With "The Top 100: Players of 2011" winding down, it got us thinking: Who are the greatest players of the new millennium, the Y2K era? Since 2000, broad developments in NFL strategy have taken place, as well as the specialization of the players who fit into these new schemes. So who has thrived most in the league's ever-evolving environment?
Today, Charles Davis and Elliot Harrison debate the best tight end. Got an opinion of your own? Sound off in the comments section below.
Davis: A case for Tony Gonzalez
The tight end position has evolved throughout the course of football. For so long, it was a position that emphasized blocking and brawn over agility and hands. Now it is a position that places a premium on being a receiving threat first and a capable blocker second. And, by "capable" blocking, that's much more position blocking than concerns about knock downs. But tight ends are still required to at least be able to help in the run game.
"Gonzo" toiled for years in Kansas City. He was always featured, always depended upon, and he never disappointed. He had pass catching streaks, big numbers, key catches on third downs. Over time, he also became a willing and able blocker, and has lost none of those talents since his move to Atlanta.
Block, both along the line and from a flexed position? Check. Run pass routes from the traditional tight end spot, from the slot or even out wide like a flanker? Check. Third down security blanket for the QB? HUGE CHECK. And he's still doing it -- and quite well -- in his mid 30s.
The images of Gonzalez making catches all over the field, running a variety of routes in all situations and showing up to play every week will stay with us forever. No disrespect to the other great players at the position, but I was asked, and Gonzo is my "final answer."
Miller's one player that I feel does not get enough mention. I think he's a true tight end, perhaps more of a traditional one in that he's not noted for any one thing in particular, but when you watch him play you begin to understand why those who play against him respect him so much. He is a good blocker, something that he developed in college at Arizona State. Excellent hands are the pay off for being such a proficient route runner, one who understands defenses, and knows how to beat them. He's played through a myriad of quarterbacks in Oakland, and will benefit from having Hue Jackson's offense in place for a second season. Keep an eye on Miller in 2011. You will like what you see.
Harrison: A case for Antonio Gates
Before we get into this debate, let's just absorb one little stat. Since 2003, when Gates first came into the league, he's caught 63 passes of 25 yards or more.
The next closest dude has 42. That's what you would call a Jerry Rice-type gap.
Voting for Gates here is a little like pulling for Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV." Everyone knew Rocky would win, just like I realize Gonzalez always gets the nod as the best tight end of all-time, much less the 2000s.
To me, neither is necessarily true. While Shannon Sharpe is the best tight end I've ever seen, Gates belongs with Gonzalez for consideration as the best at the position during this era, especially because he's still going strong.
Today's game is played in space, so the need for the tight end who is a great run blocker and a factor in the passing game has dissipated somewhat. Teams often use different players to specialize in the run game (Brandon Manumaleuna for the Chargers), while hoping they can not only involve a tight end in the passing game, but utilize him be a big-time playmaker.
Quite simply, Gates has been the best at that, which is reflected in his yards per catch and touchdown totals. Since he entered the league in 2003, Gates destroyed other NFL tight ends at getting into the end zone, including two of the league's best in Gonzalez and Jason Witten. Over that span, Gates has scored 69 times to Gonzalez's 51, and 36 for Witten.
How about bang for the buck? Gates career 13.2 yards per catch is the highest among all tight ends with at least 150 receptions. In this era -- a passing era -- having a tight end that gets chunk yards is at a premium, and often more important than having a player that picks up six yards and maybe a first down.
Don't get me wrong. Gonzalez is an all-time great. So is Witten for that matter. But give me the guy that defensive coordinators are scared of … Gates.