Of all the top fives I have pulled together for NFL UK in recent weeks, I think this might be the most difficult. There are always challenges when comparing players from different eras but none more so than when looking at the tight end position. The guys from yesteryear were complete performers equally at home blocking and catching, while many of today's performers are glorified wide receivers. I've tried to give a nod to all groups in this list. Here goes…
1. ROB GRONKOWSKI
While his critics may point to some injury and durability issues during his nine seasons with New England, Rob Gronkowski was the most impossible to defend tight end in league history when healthy. And after winning three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, Gronk returned to the NFL in 2020 to win another title with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. By catching two touchdowns in that Super Bowl victory over Kansas City, Gronkowski reminded us all there has never been such a prolific postseason receiver – at any position. Gronk has 566 catches for 8,484 yards and 86 touchdowns during his career – others have greater numbers but none has scared defenses as much on a down to down basis.
2. TONY GONZALEZ
The durability that evaded Gronkowski was a hallmark of Tony Gonzalez's Hall of Fame career as he missed just two games in 17 years. Gonzalez retired with 1,325 catches for 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. The former Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons star never won a Super Bowl, but he played his part every Sunday and was named All-Pro six times and to the Pro Bowl on 14 occasions. He was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 2000s and to the NFL's 100th Anniversary team. There are plenty of pundits who would have Gonzalez placed atop of this list and there is no doubting his greatness.
3. ANTONIO GATES
While he may not have created the same matchup nightmares as Gronk nor been as flashy as Gonzalez, Antonio Gates put together a Hall of Fame career with the San Diego Chargers. He was the team's main safety valve for pretty much all of his 16 seasons in Southern California. His connection with Philip Rivers was one of the best in NFL history. A former basketball player who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2003, Gates was the model of consistency who could reel in almost any pass thrown his way, even when not open. Bodying defenders out of the picture, Gates caught 955 career passes for 11,841 yards and a record 116 touchdowns. A final football resting place in Canton, Ohio, beckons.
4. KELLEN WINSLOW
When looking at the pure numbers, Kellen Winslow doesn't belong on this list. But we have to consider the era in which he played and how much a certain player re-defined his position. Winslow was an older version of Gronk as he starred for the San Diego Chargers from 1979 to 1987 before injury cut short his Hall of Fame career. In an era when many tight ends were used like extra offensive tackles, Winslow was described as "a wide receiver in a lineman's body" and he became a feared deep threat with Dan Fouts at quarterback. Winslow led the NFL in receptions in the 1980 and 1981 seasons. He played one of the single greatest playoff games in league history at the end of the 1981 campaign as he caught 13 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown in a 41-38 overtime win against Miami. That game only reached sudden death because Winslow blocked a Dolphins field goal attempt with 13 seconds remaining. A cramp-stricken and exhausted Winslow being helped off the field by teammates remains one of the most enduring images in NFL history.
5. MIKE DITKA
You can take your shots at me here because I would happily allow Shannon Sharpe, Ozzie Newsome, John Mackey, Jason Witten or even Travis Kelce to be included here. But I'm going with a man probably still more famous for winning a Super Bowl as the tank-top-wearing head coach of the Chicago Bears. Tight end production was minimal when Ditka burst onto the scene as a brash rookie with the Bears in 1961. Ditka was light years ahead of his time as he racked up 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games. The career numbers don't look much today (427 catches for 5,812 yards and 43 touchdowns) but Ditka was a revolutionary who paved the way for the pass-catching stars we see in the NFL today. The one major difference between the Hall of Famer and some of the tight ends in the league now? Ditka was dirt tough and relished blocking as much as surprising defenses with his downfield receiving skills. He was a complete player in an era when tight ends were anything but.