With Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, the ‘greatest tight end ever’ debate sparks anew.
It is inevitable, of course, that when an NFL player who is considered one of the best to ever play his position retires, the debate over who was the greatest ever starts up again. Such is the case with now-retired New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Minutes after his retirement announcement, argument posts flooded Facebook, the tweets descended on Twitter, and articles such as this one filled the sports sites of the web.
Certainly, the perennial Pro-Bowler is in the top five tight ends of all time. But is he the best? Can we overlook the greats that came before him, such as Hall of Famers Kellen Winslow, Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez, or Ozzie Newsome?
When debating who is the greatest tight end in NFL history, what criteria are we basing this on? Tight end is probably the only position in football where one’s blocking ability is as important as speed and the ability to run crisp routes and pull down passes in traffic.
For the purposes of this article, we will leave out the tight ends still playing and focus on our four Hall of Famers, as well as the future Hall of Famer, Gronkowski.
Tony Gonzalez (Active: 1997-2003) – Of all the folks in this list, Tony Gonzalez has the gaudiest of numbers. Gonzalez amassed 1,300 receptions (second only to wide receiver Jerry Rice) and 15,000 receiving yards along with 111 TDs in 17 seasons. That is the same number of seasons as Winslow and Gronkowski combined. Oh, and he only missed two games over the course of those 17 seasons.
Rob Gronkowski (Active: 2010-2018) – Gronkowski is a true freak of nature. At 6-foot-6 and close to 270 pounds, Gronk intimidated both defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs alike. It was not all brawn, however, as his physicality and speed helped propel him to average a touchdown every 6.6 receptions. However, Gronk was susceptible to injuries and missed 24 games in the span of five seasons.
Ozzie Newsome (Active: 1978-1990) – Newsome was one of the premier targets at tight end in the 1980s. He pieced together two 1,000-yard seasons, retired with 47 career touchdowns, and still holds a number of Browns receiving records. He is probably best remembered for his football smarts on the field and his durability.
Shannon Sharpe (Active: 1990-2003) – Sharpe is arguably the first tight end to transform the position into the incarnation that we see today. Sharpe played more like a wide receiver than a tight end. He was the first tight end to record more than 10,000 receiving yards. Couple that with his three Super Bowl rings, which is tied with Gronkowski (they are the only two of this list’s five to win a Super Bowl), it is little wonder why Sharpe made this list.
Kellen Winslow (Active: 1979-1987) – Winslow was once described as a “wide receiver in an offensive lineman’s body,” he was the first tight end to ever pose a deep threat to opposing defenses. Winslow and Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts were the nuts and bolts of the electrifying “Air Coryell” Chargers offense of the eighties.
With due respect to the other three, the best tight end of all time debate comes down to Rob Gronkowski and Tony Gonzalez. Tony has the numbers, but he was nowhere near the blocker Gronk was.
However, in the end, the No. 1 spot goes to Gonzalez. Although not quite the blocker our newest NFL retiree was, he was much less injury-prone. Quite simply, nobody did it as long as or better than did Gonzalez.
So we will table this debate for five years from now when Gronkowski dons the yellow blazer of a Hall of Famer, or when Antonio Gates or Travis Kelce retire … or when Jason Witten hangs ’em up again.