It some respects, this is the hardest article in this series to write.
What makes it so tough is that the views on tight end play may be the most subjective of any position on the field. There are those who see tight end as fantasy tools. They catch balls and spike touchdowns. Then there are those who think a tight end should be an extension of the offensive line. They’re in to block more often than they run pass routes (for the majority) so surely that is more important.
We’ve lectured before about the merits of valuing one above the other, but for the sake of this article we’re going to give you two lists. A breakdown of the top five receiving tight ends, and a run through of the top five blocking tight ends over the past three years.
A cop out? Yes. But sometimes cop outs give us more time to talk about the good and that’s logic that I can sell myself on.
Top 5 Receiving Tight Ends
(To qualify for this, tight ends needed to have run 1008 routes. We arrived at that number by taking the five tight ends that had the most route-running snaps, averaging their snap totals, and setting the line at two-thirds that number.)
1. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers
It’s fair to say that the gap between first and second would have been a lot larger but for Gates running less than 300 routes compared to the sure fire Hall of Famer behind him. But he did, and so it’s perhaps greater testament to the Charger that he still finished top of the class. He won’t be appearing on the list of blockers (for good reason – it’s as bad a part of his game as receiving is good), but he’s in a class of his own catching the ball. Only once (2008) has he not led our TE pass receiver rankings.
2. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons
It’s fair to say that Gonzalez isn’t the player he was, as age begins to take it’s toll. The Falcons have never got the elite player that Gonzalez was as Chief, but he flashed more than enough in his first year (third ranked) and had moments in 2010 (week three against the Saints was vintage Gonzo) to warrant the price tag. Probably as savvy as any receiver on the list.
3. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
Safe to say if we were doing a list of the most complete tight end, Witten would be so far ahead of everyone else it wouldn’t be close, but let’s look at him purely as a receiver. The Cowboy has dropped just 4.39% of catchable balls the past three years, a number bettered by only two others (neither of whom has anywhere near the yardage or touchdowns). He may not be the kind of athlete of a Gates or Vernon Davis, but he knows how to get open and move the chains.
4. Dallas Clark, Indianapolis Colts
Tough to tell how much higher Clark would have been if his 2010 wasn’t cut short. Fifth in 2008 and second in 2009, Clark is among the hardest to cover tight ends in the league, always finding a way to get open and creating no end of problems for DCs. Do they treat him as a wide receiver and if so can they find a cornerback on the roster who can cover him? Often the answer is a meek yes and a resounding no.
5. Kellen Winslow, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Winslow didn’t exactly have the greatest last year (or time in general) as a Brown. Nor as he really lit things up as a Buc, but he’s consistently produced for Tampa, catching nearly everything throw his way. You’d probably like to see him find the end zone more, but he’s become a real steady hand as a receiver (something you didn’t expect to ever say given the start of his career).
Top 5 Blocking Tight Ends
(To qualify for this, tight ends needed to have blocked on 1194 plays. Determined by the same method as above, but for snaps spent blocking.)
1. Jim Kleinsasser, Minnesota Vikings
In truth, Kleinsasser is as close a TE to being an offensive lineman as any. He just keeps on blocking and has been doing so for seemingly forever. He’s always in the top ten, and while he hasn’t been quite dominant in our run blocking rankings since 2008, he is still dominating defenders. The added bonus of being an exceptional pass blocker.
2. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
Witten has got better and better with his run blocking, leading that part of our rankings for the past two years with a number of virtuoso displays that make you think you’re watching a particularly nimble tackle. Credit the Dallas coaching staff (Martellus Bennett has developed into one of the best over the past two years as well), as no team gets as much from their tight ends in the running game.
3. Anthony Fasano, Miami Dolphins
Another product of the Cowboys system, Fasano has thrived since moving to Miami and becoming their top tight end. Doesn’t put up the kind of numbers fans want from a number one guy, but adds so much more to their offense than what shows up on a stat sheet. In our run blocking rankings, has two second place finishes and one fifth place finish to his credit. A player you probably don’t appreciate until he’s gone.
4. Alge Crumpler, New England Patriots
One of the big reasons Chris Johnson couldn’t repeat his 2009 season was losing one of the best blocking tight ends in the business. Crumpler isn’t the receiving threat he was in Atlanta, but he’s maximized his effectiveness as a huge asset to any teams run game.
5. Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars
The one to watch. Lewis (much like Vernon Davis) has always had it in him to be dominant in this regard. Only too often dominance makes way for mental errors and a lack of consistency. Both men are rectifying that, but Lewis is right now the better blocker. Watch the Week 13 game against Tennessee. As good as it gets.