave Casper and Kellen Winslow, are credited for pushing the tight end position beyond the traditional role of blocker to that of play maker. As always, though, I don’t claim that this is the list of all lists; just a list of names you should know.
Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys, 2003-present): Witten attended the University of Tennessee and was drafted by the Cowboys in 2003. He is the definition of “safety valve” for his quarterback, Tony Romo, who relies on Witten as a clutch receiver in critical situations. He has the most receptions for Cowboys tight ends and has a chance this season to move to second on the list of all-time receiving yards for the team. Starting in his second year, he has been selected to the Pro Bowl each season.
Antonio Gates (San Diego Charger, 2003-present): Gates was signed by the Chargers in 2003 as an undrafted free agent, after having a nomadic two-sport (football and basketball) college career, the last two years of which were spent at Kent State University. He and then-Chargers quarterback were a match made in Heaven; in 2004, his second year, he broke the record for touchdown catches by a tight end. He has continued to flourish under current QB Philip Rivers and has been selected to seven consecutive Pro Bowls. Since 2004, only three players (Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens) have caught more touchdown passes than Gates.
Tony Gonzalez (Kansas City Chiefs, 1997-2008; Atlanta Falcons, 2009-present): Gonzalez attended the University of California Berkeley, where he played both football and basketball. He was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs 15th overall in 1997. Starting in 1999, he has been selected to the Pro Bowl every year except one; in 2009, his first year with the Atlanta Falcons. Gonzalez currently holds the following NFL records: receptions in a single season for a tight end (102 in 2004); receiving yards for a tight end; receptions for a tight end; receiving touchdowns for a tight end; most seasons with 1,000+ yards for a tight end; and consecutive starts by a tight end (120). As we know from yesterday’s post, Gonzalez has a chance in Week 2 to pass Terrell Owens as fifth on the NFL all-time receiving yards list.
Dave Casper (Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, 1974-1980 and 1984; Houston Oilers, 1980-1983; Minnesota Vikings, 1983): Casper, nicknamed “The Ghost,” attended the University of Notre Dame and was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 1974. He was a clutch receiver who helped the Raiders win key games, including Super Bowl XI and the 1977 playoff game against the Baltimore Colts in a famous play since called “Ghost to the Post,” a 42-yard reception that set up a tying field goal. He was also a critical participant in another famous play, “The Holy Roller.” In the last ten seconds of the game, down by six to the San Diego Chargers, the Raiders QB, Ken Stabler, fumbled the ball, which rolled to the Chargers 11-yard line. Running back Pete Banaszak batted it with his hand toward the goal line, and at the 5-yard line, Casper kicked it forward before finally falling on it in the end zone for the win. It was after that season that the NFL passed a new rule making it illegal to advance the ball after a fumble on fourth down or in the last two minutes of the game. Casper won two Super Bowls and was selected to five Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
Ozzie Newsome (Cleveland Browns, 1978-1990): Newsome attended the University of Alabama and played under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, and was drafted in the first round by the Browns in 1978. He was selected to the Pro Bowl three times and was named an All Pro* seven times. Nicknamed the “Wizard of Oz,” Newsome played 198 consecutive games and finished his career with 662 reception for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns. These records held until broken by Shannon Sharpe. Newsome was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 and is currently the General Manager of the Baltimore Ravens.
Shannon Sharpe (Denver Broncos, 1990-1999 and 2002-2003; Baltimore Ravens, 2000-2001): Sharpe attended Savannah State College and was drafted by the Broncos in the seventh round in 1990. While he was with the Broncos, he won two Super Bowls; he won another Super Bowl with the Ravens. When Sharpe retired, he held the NFL records for most receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by a tight end, records that have since been broken by Tony Gonzalez. Sharpe was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011. Always known for his smack talk and memorable one-liners, he is currently a NFL commentator for CBS.
*All-Pro is a designation of the best player in the NFL at each position each year by the Associated Press.
**Not to be confused with his son, Kellen Winslow II, who currently plays tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.