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NFL Top 10 Series – Tight Ends

Over the last 20 years of NFL football, no position has endured more transformation and evolution than the tight end position. Back in the days of Mackey, Newsome, and Ditka, tight end was mostly a brutish, blocking-oriented position. There were …...

Will Jason Witten or Antonio Gates rank as the best tight end in the NFL?

Over the last 20 years of NFL football, no position has endured more transformation and evolution than the tight end position. Back in the days of Mackey, Newsome, and Ditka, tight end was mostly a brutish, blocking-oriented position. There were a select few of tight ends in the league who were viewed as threats to catch the football, but in most part, a tight end was like having an extra offensive tackle in the formation to block. Since then, the position has experienced a renaissance of sorts. Tight ends have become more of an athletic and graceful breed whose primary role is to run crisp routes and catch the football – like an over-sized wide receiver, or even a power forward. This is in correlation to the NFL becoming more a pass-first league, with teams moving the ball with complex, spread out passing attacks rather than a ground-and-pound run game. Tight ends today with supreme size and athleticism that can create a mismatch with the defense, regardless of who is covering them, are viewed as the Jack of All Trades among NFL executives. Tight ends like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez represent this, and have compiled statistics over the years that are similar to that of Pro Bowl receivers.

Old timers and offensive line coaches will reject this trend in disgust, and contend that tight ends should be able to run block on 3rd and 3 just as well as they run routes on 3rd and 15. But like it or not, that is what tight ends have become – oversized receivers who occasionally block someone.

As for the list, most of the players on it have a great combination of size and speed and, are nearly impossible for defenses to stop in the passing games. I didn’t punish tight ends who aren’t great blockers because they wouldn’t be the only tight end who isn’t. However, I did give recognize certain tight ends’ blocking ability because it the skill is decreasing in supply, and thus has become more valuable.

This was one of the harder rankings to compile because a lot of reasons including players having injuries last season, a lot of up-and-coming players and older players on the decline, and players with skill sets that are difficult to compare. After the 4th spot on my lsit there really isn’t much of a gap between the 5th best tight end and the 11th best tight end. Like I said, these players have different skill sets and are at different points in their career, but they are all very close in terms of overall talent and value.

Here is the list:

10. Brandon Pettigrew The Lions drafted Pettigrew 20th overall in 2009 with the logic that he would provide young Matt Stafford a play making tight end (a quarterback’s best friend), and be instrumental in his development. Well, because of injury, Stafford hasn’t been on the field and developing but nonetheless, Pettigrew has flourished last season with Stafford’s replacements. He ranked 3rd amongst tight ends in catches (71) and seventh in yards (722).

9. Kevin Winslow Jr. As the son of a legend, high expectations have been bestowed upon Winslow Jr. during his entire football career. After warming out his welcome in Cleveland, Junior found a home in Tampa Bay. With a 6’4 240 lb frame, and the speed and route running of an average wide receiver, Winslow is a match-up nightmare for defenses. He has been one of Josh Freeman’s favorite targets (66 catches, 730 yards last season) and will have to continue to produce and provide leadership in order for Tampa Bay to next the next step in the future.

I’m a solider!!!

8. Mercedes Lewis After underachieving during his first four years in the league, the former first rounder had a breakout season last year, pleasing his fantasy owners (myself included) with 10 touchdowns. His rare combination of combination of size (6’6 275 lbs), speed, and elusiveness with the ball makes him a special talent. He will have to follow up his breakout season with another stellar year in order to help rookie quarterback, Blaine Gabbert.

7. Chris Cooley Despite the abysmal quarterback situation and lack of talented receivers around him, Cooley’s production was status quo last season. In addition to being excellent edge blocker, Cooley ranked 2nd in passes caught (77) and 3rd in yards (849) among tight ends.

6. Heath Miller Before you write this off as a homer-pick, please consider that Miller is one of the few tight ends in the league that, rather than being a blocking liability, is able to consistently seal defenders on the edge, and almost acts as an extra offense tackle on the field for the Steelers. He has some of best hands in the league, and is Big Ben’s favorite target in the red zone, and his favorite check-down when he is running for his life. Miller isn’t the sixth best tight end in the league if he has to play in a spread out, pass-predominant offense, but for the Steelers and what they require out of their tight ends, Miller is a perfect fit.

5. Tony Gonzalez Gonzalez was by far the most difficult tight end to rank. At 35, despite his eroding athletic ability, Gonzalez still performed at a high level last season (70 catches, 656 yards, 6 touchdowns). It is hard to approximate an inevitable drop off in athleticism and production for the up coming season. As for now, we will assume that he is still able to contribute to a loaded Atlanta offense next season.

4. Dallas Clark Clark missed 10 games last season due to a wrist injury, and Peyton Manning and Indy’s offense suffered dearly as a result. When he is healthy, Clark is the best route runner at the tight end position, and enjoys the benefit of having a strong connection and chemisty with Peyton Manning. The three seasons previous to the last, Clark averaged 856 yards and 9 touchdowns, and was a model professional inside that locker room.

3. Vernon Davis As you probably already know that he is a physical specimen from the Under Armor ads. And you also probably know, as Mike Singletary was happy to tell us, he is hard for coaches and teammates to deal with some times. We finally saw the light bulb come on for Davis in 2009, when he applied his immense athleticism to the field and to caught 13 touchdown passes, compiled 965 yards, and made his first pro bowl appearance. Along with the mismatch that his combination of size, strength, and speed presents, Davis is a physical blocker who posses the strength to seal linebackers when run blocking.

OK! We believe you. You’re a freak!

(The decision between Clark and Davis for 3rd wasn’t easy. Clark has a better statistical track record, but he has also had Peyton Manning as his quarterback for his entire career. Davis, one of the league’s most impressive specimens, obviously posses more physical ability, but hasn’t always performed to his full potential. He can be somewhat exonerated from this because has had a crap sandwich at quarterback throughout his career. Ultimately, Davis gets the edge because he is more physically gifted, and has had the disadvantage of awful quarterback play. It is close, but if Davis’ attitude and mind sight are right, then he is the better tight end right now. )

2. Jason Witten I tried. I tried really hard. I really wanted to rank Witten number one on this list above the next guy. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Ultimately, I came to the realization that, “If I have to try that hard to convince myself that Jason Witten is better than Antonio Gates, then Jason Witten probably isn’t better than Antonio Gates. Close, but not better. The reason I wanted to put Witten number one is because he is one of the few tight ends that are what I would consider, “old school,” and is just as willing to block on 3rd as he is to run a flag pattern and catch a 17 yard pass.

With all the high, lows, and appearances in US Weekly that it has seen over the years, Witten’s production and work ethic has been the one constant in Dallas offense.

1. Antonio Gates The best tight end in the NFL. After Vicent Jackson’s holdout and injuries to Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee, the talent that Phillip Rivers had to work with last season was sparse, that is except for Gates. He is the epitome of a mismatch nightmare; too fast for linebackers, too big for defensive backs. Despite only catching 50 passes last season, he ranked first in catch rate, having caught 77 % of the passes thrown to him. When he is healthy and enjoying the benefit of talented receivers around him, Gates is simply unstoppable.

Simply the best.

Biggest Snub: Jermichael Finley When I originally formed this list, I had Finley in the top 6 or 7 because despite not playing last season due to a knee injury, Finley is one of the most athletically gifted tight ends in the league. Then as I kept ranking players, I realized all the talented players that I was leaving off (because the NFL is in a golden age for tight ends). Because of this, instead of including Finley, who didn’t play last season, on the list, I moved him off to make room for Brandon Pettrigrew, who statistically had one of the best years of any tight end last season. This isn’t to take away from Finley I just wanted to give credit to guys who had great seasons last year.

If he is fully healthy next season, expect Finley to achieve elite status. It is scary to imagine how much more explosive an already unstoppable Green Bay offensive will become next season with a healthy Finley in the equation.

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