IRVING, Texas - The tight end position may be as deep with talent as it has ever been in the history of the NFL. Last season there was an explosion of production from tight ends as a number of offenses around the league targeted them not only as possession receivers, but deep threats as well.
Last year a staggering 14 tight ends racked up 750 yards or more, including two that went for more than 1,300 yards (setting NFL records for tight ends). The year before, only five tight ends went for over 750 yards.
Last year's tight end revolution was led by the Saints' Jimmy Graham, and the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Those three tight ends combined for 35 touchdowns and well over 3,000 yards. They all embody the new generation of tight ends who look like super-athletes that were created in a lab. Players with the speed and hands of most receivers and the vertical leap of most basketball players. Even more frightening is the fact that Graham is the oldest of the three at just 25 years of age.
While these young players have made a splash recently, the NFL is all about consistency. And no two tight ends have been more consistent over the past decade than Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten. Both have been among the most dangerous receiving weapons in all of football year in and year out.
In fact, by the time Gronkowski reached high school Gonzalez had already accounted for over 50 touchdowns in the NFL. Gonzalez has been in the league six years longer than Witten, but the Dallas tight end also immediately established himself as one of the best at his position during his rookie season and has not slowed down since.
Witten is only four catches short of Michael Irvin's record for most receptions by a Cowboy, a sign of consistent performance, longevity and durability. The record will likely be broken this Sunday in Atlanta.
While there have been many great tight ends in NFL history, Witten and Gonzalez are both players that should be credited with enforcing the idea that a tight end can be an offense's No. 1 target. The newest generation of tight ends may be continuing that trend, but they certainly did not start it.
In the first years of Gonzalez' career, he was one of just a few tight ends that were considered dangerous receiving threats, but he admits that it has become a growing trend in the league.
"You are seeing the position explode," Gonzalez said. "You are seeing guys putting up numbers. It's a huge part of the offense. It's reflected in contracts."
Gonzalez went so far as to imply that players like he and Witten were crucial in paving the way for younger tight ends to become such important commodities. Gonzalez predicted that in the future, the number of tight ends in the Hall of Fame would increase significantly.
"Obviously, they are going to have to after this generation goes through: myself, (Antonio) Gates, Witten, even Kellen Winslow Jr., guys that have been able to put up some unbelievable numbers. You are going to see that Hall of Fame change. They've got to. Just look at the results. It's an integral part of the offense now. Every team wants that tight end. You've got have it now to be a complete offense."
And that's why for over 10 years, NFL teams have been looking for the next Gonzalez or Witten. And teams like the Patriots and Saints have struck gold with tight ends that they can structure huge portions of their offense around. Gronkowski, Graham, Hernandez, even Green Bay's Jermichael Finley and San Francisco's Vernon Davis. They are the new cream of the crop in the NFL, ready to take the tight end to a whole new level.
But the league hasn't been handed over to them just yet.
Those who treat Witten and Gonzalez like yesterday's news might be surprised to find out that the two veterans are ranked first and second this season in receptions among tight ends.
The drop-off was supposed to happen. Father time was supposed to catch up to them. But neither player is following the script. In fact, last week against the Giants Witten had the best game of his career. Actually, it might very well have been the best game of any tight end's career as Witten broke the NFL record for most receptions in a game with 18 catches to go along with his 167 yards. Just a month earlier, skeptics were asking him if his best playing days were behind him.
People have been asking that same question of Gonzalez for years. He even claims to be "95 percent sure" that he is retiring at the end of this season. But do not think that it is because his game is slipping. He trails only Witten for most receptions this season and has four touchdowns for the undefeated Falcons.
With the emergence of players like Graham and Gronkowski last season, Gonzalez was asked if he came into this year wanting to prove that he was still an elite tight end.
"Absolutely," Gonzalez said. "I do that every year. I'd be lying if I told you different. I want to be one of the best. There's no doubt about it. And that's the way I prepare. Watching those guys have success, it definitely motivates you to get into the weight room, to get extra catches."
New tight ends come and go each season, but Witten explained that there has only been one Tony Gonzalez and there is no comparison.
"Since I've been in the league, he's been THE guy," Witten said. "It's rare to see a guy like him. I have a lot of respect for him."
Gonzalez had some kind words about Witten as well. He explained that Witten, like himself, is a tight end that does more than just catch the ball. He can have an effect on the game even without the ball in his hands and that's something that is lost on some of the younger tight ends in the league.
"(Witten) blocks and catches and obviously where the state of the tight end is in the NFL right now, I mean, a lot of these guys are just catching passes," Gonzalez said. "So I love seeing a guy like him blocking and catching the ball and doing both things very, very well."
But both veterans are extremely competitive and that's a huge part of what keeps them at an elite level, even with a new generation trying to surpass them.
"We're competing," Gonzalez said. "And it's a friendly completion. I'm good friends with Jimmy (Graham) and with Witten. I want to go out there and be one of the best. Why not?"
Expect that competitiveness to be on display this Sunday. With Witten coming off of a record-breaking performance and Gonzalez holding nearly every other significant record for tight ends, both players will try to stand out over one another. In fact, even though it is likely his last season in the NFL, Gonzalez explains that he will actually be watching Witten play for learning purposes as well.
"I am watching him and watching all of his moves," Gonzalez said. "If I think he's doing better than me at something I'm going to try to steal it and make it a part of my game. I watch every tight end, especially the elite ones like him."
Things change over time. And the truth is that Witten and Gonzalez may not be the two most talked about tight ends in the league any more. But make no mistake, if you watch the Cowboys play the Falcons this Sunday than you will be watching two of the best tight ends in the history of the NFL. And they are still at the top of their game.