Football historians, or just slightly older fans, know that the tight end position wasn’t what it used to be. The position wasn’t always made up of game-changing pass-catchers like Travis Kelce and George Kittle. Tight ends like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez were among the first to make tight ends a prominent part of the passing game. Of course, there were still great tight ends in the NFL before this new pass-happy era. In honor of those players, we thought we’d share a list of some of the great tight ends of the 20th century who deserve to be remembered.
Please don’t try to hold his TV show with Skip Bayless against him. Sharpe was the best tight end of the 1990s, putting together three 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He has the look of a wide receiver but was tough enough to block when he had to.
While his career carried over into the 21st century, his 10 seasons and two Super Bowl wins with the Broncos between 1990 and 1999 were more than enough to secure his spot in Canton.
As a former GM, it’s not surprising that Newsome was one of the smartest players of his generation and a great leader. On top of that, he was an excellent blocker and had the speed and hands to make a difference in the passing game, catching 662 passes in his NFL career.
Newsome was a three-time Pro Bowler and a member of the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team. His college coach Bear Bryant called him the best tight end in Alabama history, which says all you need to know about Newsome.
Kellen Winslow Sr.
Winslow was once described as a wide receiver with the body of an offensive lineman. He was one of the first tight ends who lined up in the slot and ran deep routes rather than only catching short passes.
At the peak of his career in the 1980s, Winslow was a complete anomaly to what teams expected from tight ends. He was a five-time Pro-Bowler and also known for his incredible effort, leaving everything on the field every game.
Before he was a head coach and commentator, Ditka was one of the NFL’s best tight ends. He had the toughness and mentality of a defensive player, except on the offensive side of the ball. He could block as well as any tight end of his generation.
But Ditka had surprisingly good hands and became an important receiver, hauling 427 receptions for over 5,800 yards and 43 touchdowns during his career.
While Winslow, Sharpe, and some others may have done it better, Mackey is the tight end who revolutionized the position. Before him, there was nobody who could look and play like a blocking tight end but also make plays in the passing game down the field.
Fittingly, the award for the best tight end in college football every year is named after him because Mackey was a trailblazer and the most influential tight end in NFL history.