1. Mike Ditka, Bears, Eagles, Cowboys, 1961--72
Drafted to be a block of granite for George Halas, Ditka (right) turned out to be a far more accomplished offensive player than the Bears expected. In a 14-game rookie season he had 1,076 receiving yards (19.2 yards per catch) and 12 TDs.
Hall of Fame status: first tight end inducted, 1988
2. Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs, Falcons, 1997--present
A better blocker than he gets credit for, Gonzalez has missed two games in 14 seasons, and by the time he quits it's quite likely only Jerry Rice will have more catches. Gonzalez has 211 more receptions than any other tight end in history.
Hall of Fame status: not yet eligible
3. John Mackey, Colts, Chargers, 1963--72
He and Ditka broke the mold of the tight end as a sixth offensive lineman. Mackey might be the greatest downfield tight end ever—he's surely the model for Antonio Gates: Mackey's receiving average, 15.8 yards per catch, is better than Randy Moss's.
Hall of Fame: inducted 1992
4. Shannon Sharpe, Broncos, Ravens, 1990--2003