The greatest tight end to play the game (don't @ me), Tony Gonzalez, came strong with a very possible prediction: Witten is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
"The guy can block, he can catch and he can do both of them at an elite level, which make him to me in my mind a 100 percent complete tight end --something you don't see nowadays anymore," Gonzalez said during a Thursday interview that will appear on NFL Up to the Minute on NFL Network.
As we trend toward a split in styles of tight ends, with some of the next generation serving as pure pass-catchers acquired for defensive mismatches and all but ditching blocking responsibilities, Witten was a model of both. He blocked willingly and effectively, and cleared the way for four 1,000-yard rushers (DeMarco Murray did it twice in 2013 and 2014) during his 15-year career in Dallas.
Witten served as a reliable target at a variety of depths, finishing with the fourth most career receptions in NFL history (1,152). He also finished first in Cowboys history in career receptions (leading Michael Irvin by 452 grabs) and receiving yards (12,448, the second most of a tight end in NFL history), and third in receiving touchdowns with 68. Witten's 11 Pro Bowl appearances were bested only by Gonzalez, who finished with 14.
"He was a huge part of that success ... you can ask those running backs who played with him how valuable he was," Gonzalez said. "This is why he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I think without a doubt I'd put him in the top three, top four tight ends. He could be at the top if you're talking blocking and catching for all [of what you want] out of the tight end position."
His toughness was matched by few in his era, best captured in his catch and helmetless run for a 53-yard gain during a prime-time game against Philadelphia in 2007 (0:50 in the above video). And as excellent as he was on the field, he was just as good off it, serving as a great teammate and winning the 2012 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. A former longtime teammate and fellow future Hall of Famer paid his respects via Twitter on Thursday.