FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It has been seven years since a tight end was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, when Shannon Sharpe’s greatness as a prolific pass-catcher was recognized, but the position should once again be front and center in 2019 in Tony Gonzalez’s first year of eligibility.
With the most receptions (1,325) and receiving yards (15,127), along with an NFL-record-tying 14 Pro Bowl berths over his 17 seasons, Gonzalez is always in the discussion among the best ever at the position.
Here’s a sidebar question to add to the discussion as fantasy football teams are being formed and the No. 1 tight end on the board isn’t in much question: Where does the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, entering his ninth season, stack up at this stage of his career?
“I think everything about him is what you’re looking for in a player, in a teammate. Plays well in the biggest moments,” quarterback Tom Brady said when asked what he’d highlight about Gronkowski’s body of work. “I’ve watched him develop from when he first got here to now and seen a lot of growth.”
Furthermore, there are eight tight ends in the Hall of Fame -- Mike Ditka (1988), John Mackey (1992), Jackie Smith (1994), Kellen Winslow (1995), Ozzie Newsome (1999), Dave Casper (2002), Charlie Sanders (2007) and Sharpe -- and Gronkowski currently ranks No. 1 in receiving yards per game (70.4) at the position.
Depending on how much longer he plays, Gronkowski could threaten Gates’ record for most career touchdown receptions by a tight end (114), as he enters the 2018 season with 76. He also could break a three-way tie with Gonzalez and Witten to become the first tight end in NFL history to have five seasons with 1,000 receiving yards.
Of course, receiving is far from the only responsibility for a tight end, and that’s where former New York Giants tight end Mark Bavaro’s perspective warrants mention.
When Patriots coach Bill Belichick has discussed the top blocking tight ends he has seen over his 44-year coaching career, it starts with Bavaro, who was with the Giants from 1985 to 1990 before moving on to the Browns (1992) and Eagles (1993-94). Belichick has often reflected on how many times Bavaro successfully blocked players like Reggie White one-on-one, a matchup he prepped for in practice by facing elite players such as Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks.
While no one ranks above Bavaro as a blocker to Belichick, the longtime coach had high praise for the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Gronkowski in that area in January, calling him a “very sophisticated player.”
“He can do a lot of things that I haven’t had many guys, I’d say, other than Bavaro, be able to do,” Belichick added.
To Bavaro, the mix between blocking and pass-catching -- and the different eras of football -- is what makes it impossible to truly declare the best ever at the position.
“Gronkowski, to me, looks like an all-around type of tight end, but it hasn’t been proven because he’s not in a balanced offense. But there is no balanced offenses anymore. The whole league today does not put a heavy premium on blocking [at tight end],” Bavaro said in a conversation from his home state of Massachusetts.
“The only way I can compare him is how would he be on my Giants teams, on the Chicago Bears of the '80s, and a lot of those '80s teams that were heavy run. The Raiders of the '70s. And the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ I could guess and think he’s going to do OK, but there was physical stuff going on back then. I don’t know how he would hold up day-to-day in that type of physical environment. I don’t know how he would hold up practicewise; back then you had to hit every day. Today, there is very little physical contact in practice.
“My guess is he would do just fine, and he's the type of guy who could play in any era, and that’s what you want when looking at the best of the best.”
Bavaro shared his viewpoint that Gates and Gonzalez, who are known more for pass-catching skills, might have struggled more in that era of football unless they landed in a rare pass-first system like Winslow did with the Chargers under Don Coryell.
“It’s all relative, it’s very subjective,” said Bavaro, who referred to Gronkowski as an “old-school tight end playing in a modern game that really isn’t asking for his specifications.”
Bavaro used to put the recently retired and current ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Witten in a similar category during his prime years, but he also wanted to make clear he wasn’t engaging in any debate.
“I’m not saying [anyone] is the best of all time, I’m not even coming close to that, because I don’t think you can say that about anybody -- at any position,” he said. “I don’t know how you measure it. If you can get an exact science to measure it, then I would accept the findings. But there isn’t any right now and I don’t think there ever will be.”