Is the NFL entering a Golden Age for Tight Ends?

Greg Kittle photo courtesy of USA Today

NFL tight ends set position records for catches and yards in a single season in 2018.

The tight end position has been around as an offensive weapon since Mike Ditka rocked defenses for 56 catches, 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns as a rookie with the Chicago Bears in 1961.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1963 but waited 26 years to enshrine its first tight end – and the Hall made Ditka burn through 12 years of his eligibility before finally giving him a bust. He was the only tight end inducted in the 1980s. Four more were inducted in the 1990s, two more in the 2000s and Tony Gonzalez will become the second tight end inducted in the 2010 decade Saturday night.

If you’re counting, that’s nine tight ends in six decades. The Hall of Fame has obviously been slow to embrace the position.

But the Hall of Fame also had been lukewarm to the safety position. There had only been seven safeties enshrined through 2016. But when the Hall elected Kenny Easley as a senior candidate in 2017, that threw the door open to the position. Easley started a parade of four safeties enshrined in the last three classes. Brian Dawkins was elected in 2018 and both Ed Reed and Johnny Robinson will receive their gold jackets and busts Saturday night in the Class of 2019.

Gonzalez ranks second to fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Rice in career NFL receptions with a position record 1,325. His election could throw open the door for tight ends as Easley did for safeties. Gonzalez became the first tight end ever elected on the first ballot. Now there’s a line forming behind him of tight ends who want to get measured for those gold jackets.

Rob Gronkowski has retired so the clock is now ticking on his eligibility. He set NFL single-season records for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17) by a tight end with the New England Patriots in 2011. Antonio Gates isn’t in camp with anyone so the clock has unofficially begun ticking on his eligibility. He holds the record for career touchdown receptions by a tight end with 116.

Jason Witten returned to the Dallas Cowboys this season after spending a year in the ESPN TV booth to resume his pursuit of Gonzalez. He ranks fourth all-time and second among tight ends with 1,152 career receptions. Witten joins a cadre of young tight ends with the potential to form a golden age at the position.

George Kittle, 25, broke Gronkowski’s record for receiving yards in a single season with 1,377 for San Francisco in 2018. Travis Kelce, 29, also topped Gronk last season with 1,336 yards. It was his third consecutive 1,000-yard season and his numbers should continue to glow with Patrick Mahomes now throwing him passes in Kansas City. Zach Ertz, 28, broke Witten’s position record for catches in a single season with 116 for the Eagles last year.

Kittle set his NFL record for receiving yards catching passes from backup quarterbacks. A healthy Jimmy Garappolo should enhance Kittle’s numbers this season. The same can be said for Ertz, who hopes to play a complete season with Carson Wentz, who has missed time each of the last two years with injuries.

Hunter Henry, 24, won the Mackey Award as the best tight end in college football at Arkansas in 2015 but spent his first two NFL seasons playing in Gates’ shadow with the Chargers. He missed all of last year with torn knee ligaments but Gates is now gone, the position is his and the Chargers are expecting a breakout season by Henry in 2019 catching passes from Philip Rivers.

The Detroit Lions made Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson, 22, the eighth overall pick of the NFL draft last April – the highest a tight end has been drafted since 2006 when the San Francisco 49ers took Vernon Davis with the sixth pick. Hockenson won the Mackey Award in 2018 and he’ll have the quarterback to get him the football this fall in Matthew Stafford.

There were nine tight ends elected to the Hall of Fame in the last 60 years. Bet the over on the next 60 years.

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