Kellen Winslow And The Greatest Tight Ends Of All Time
In recent years, the tight end position has been greatly highlighted in the NFL. Players such as Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski are just a small sample of the greatest influx of talent at the position. With Gronkowski newly retired, it is expected that either Kansas City’s Travis Kelce or San Francisco’s George Kittle will take Gronkowski’s spot as the best tight end in the NFL.
History has shown that great tight ends emerge every decade and there is a growing list of well deserving candidates for greatest tight end in NFL history. The Chargers had one of those players in Kellen Winslow. However, despite his many talents and his impact on the game, was he truly the greatest tight end of all time? Let’s look back at the history of the position to find out.
Before 1961 the NFL relied heavily on the ground game. Occasionally, when the ball was thrown it was almost always thrown to a wide receiver. Tight ends in this era were essentially an extra offensive tackle. This mindset changed dramatically when the Chicago Bears drafted Mike Ditka. In Ditka’s rookie season he set a league record for tight ends with 12 touchdowns. This record went unbroken for decades.
When teams saw him in action they saw a weapon which could be used to win games. Almost overnight, the position changed from an unseen blocker to a weapon which could stretch the field. Due to his impact on the game, Ditka became the first tight end elected into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Shortly after Ditka began his career, John Mackey joined the Baltimore Colts and immediately became quarterback Johnny Unitas’ favorite target. Mackey proved to be sensational by gaining 15.3 yards per reception over his career. He recorded 331 receptions for 5,236 yards during his time in the NFL and he was rewarded for his efforts with a Super Bowl victory in 1971.
Redefining The Position
The NFL thought it had a pretty good grasp of the tight end position until the Chargers drafted Kellen Winslow in 1979. Winslow was an imposing 6’5” 250 lbs and could run like a gazelle. Due to his unique blend of size and speed, Chargers coach Don Coryell decided to move Winslow all over the field. On any given play, Winslow could line up wide, on the line, or even in the backfield. He was also used on occasion to block field goals. This particular skill was put to good use when he blocked a potential game-winning field goal against the Miami Dolphins in a 1981 playoff game. The Chargers would end up winning that game in overtime.
Winslow and Coryell changed the perception of the tight end position. Now teams realized the tight end could be moved all over the field. Winslow ended his illustrious career with 541 receptions, 6,741 yards, and 45 touchdowns.
When Winslow retired, there was a void at the position for a few years. In 1990, the Denver Broncos drafted Shannon Sharpe to give quarterback John Elway a reliable option at tight end. Though Sharpe was smaller than Winslow, standing just 6’2” 228 lbs, he was just as explosive and gave the Broncos a great weapon on their way to two Super Bowl victories later in the decade. Sharpe was able to do much of what Winslow had done in San Diego and finished his career with 815 receptions, 10,060 yards, and 62 touchdowns. Sharpe retired following the 2003 season just when a new wave of talented tight ends were about to take over the NFL.
The Glory Years
The current era of the tight end position began in 1997 when Tony Gonzalez was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. A two-sport athlete from CAL, he didn’t fit the typical mold of an elite tight end. He was better known for his basketball abilities where he made 51% of his shots during his college career. However, he did remind some scouts of Kellen Winslow due to his size as he stood 6’5” and weighed 247 lbs.
Over the ensuing decade, he silenced the naysayers with a consistency previously unseen in tight ends. As he played for the Chiefs and later the Atlanta Falcons, he was invited to 14 Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro 10 times. He finished his career with tight end records in receptions (1,325), yards (15,127) and touchdowns (111). Along the way, he opened the door for other college basketball stars such as Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham to succeed in the NFL.
Gates went undrafted in 2003 after starring in basketball at Kent State. Over the ensuing years, he would be invited to eight Pro Bowls and break the tight end record for most touchdowns in a career with 116. He is the Chargers all-time leader in receptions (955), yards (11,841) and touchdowns. Having never even played a college game, he showed the NFL that it is not impossible for someone so raw to dominate in the league.
Jimmy Graham’s best years were in New Orleans where he became the favorite target of quarterback Drew Brees. While with the Saints, he was invited to three Pro Bowls and named All-Pro twice. He also scored 10 or more touchdowns three times, including an insane 16 in 2013. He is currently with the Green Bay Packers where he stumbled to just two touchdowns in his first year with Aaron Rodgers. This will probably change quickly as he tends to perform better with an organization after the first year. He currently has 611 receptions, 7,436 yards and 71 touchdowns for his career. What makes his career even more incredible is the fact that he played sparingly in only one year of college football.
The rest of today’s stars are more traditional with three or more years of college experience exclusively in football. Rob Gronkowski was the best tight end in football for most of his career when he was healthy. He broke the record for most touchdowns scored in a season for a tight end with 17 in 2011 and also broke the record for most receiving yards in a season that same year with 1,327 yards. He played less than a decade but was invited to five Pro Bowls, named All-Pro four times and won the Super Bowl three times. He retired with 521 receptions, 7,861 yards and a franchise record 79 touchdowns.
The current stars of today owe their success to the greats of the past. Recently, Travis Kelce and George Kittle broke Gronkowski’s record for most receiving yards in a season for a tight end. Although both broke the record, Kittle ultimately came out on top with 1,377 yards. Both are of good size and mobility with each weighing north of 250 lbs and standing 6’4” or taller.
Another player in the mix for the top tier of tight ends is Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz who recently broke a tight end record for most receptions in a season with 116. He has also scored eight touchdowns in each of the previous two seasons. These three players exemplify the best traits of a tight end.
Who is the greatest tight end of all time? That question could be debated until the end of time without a clear result. The players with the most impressive stats are the ones who lasted more than a decade in the NFL.
Kellen Winslow’s career only lasted from 1979 to 1987 yet he changed the position forever. It is not so much who is the greatest but rather who had the greatest impact on the position. In this case, Winslow is unquestionably the one with the greatest influence.
Since he retired, teams have been looking for unique ways to use their tight ends. The more elusive the better. Those who can move all over the field are seen as more valuable than those who just block. Kellen Winslow’s impact on the game is felt to this very day and it has made the NFL much more profitable than before he was drafted.