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The Biggest Steals in NFL Draft History: Tight Ends

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2014

The Biggest Steals in NFL Draft History: Tight Ends

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Tight ends were once nothing more than overgrown tackles who would block hard on running and passing plays, and would occasionally become a receiver of last resort.

    Mike Ditka and John Mackey changed that. Both were the kind of athletes who could not only catch the ball on third down, they could stretch the field with big-play ability.

    Since the mid-1960s, tight ends have changed dramatically. While most teams still like a tight end that can block, the ability to play a key role in the passing game has proven vital to most championship teams.

    Here's a look at the tight ends who have proven to be the biggest NFL steals.

Shannon Sharpe

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    Drafted: Seventh round, 1990 draft (190th pick)

    Career: 1990-2003

    Teams: Denver Broncos (1990-99); Baltimore Ravens (2000-01); Denver Broncos (2002-03)

    Key Stat: Caught 80 passes for 1,062 yards and 10 TDs in 1996

    Overview: Very few teams paid attention to Shannon Sharpe when he was draft eligible in 1990. He had played against ordinary competition at Savannah (Ga.) State. But all Sharpe needed was a chance, and the Broncos gave this talented athlete an opportunity.

    Sharpe soon became a vital part of the Broncos offense, and later for the Baltimore Ravens. Sharpe caught 815 passes for 10,060 yards and 62 touchdowns. He won two Super Bowl rings with Denver and one with Baltimore.

    Sharpe was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013.

Brent Jones

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    Drafted: Fifth round, 1986 draft (135th pick)

    Career: 1987-1997

    Teams: San Francisco 49ers

    Key Stat: Caught 49 passes for 670 yards and nine TDs in 1994

    Overview: Brent Jones knew he was a lucky man in his pro football career. While it didn't start out that way after getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and never playing a down for them, it certainly ended up that way as the San Francisco 49ers picked him up.

    Jones had the opportunity to play for the 49ers when they were led by Joe Montana and Steve Young. Those two quarterbacks were arguably the two best in NFL history, and at the least, they are in the team picture.

    Jones took advantage as he became a four-time Pro Bowl tight end. More than the numbers, Jones made it a point to get open for his quarterbacks on third-down plays.

    "Look at the receivers we had," Jones told me in an interview. "I knew Joe or Steve was going to get the ball to Jerry (Rice) or John (Taylor) for a big play. If I could keep a drive alive on third down, those guys were going to get us into the endzone a few plays later."

    Jones, who caught 417 passes for 5,195 yards and 33 touchdowns, was pretty good himself.

Steve Jordan

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    Ken Levine/Getty Images

    Drafted: Seventh round, 1982 draft (179th pick)

    Career: 1982-1994

    Teams: Minnesota Vikings

    Key Stat: Caught 58 passes for 859 yards and six TDs in 1986

    Overview: This cerebral Ivy Leaguer out of Brown turned out to be a major contributor to the Vikings offense. 

    Jordan was an intelligent player, but he was also a highly skilled tight end who ran excellent routes and found a way to get open against tough man-to-man coverage. Jordan was also a tough blocker who often took on opponents that were much bigger. He regularly won that battle.

    Jordan was a three-time, first-team All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler.

Frank Wycheck

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Drafted: Sixth round, 1993 draft (160th pick)

    Career: 1993-2003

    Teams: Washington Redskins (1993-94), Houston Oilers-Tennessee Titans (1995-2003)

    Key Stat: Caught 70 passes for 768 yards and two TDs in 1998

    Overview: Frank Wycheck was an ordinary prospect out of Maryland when he was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1993, but he was far from a star.

    However, the sixth-round draft choice worked at his receiving skills and improved his blocking. He became a vital player for the Titans after the franchise left Houston and established a home in Tennessee.

    He executed one of the key aspects of the Music City Miracle play, when he made a lateral pass to Kevin Dyson on the game's final play and Dyson sprinted into the end zone for the winning touchdown in a playoff game against the Buffalo Bills.

    Wycheck participated in three Pro Bowls during his career.

Paul Coffman

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    Drafted: Undrafted

    Career: 1978-1988

    Teams: Green Bay Packers (1978-85); Kansas City Chiefs (1986-87); Minnesota Vikings (1988)

    Key Stat: Caught 54 passes for 814 yards and 11 TDs in 1983

    Overview: Paul Coffman was not drafted after he finished his college career at Kansas State, but he got an opportunity to show what he could do with the Green Bay Packers and he quickly earned a starting position.

    Coffman was not an exceptional athlete, but he was a strong route runner who knew how to get open. He participated in three Pro Bowls as a member of the Packers and he showed a knack for getting into the end zone throughout his run in Green Bay.

Dave Casper

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    Drafted: Second round, 1974 draft (45th pick)

    Career: 1974-84

    Teams: Oakland Raiders (1974-80); Houston Oilers (1980-83); Minnesota Vikings (1983); Los Angeles Raiders (1984)

    Key Stat: Caught 62 passes for 852 yards and nine TDs in 1978

    Overview: Younger football fans may not remember the finely tuned engine the Raiders franchise was when it came to offensive football, but that's just what it was throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. 

    Dave Casper was one of the Raiders' stars. As a blocker, he was ferocious and tenacious. As a receiver, he had excellent skills. He could catch the tough passes over the middle and run after the catch, but he could also go deep and break the heart of opponents. 

    Casper caught three TD passes in a 37-31 playoff victory over the Baltimore Colts in 1977, including the game-winner in double overtime. 

Mark Bavaro

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    Drafted: Fourth round, 1985 draft (100th pick)

    Career: 1985-1994

    Teams: New York Giants (1985-1990); Cleveland Browns (1992); Philadelphia Eagles (1993-94)

    Key Stat: Caught 66 passes for 1,001 yards and four TDs in 1987

    Overview: The Giants played defense even when they were on offense when they returned to glory in the mid-1980s.

    That may leave you scratching your heard, but Bill Parcells put together a nasty, physical defense that keyed the Giants' rise to NFL glory. Tight end Mark Bavaro took notice.

    While linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks set the tone for the defense with their hard hitting, Bavaro did the same on offense. Bavaro was a quiet, tough-minded player who liked to use his shoulders and forearms to deliver sledge-hammer blows to opposing tacklers.

    Bavaro was a fearless blocker and a skilled receiver who could go over the middle, make tough catches and carry tacklers after he made the catch.

    Bavaro was a two-time, first-team All-Pro player.

Antonio Gates

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    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Drafted: Undrafted

    Career: 2003-

    Teams: San Diego Chargers

    Key Stat: Caught 89 passes for 1,101 yards and 10 TDs in 2005

    Overview: Antonio Gates has a unique story. He originally enrolled at Michigan State to play football for Nick Saban and basketball for Tom Izzo. However, Saban told him he could only play football at Michigan State. 

    Gates would withdraw from Michigan State and played college basketball at Kent State instead. He never played college football, but he arranged a tryout that 19 teams attended.

    While many of them were interested, he would eventually sign with the Chargers, and his basketball skills have been a big part of his NFL repertoire. His ability to wall off defenders and use his body to shield them from the ball has made him one of the most dangerous tight ends in the NFL.

    Gates has solid hands and a knack for getting open. He has been named to eight Pro Bowls.

Jason Witten

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Drafted: Third round, 2003 draft (69th pick)

    Career: 2003-

    Teams: Dallas Cowboys

    Key Stat: Caught 96 passes for 1,145 yards and seven TDs in 2007

    Overview: The Cowboys thought they found a serviceable tight end when they drafted Jason Witten, but what they got was a full-fledged star.

    Witten has shown the ability to make huge plays and he has combined that with consistency. Witten is an every-week player who simply does not take a down off. As long as he is healthy, he is likely to hold on to the ball, no matter what the circumstances.

    Witten has caught 70 or more passes in seven straight seasons and he has been to eight Pro Bowls.

Charlie Sanders

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    Drafted: Third round, 1968 draft (74th pick)

    Career: 1968-1977

    Teams: Detroit Lions

    Key Stat: Caught 42 passes for 656 yards and three TDs in 1969

    Overview: While Mike Ditka and John Mackey basically invented the modern position of tight end, Charlie Sanders was one of the two in the next generation—Raymond Chester of the Oakland Raiders was the other—that basically perfected the position.

    Sanders was a remarkable athlete who was big and strong enough to block defensive linemen and linebackers. However, when the Lions needed a big play, they would send Sanders downfield and he often proved to be a game changer.

    Sanders was a consistent player who made seven Pro Bowl appearances and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007. He was a prime steal for the Lions.

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