Is Tony Gonzalez the greatest tight end ever to play in the NFL?
There are eight tight ends enshrined in Canton. The shortest wait for induction of any of the eight was three years. Both Shannon Sharpe and Kellen Winslow were elected to the Hall in their third years of eligibility. Mike Ditka, who was voted to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team, was elected in his 12th year. John Mackey, who was voted to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team, was elected in his 15th year. Charlie Sanders, an all-decade tight end in the 1970s, waited 25 years for his bust.
Gonzalez is in his first year of eligibility and has one of the strongest resumes among the 15 finalists for the Class of 2019. He’s the NFL’s second all-time leading receiver. Only first-ballot Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice caught more passes in his career.
If the Hall of Fame selection committee deems Gonzalez the only tight end ever worthy of first-ballot election, it will be a powerful endorsement of Gonzalez as the greatest player at his position in NFL history. But is he?
It’s hard to argue he’s not if you base your conclusion on his receiving statistics.
His 1,352 receptions rank second only to the 1,549 of Rice. Gonzalez has 200 more reception than the next tight end -- Jason Witten, who has retired. Gonzalez is one of only 10 players and one of only two tight ends to catch 100 career touchdown passes. His 111 rank second at his position to Antonio Gates, who is still active with 116.
Gonzalez converted his receptions into 15,127 yards – sixth most in NFL history. He’s the only tight end in the Top 20. He’s also one of only five tight ends in history to with an NFL receiving crown, having caught 102 passes in 2004. His four 1,000-yard seasons are a record for his position, shared with Rob Gronkowski.
The 14 Pro Bowls by Gonzalez stand as another record for tight ends. He also was a six-time first-team all-pro in his 17 seasons. A first-round draft pick by Kansas City in 1997, Gonzalez spent his first 12 seasons with the Chiefs. All of his 1,000-yard seasons and his one receiving crown came with the Chiefs, earning him a spot on the 2000’s NFL all-decade first team. He played his final five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and went to his final Pro Bowl at the age of 36 in 2012.
But the position has evolved. Ditka and Mackey played during an era when the tight ends spent more time blocking than catching. Gonzalez played in an era when tight ends were on the field for their receiving ability.
In the 1960 decade, there were three 1,000-yard tight ends. There were three in the 2007 season alone, including Gonzalez. Mackey played with the greatest quarterback in NFL history but never caught more than 55 passes from Johnny Unitas in a single season. Ten NFL tight ends caught more than 55 passes last season. Ditka caught 36 passes in his final Pro Bowl season in 1965. Witten caught 18 in one game in 2012. Gonzalez had 15 career games of 10 or more catches.
Once upon a time the tight end was considered a third tackle. His job was to block. Now he’s considered a third (or fourth) receiver. His job is to catch. The Hall of Fame wait won’t be as long for the catchers in today’s game as it was for the blockers in the game of yester year. Tony Gonzalez will one day have his own bust in Canton. But will he be first ballot? If so, he’ll move to the top of the queue among tight ends.
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