Kellen Winslow is credited with revolutionizing the tight end position with his superior athleticism and playmaking ability. The Pro Football Hall of Famer tormented defenses with his versatile skill set and became a star as a hybrid tight end-wide receiver in the San Diego Chargers' prolific "Air Coryell" offenses of the 1980s.
Several current tight ends are following the path originally blazed by Winslow. Using their athleticism and diverse receiving skills, these playmakers have emerged as potent weapons in the modern passing game.
Whereas tight ends in the previous era were expected to have an all-around game that featured exceptional receiving skills and blocking ability, today's tight ends are classified into two groups: Hybrid, or H-back, and conventional.
Hybrid tight ends primarily function as pass catchers, and most are exceptional athletes with speed comparable to some receivers. Their physical ability can pose problems for linebackers and defensive backs. Hybrids' quickness and athleticism make them difficult for linebackers to guard in space, and their hulking size gives them an advantage over smaller defensive backs.
With creative offensive coordinators willing to manipulate formations to exploit those matchups, hybrids increasingly have become anchors for top-flight aerial attacks. Gates, Cooley, Owen Daniels and Dallas Clark are prime examples of hybrid tight ends used in this manner.
Conventional tight ends are three-down players who can excel as blockers or receivers. They can do the dirty work on the edges in the running game and display solid pass-protection skills. They also are effective receivers with the ability to effectively work over the middle of the field. As big targets with good hands, conventional tight ends serve as the quarterback's security blanket in critical situations and are vital weapons in the red zone. Heath Miller, Witten, Gonzalez and Miller fall into the conventional tight end category in most offenses.
While most of the tight ends in recent drafts didn't possess the skills needed to be an every-down player, this year's top prospect at the position, Brandon Pettigrew, is an exception to the rule. The Detroit Lions rookie has been lauded for his overall skills and could quickly emerge as one of the league's best all-around tight ends in a few years.
With impact and consistency as the critical factors, let's take a look at the top five tight ends in the NFL:
1. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
The most prolific tight end in league history belongs at the top of this list. The nine-time Pro Bowler led all tight ends in receptions (96), receiving yards (1,058) and touchdowns (10) last season, and he continues to be the standard for the position. A precise route runner with exceptional hands, Gonzalez is a dominant playmaker over the middle of the field. Although he isn't considered a speed merchant at this stage of his career, he still made 10 receptions over 20 yards last season while facing a steady diet of bracket or double coverage. In addition, the 12-year pro topped the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight season and the fourth time in his illustrious career. With no other tight ends able to match his production or consistency, Gonzalez unquestionably remains the best at his position.
2. Jason Witten, Cowboys
The four-time Pro Bowler is arguably the NFL's most complete tight end. Witten is a skillful receiver with outstanding hands and route-running ability. Although he's often the No. 2 option in Dallas' passing game, the six-year veteran has perennially ranked among the reception leaders at tight end. He has five straight seasons with 60 or more receptions and has eight 100-yard receiving days in his career. While Witten is lauded for his receiving skills, he's also regarded as an outstanding run blocker. He excels at doing the dirty work on the edges and is one of the few players on this list who could be considered a throwback tight end.
3. Antonio Gates, Chargers
The former college basketball standout has blossomed into an all-star tight end during his six-year career. An ultra-athletic pass catcher with excellent hands, Gates has tormented foes with his unique ability to create mismatches on the edge. Playing as a quasi-receiver in some of the Chargers' spread formations, the four-time Pro Bowler has at least 60 receptions in each of the past five seasons and added 49 touchdowns during that span. Those numbers are even more impressive when considering that Gates has played without the presence of another big-time player in the passing game. While Gates' blocking skills rate slightly below others on this list, his superb receiving skills place him here.
4. Chris Cooley, Redskins
The 2008 Pro Bowler is undoubtedly one of the best pass-catching tight ends. A fluid route runner with excellent athleticism, Cooley excels at working between the hashes. The five-year veteran also is an outstanding runner after the catch, and his ability to turn short passes into big gains brings an added dimension to Washington's offense. Although Cooley occasionally struggles as a blocker on the edge, his stellar receiving skills and big-play ability make him one of the top players at his position.
5. Owen Daniels, Texans
The three-year pro has quickly ascended to the ranks of the elite after putting together back-to-back seasons with 60 or more receptions. The 2008 Pro Bowler is an exceptional pass catcher with outstanding hands and ball skills. He's also a polished route runner with the speed and athleticism to exploit the middle of the field. Last season, Daniels had 10 receptions over 20 yards and averaged an impressive 12.3 yards per catch. With Houston's high-powered offense sure to put the ball in the air often, Daniels is poised to remain on this list for years to come.