Best of the Firsts, No. 13: Tony Gonzalez
As part of our offseason coverage, we’re taking a look back at some of the best first-round draft picks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. We’ll work our way up the draft board, starting with the best selection made with the No. 32 pick and ending with the top No. 1 pick. Track all the choices here.
The No. 13 Pick: Tony Gonzalez, 1997, Chiefs
His Credentials: 12-time Pro Bowl selection, nine-time All-Pro, No. 2 all-time in total catches, 11th-most yards receiving in league history, No. 9 on career touchdowns list, holds record for most catches in a season by a tight end (102), named to NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s
Others in Consideration: John Abraham (2000, Jets); Keith Jackson (1988, Eagles); Kellen Winslow (1979, Chargers); Mike Kenn (1978, Falcons); Franco Harris (1972, Steelers)
The Arizona Cardinals may not be banging down the door for a tight end in this year’s draft, but with the No. 13 pick, they’re in prime position to find a great one if history serves as our guide.
Three tight ends have been taken No. 13 overall in the first round since 1970: Tony Gonzalez, Keith Jackson and Kellen Winslow. That trio has combined for 2,131 catches; 25,362 yards receiving; and 189 touchdowns. Winslow already owns a spot in the NFL Hall of Fame … but Gonzalez will join him somewhere down the road.
That’s because a huge chunk of those stats above belong to Gonzalez. Over an illustrious 15-year career (12 seasons with Kansas City, three with Atlanta), Gonzalez has chalked up 1,149 receptions and more than 13,000 yards. He’s also found the end zone 95 times.
All of those numbers have him climbing the record books as he preps for what looks like his final season.
With six touchdown catches in 2012, Gonzalez would jump from ninth to sixth on the all-time list. He also needs less than 100 yards to leapfrog Torry Holt, Henry Ellard, Cris Carter and James Lofton in receiving yards — he currently stands in 11th place there.
And perhaps most impressively, every reception Gonzalez makes next season will solidify his standing as the second-most-prolific pass-catcher in NFL history, behind only Jerry Rice, who is considered by some to be the greatest player in league history.
“Without a doubt, with no disrespect to any of the other tight ends, including Ozzie Newsome, who I know very well, I think he’s probably the best tight end to ever play the game,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said last season, just before Gonzalez surpassed Marvin Harrison on the career receptions leaderboard.
You can look around the NFL now and see tight ends with the potential to challenge Gonzalez’s career numbers — Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, etc.
It would take great displays of longevity for any of them to even get in the ballpark, though. Gonzalez has missed just two games in his entire career, one in 1999 and another in 2006. All told, Gonzalez has suited up for 238 games and started 222, including every single one for the past five seasons.
Gonzalez also has 12 seasons of 70-plus catches under his belt, and he led the league with 102 grabs in 2004, an NFL record for his position.
“On the one hand, I’m like, ‘How does it feel to be a Hall of Famer and you’re still playing?’” Gonzalez teammate Roddy White joked said last season. “He laughs it off and stuff like that, but the guy is a professional all-pro.
“He’s shown a lot of the young guys around here how to steer themselves in the right direction and has helped everyone get better.”
Better, maybe. Just not as good as Gonzalez himself.