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Original Issue


In assembling SI's ranking of the NFL's alltime best at the position, we had to weigh what was most important in each player's era: blocking versus receiving. The list is based on how a tight end dominated in his time period, with extra credit for versatility

1. Mike Ditka, Bears, Eagles, Cowboys, 1961--72

Drafted to be a block of granite for George Halas, Ditka (right) turned out to be a far more accomplished offensive player than the Bears expected. In a 14-game rookie season he had 1,076 receiving yards (19.2 yards per catch) and 12 TDs.

Hall of Fame status: first tight end inducted, 1988

2. Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs, Falcons, 1997--present

A better blocker than he gets credit for, Gonzalez has missed two games in 14 seasons, and by the time he quits it's quite likely only Jerry Rice will have more catches. Gonzalez has 211 more receptions than any other tight end in history.

Hall of Fame status: not yet eligible

3. John Mackey, Colts, Chargers, 1963--72

He and Ditka broke the mold of the tight end as a sixth offensive lineman. Mackey might be the greatest downfield tight end ever—he's surely the model for Antonio Gates: Mackey's receiving average, 15.8 yards per catch, is better than Randy Moss's.

Hall of Fame: inducted 1992

4. Shannon Sharpe, Broncos, Ravens, 1990--2003

The prototypical receiving tight end, Sharpe was long John Elway's favorite target and shattered all the records at his position until Gonzalez passed him. Sharpe excelled in the postseason: His teams won 12 straight playoff games, including three Super Bowls.

Hall of Fame status: finalist 2009, '10

5. Dave Casper, Raiders, Oilers, Vikings, 1974--84

A tackle for much of his time at Notre Dame, Casper was a devastating blocker with soft hands. His offensive stats (378 catches, 13.8 yards per catch) were pedestrian, but he became a key scoring presence for both Oakland and Houston.

Hall of Fame status: inducted 2002

6. Ozzie Newsome, Browns, 1978--90

One of the first "flex" players—a hybrid wide receiver--tight end—Newsome was his team's most important target for several years and had back-to-back 89-catch seasons in '83 and '84. He never missed a game to injury in 13 seasons.

Hall of Fame status: inducted 1999

7. Kellen Winslow, Chargers, 1979--87

Amazing that at 251 pounds Winslow was so lithe, essentially serving as an extra wide receiver for Dan Fouts for much of their careers. Winslow had three 1,000-yard seasons out of nine years, and his 13-catch, 166-yard performance at Miami in January '82 is the best postseason game by a tight end.

Hall of Fame status: inducted 1995

8. Antonio Gates, Chargers, 2003--present

No tight end has ever been on a touchdown pace like Gates (64 TD catches in the last 6½ years, with a TD in nine straight games through Oct. 10). The 6' 4", 260-pound Gates boxes out as if he were still playing power forward at Kent State.

Hall of Fame status: not yet eligible

9. Mark Bavaro, Giants, Browns, Eagles 1985--94

Historically underrated, Bavaro was the Ditka of his day—Bill Walsh once called him the game's premier tight end. In 1986 the devastating blocker made one of the most memorable plays ever by a tight end, dragging seven 49ers, including Ronnie Lott, as far as 20 yards after making a catch.

Hall of Fame status: never a finalist

10. Dallas Clark, Colts, 2003--present

A tough call over Charlie Sanders, Jay Novacek and Todd Christensen. But the player called the AFC champion's MVP after catching 100 passes in 2009 is the first tight end of note to play the same position as Wes Welker—slot receiver—as well as traditional tight end. He has averaged 5.8 catches a game since 2008.

Hall of Fame: not yet eligible