NFL All-Time Tight End Rankings: Did Gronk have the highest peak ever? Here's how he stacks up

After three Super Bowl rings, five Pro Bowls and nine seasons in the NFL, Rob Gronkowski called it a career on Sunday, announcing his retirement from football.

The decision was not completely out of the blue, as Gronk hinted at hanging up the cleats after the 2017 season and then openly mulled his future following the New England Patriots' Super Bowl LIII win this February. But it still marks a rather abrupt departure for a 29-year-old all-star just two years removed from his fourth career 1,000-yard receiving season -- an NFL record shared with all-time greats Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez.

Now, as Gronkowski prepares for life beyond the gridiron (and on the small screen?), we're left to dissect his legacy. Some have penciled him in as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Others have crowned him the greatest to ever play his position. But what does history have to say about that? Where does Gronk truly rank among all-time NFL tight ends?

Let's rank the 10 best TEs to ever play the game and see how No. 87 stacks up:

10. Dave Casper

Teams: Oakland Raiders (1974-1980), Houston Oilers (1980-1983), Minnesota Vikings (1983), Los Angeles Raiders (1984)

Casper wasn't the only emerging star at his position in the late 1970s, but he helped define an era of Oakland Raiders football while serving up some of his generation's most memorable postseason and Super Bowl contributions, earning a ring with the silver and black during an impressive eight-year stretch that saw him top 525 receiving yards seven different times. "The Ghost" went from relative obscurity in 1974-1975 to top-10 NFL receiver during Oakland's Super Bowl XV season, then sustained success from there.

9. Mike Ditka

Teams: Chicago Bears (1961-1966), Philadelphia Eagles (1967-1968), Dallas Cowboys (1969-1972)

Before he made history as coach of the Bears, Ditka showcased his toughness on the field. He never topped his explosive Rookie of the Year campaign, in which he burst onto the scene with 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1961, but he came to resemble Chicago's trademark attitude over the course of six years with the team. He also averaged more yards per catch than most of the other great TEs in NFL history, racking up an efficient 5,812 career receiving yards.

8. Jason Witten

Teams: Dallas Cowboys (2003-2017, 2019-present)

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While he's never been the fastest or most dynamic at his position, Witten has quietly and steadily rewritten the NFL record books as maybe the most reliable offensive player in Cowboys history. A model of durability, his impact has faded a bit late in his career, and it remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank for a 2019 comeback, but few players have ever been as consistent. A lock for the Hall of Fame, he was the fastest TE to reach 600 career catches and already owns the record for most consecutive games played by a tight end, with 235 under his belt.

7. Ozzie Newsome

Teams: Cleveland Browns (1978-1990)

Before taking his football IQ to NFL front offices, where he led the Baltimore Ravens to two Super Bowl wins, Newsome was the total package at TE, both on and off the field. Discounting his Man of the Year efforts and team-first mentality, he was still one of the 1980s' premier targets at his position. Holder of several Browns receiving records, he logged a pair of 1,000-yard seasons and finished his career with 47 TD catches, the fifth most in franchise history, all while modeling durability along the way.

6. John Mackey

Teams: Baltimore Colts (1963-1971), San Diego Chargers (1972)

Mackey's numbers will continue to get surpassed on the all-time charts as more TEs emerge as receiving threats, but when it comes to all-time influences on the position, he's up there with the best of them. A size-and-speed phenom during his day, Mackey not only missed just one game over his 10-year career but became just the second pure TE to enter the Hall of Fame. In an era that predated today's pass-heavy offenses, he had eight-straight seasons with at least 400 receiving yards and 38 career TD catches.

5. Shannon Sharpe

Teams: Denver Broncos (1990-1999, 2002-2003), Baltimore Ravens (2000-2001)

Like a wide receiver playing tight end, Sharpe became the first player at his position to post more than 10,000 career receiving yards. He might also have the closest thing to Gronkowski's postseason resume thanks to three Super Bowl rings and a pivotal role in each of those championship runs. Sharpe was productive until his retirement, recording at least 60 catches in nine of his final 10 NFL seasons, and he ranked among the league's top pass catchers in his prime with three 1,000-yard campaigns.

4. Antonio Gates

Teams: San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers (2003-2018)

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You can make the case that he should be higher. While the eight-time Pro Bowler has never necessarily revolutionized the position or been the absolute matchup nightmare of someone like Gronk, he's been about as consistent as they come. Absent for just 20 games in 16 years, the former basketball player was the safety valve in the Chargers' offense for almost the entirety of his career, hauling in at least 60 passes nine different times and leading all NFL tight ends with 116 career touchdown catches.

3. Kellen Winslow

Teams: San Diego Chargers (1979-1987)

If Gronk redefined the TE position for his generation, then Winslow defined it for his. While most players at his position were used as extra blockers, he exploded as a true deep threat for Chargers Hall of Famer Dan Fouts and produced numbers that, at the time, were unprecedented for TEs. Once called a "wide receiver in an offensive lineman's body," he played even fewer games than Gronk but started 94 of his 109 outings, logging three 1,000-yard seasons in a time when passing was far from what it is today.

2. Rob Gronkowski

Teams: New England Patriots (2010-2018)

NFL: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
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This isn't recency bias. In fact, at his peak, Gronkowski may have been the most fearsome tight end to ever take the field. Not only was he 6-foot-6 and almost 270 pounds, but he played with more physicality and speed than that frame would suggest, further reinventing the TE position as a receiving threat in the 2010s, playing his best when it mattered most and producing a Hall of Fame resume in half as many games as some of his fellow all-time greats. Durability has always been the biggest knock against Gronk. But even in nine injury-riddled years, he became one of his generation's best all-around players, with the best playoff stats of any TE and maybe the most efficient stats overall, averaging a TD every 6.6 catches. His run may have been short, but it was always a treat.

1. Tony Gonzalez

Teams: Kansas City Chiefs (1997-2008), Atlanta Falcons (2009-2013)

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No one did it as well as Tony for as long as Tony. Numbers alone don't tell the story, but you also don't rack up 1,300 catches and 15,000 yards by accident. Gonzalez may not have been quite as much of a physical freak as Gronkowski as far as matchups go, but he was the definition of dependable -- both in terms of durability and production. In 17 seasons, he missed a grand total of two games, and it's not as if he was just serviceable in addition to being available. His four 1,000-yard seasons, 11 straight seasons of at least 70 catches, 16 straight seasons with at least 600 total yards and 14 Pro Bowl selections are all proof of his sustained dominance. A true touchdown threat into his late 30s, Gonzalez remains the gold standard for his position.

Honorable Mention

To be fair, a top-10 list just doesn't do justice to some of the greatest tight ends of all time. If you're listing the best to ever play the position, these guys deserve their shout-outs as well:

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