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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Witnessing Greatness – Tight Ends

In this latest installment of The Daily Hat Trick, we are going to have a look at the great tight ends in the game today and discuss who among them may be the greatest of all-time. Tight end is a different, and quickly evolving, position. The men in the position have to help block, but also have to be competent route runners and receivers.

For all of the responsibility of the position, tight ends do not often get their due. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio has inducted 267 people. Only eight of those people are tight ends. However, the role of position has developed and has had a much greater impact on the game over the last 20 years. For that reason, the Hat Trick is presenting the following players for your consideration.


Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons – The criteria for a great tight end in the modern era should be how much the player impacted the passing game. Nobody expects a tight end to post receiving numbers comparable to that of a wide receiver. Tony Gonzalez, however, has done just that.

Tony Gonzalez is the NFL’s second all time leading receiver, behind Jerry Rice (who may never be matched in our lifetimes). Gonzalez is a tight end who changed the way coaches use and strategize with the position. Still, the fact that Gonzalez’s career numbers, at a position still regarded as a safety valve for the quarterback, dwarf nearly all wide receivers that played during his time defies logic.

To put Gonzalez’s career in contrast, compare his numbers to those of Shannon Sharpe, another tight end who was slam dunk induction to the Hall of Fame this year. Sharpe is the NFL’s 22nd all-time leading receiver. Gonzalez is second. Sharpe is 34th all-time in receiving yardage. Gonzalez is 13th, first among active players on an NFL roster. Shannon Sharpe is 58th all-time for receiving touchdowns, with 62, fewer than his brother, former wide receiver Sterling Sharpe, who is not in the Hall of Fame. Gonzalez is first among active players on an NFL roster and 9th all time for receiving touchdowns with 92.

The “yes” vote couldn’t be any easier.
Slam dunk 1

Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers – The seven-time Pro Bowler and 3 time first team Associated Press All-Pro would likely have a bust in Canton, even if he stopped playing today. Gates, a former college basketball player, like Gonzalez, helped revolutionize the way that offensive coaches utilized the tight end in the passing game, especially near the goal line. Gates, in only his ninth NFL season, is sixth all-time among tight ends, and third among active tight ends, in career receptions and second all-time, among tight ends, in receiving touchdowns. Gates could crack into the top 30 all-time, regardless of position, for touchdown receptions, as early as this Sunday, should he catch a touchdown.

At this point in Gates’ career, all he can do is continue to pad his career statistics. He is indisputably among the best of his time and, at age 30, is not likely to raise the bar any higher for himself. The only factor keeping me from placing Gates in the “Slam Dunk” category is his lack of longevity, relative to other recent Hall of Fame tight ends.

Few receivers have touched pay dirt as often as Gates. 2
Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys – Jason Witten had been a gamebreaker since he came into the NFL in 2003. With seven Pro Bowls and two AP First Team All-Pro awards on his resume, his Hall of Fame induction, like that of Gates, may already be a forgone conclusion. Witten has five seasons of 950 receiving yards or more, impressive for a wide receiver (let alone a tight end), five seasons with 80 or more receptions, and is on pace to make 2011 his sixth such season in both of those statistical categories.

Like Gates, Witten has only played for nine seasons in an era in which the rules are favorable to receivers. Still, when compared to past tight ends, few have done more in such a relatively short period of time. If Witten simply remains healthy and productive for three more seasons, I cannot think of any reason that he will not be wearing a crème colored jacket and giving a speech on a future August day in Canton.

In addition to being a great receiving tight end, Witten's toughness, at a position that demands toughness, is unquestionable. Some, however, may describe this image as "insanity" instead of "toughness". 3

Jeremy Shockey, Carolina Panthers – The four time Pro Bowler, former All-Pro and Super Bowl champion is a player that defensive coordinators have always had to account for. Shockey is fourth all-time among active tight ends for receptions. Shockey’s value over the course of his career is evident.

The factor that may stifle a possible Hall of Fame candidacy for Shockey is that of injuries. Shockey has never played a full 16 game season and has missed two or more games in five of the first nine years of his career. His productivity appears to be declining. In an era in which tight ends are expected to be more comparable to wide receivers, Shockey may not make the cut for Canton.

DeMeco Ryans (left) is boldly going where few men have gone before: mixing it up with Shockey. 4

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