State Your Case: Ben Coates

(Photos courtesy of New England Patriots)

Talk of Fame Network

Ben Coates was Rob Gronkowski before there was a Rob Gronkowski. Whether that makes him a Hall-of-Fame tight end may come down to what you think of a guy who still is tied for ninth in receptions all-time among tight ends, 15 years after his retirement and light years after the passing game he helped change has been revolutionized.

When Coates came into the NFL as a fifth-round draft choice in 1991, he was an unknown guy from an unknown school, Livingstone College, playing a position that was beginning to change radically from a glorified tackle to a critical piece of the passing game

Ben Coates sped up that revolution.

Coates had not played football until his senior year of high school and was a two-sport star at tiny Livingstone, but then-New England coach Bill Parcells saw in him the prototype for what the tight end would become: A powerful physical presence in the running game and a dangerous receiving threat with downfield potential.

It took two years for Coates to get off the bench, playing behind two-time All-Pro tight end Marv Cook, but the first week Cook saw Coates in training camp as a rookie he knew what was coming.

"I was an All-Pro football player, but I realized when Ben Coates came in the league that this guy is better than me,’’ Cook once said.

Cook’s words proved prophetic.

In 1993, Parcells and quarterback Drew Bledsoe arrived in New England and, one could say, so did Coates. Freed from the bench by Parcells, Coates had 53 catches for 629 yards and eight scores that season, his third in the NFL, opening the door on what would become five straight Pro Bowl seasons, 1994-98.

In 1994, Coates had 96 receptions, which was the most ever by a tight end, a record that stood until Tony Gonzalez broke it a decade later. He played a critical role in the Patriots' 1996 Super Bowl team and, in that game, had six receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown in New England’s loss to the Green Bay Packers.

By the time he retired in 2000, after a final season as a backup on the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV champions, he was the fourth all-time leading receiver at the position, trailing only Hall-of-Famers Ozzie Newsome, Shannon Sharpe and Kellen Winslow with 499 catches for 5,555 yards and 50 touchdowns.

Fifteen years later, Coates’ numbers have stood the test of time. He is still tied for ninth all-time in receptions by a tight end, having been passed by tight ends who benefited by how his athletic, downfield presence helped revolutionize the tight end’s role.

His credentials also stack up well with the eight tight ends elected to the Hall, as well. Of those eight, only two, Sharpe and Charlie Sanders, had more Pro Bowl appearances, and only three had more catches.

Coates was also selected on the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1990's. Of the six receivers on that team, including Sharpe, five are in the Hall. The only one who isn't is the only one who has yet to be discussed despite having been Hall of Fame eligible the past 10 years.

Whether Ben Coates deserves a place in Canton may be debatable, but his numbers make clear it’s a debate that should be made.