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Tony Gonzalez vaulted tight end into a premium position in the NFL

Tony Gonzalez helped show a tight end can be the leading receiver on a great offense.

Tony Gonzalez wasn’t the first tight end to top 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Mike Ditka kicked down that door way back in 1961. Two decades later, Kellen Winslow Sr. and Ozzie Newsome spun the position forward with dominant seasons.

When Gonzalez was drafted in 1997, Shannon Sharpe was already posting stats for the Broncos that would eventually get him into the Hall of Fame.

Revolutionizing the position isn’t why Gonzalez got voted into Canton. His remarkable consistency and record-breaking numbers did that. After 17 seasons in the NFL split between the Chiefs and Falcons, Gonzalez finished with:

  • 1,325 receptions (No. 1 among tight ends and No. 2 among all players)
  • 15,127 receiving yards (No. 1 among tight ends and No. 6 among all players)
  • 111 receiving touchdowns (No. 2 among tight ends and No. 8 among all players)
  • 14 Pro Bowls (No. 1 among all players)

His argument as the best tight end ever is easy to make. It’s written right there in the numbers. And while the stage was set by his 1980s predecessors, Gonzalez’s impact on the tight end position is still felt in the NFL today.

Gonzalez turned the hunt for tight ends to the basketball court

Antonio Gates gets most of the credit when it comes to translating basketball skills into NFL success. Gates didn’t play college football, but he parlayed his Kent State basketball career into an undrafted free agent contract with the San Diego Chargers. Sixteen years later, Gates is the only tight end in NFL history with more touchdowns than Gonzalez.

But six years prior to Gates’ arrival in the NFL, it was Gonzalez who boasted multi-sport skills as a draft prospect. He played three seasons of basketball for the California Golden Bears. In his final year, he averaged 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds and contributed on a team that advanced to the Sweet 16.

UNC V California

Gonzalez was better on the football field, where he had 699 receiving yards and five touchdowns in his last collegiate season. The combination of skills translated well. In the NFL, Gonzalez was a 6’5, 247-pound wrecking ball who could catch any ball in traffic and shield defenders from making a play on the ball.

“If he didn’t get open and had someone pawing all over his back, he was coming down with anything,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said of Gonzalez, via “He could catch to the right of him, to the left of him, up and down. He put those big hands out there with those big white gloves and they were just a like a beacon for Matt Ryan to throw to.”

Years later, Gates validated the trend that Gonzalez began. That opened the door for other tight end-capable basketball players, like Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas, to transition to the NFL.

Tight ends can be No. 1 receivers now

In 2004, Gonzalez became the first tight end in NFL history to catch at least 100 passes in a season. In 2018, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz both cleared that benchmark.

Ertz is now the record holder for receptions by a tight end in a single season after hauling in 116 for the Eagles. That was more catches than star receivers DeAndre Hopkins (115), Julio Jones (113), and Adam Thielen (113). Only Michael Thomas had more with 125.

That’s a relatively new phenomenon. It used to be bad news for an offense if a tight end was leading the way.

For most of Winslow’s Hall of Fame career, he was flanked, and outgained, by receivers Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler in coach Don Coryell’s high-flying offense. Winslow only led the Chargers in receiving once, but that’s because he was just one piece of a successful unit.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Newsome was the Browns’ leading receiver five times, but never on an offense that was even top 12 in points scored.

Gonzalez led the Chiefs in receiving seven times in his career — including when the team was No. 1 in scoring in 2003 and No. 1 in total yards in 2004.

Tight end isn’t just a complementary luxury in an offense anymore. Rob Gronkowski led the Patriots in receiving three times in the last five years, helping them to four Super Bowls appearances over that span. Ertz, George Kittle (49ers), and Jared Cook (Raiders) all led their respective teams in receiving yards in 2018, while Kelce had more receptions than any other player for the Chiefs’ No. 1 offense.

That shift is largely due Gonzalez, and the consistency and quality of his Hall of Fame career.