The history of the New England Patriots is made up of all-time talent.
Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback who ever lived. Rob Gronkowski had the most dominant stretch the NFL has ever seen out of a tight end. Sports Illustrated proclaimed John Hannah the “Greatest Offensive Lineman of All Time” halfway through his playing career. One specific spot in which the Patriots are defined by a select few, however, is tight end.
New England’s history, as is the case with most franchises, doesn’t have a wealth of Hall of Fame talent at tight end. Given its standing as a position with relatively low value, to make a list like this a tight end has to have an immense impact on their team.
These men all did that.
5. Jim Whalen (1965-1969)
The name Jim Whalen is more closely related to the Patriots’ head athletic trainer these days, but once upon a time it represented the premier tight end in franchise history.
Whalen spent just five seasons with the then-Boston Patriots, leading the team in receiving yards in 1967 and 1968. His 2,487 yards and 17 touchdowns on 153 receptions still rank in the top 25 in Patriots history. A Cambridge, Mass. native, Boston College alum and member of the Patriots’ All-Decade team for the 1960’s, Whalen is the epitome of a hometown hero for many.
Given his career in New England never extended past the 1960s, there was no way his numbers would stretch much further than they did. In another era, Whalen would have racked up numbers and been considered a star.
4. Ben Watson (2004-2009; 2019)
As a first-round pick out of Georgia in 2004, the expectations for Watson were high as he joined the defending Super Bowl champions when he entered the league.
Though he didn’t immediately pay dividends due to an injury, Watson eventually turned into one of Brady’s most reliable red-zone targets over the next five seasons. He seemingly always landed between 20-50 catches for 300-500 yards and four or five touchdowns. The Patriots always knew what they were getting out of Watson.
The one-time Super Bowl champion authored some of his best moments during New England’s dry period in the late 2000’s. Perhaps his greatest moment came in a loss, when he made one of the greatest hustle plays of all time to save a pick-six in the 2006 AFC Divisional round game against the Denver Broncos. He also had a part in making Brady’s return from ACL surgery special, catching two touchdown passes in the final minute of a come-from-behind victory in 2009.
3. Russ Francis (1975-1980; 1987-1988)
Ask your uncle about Russ Francis.
The next two men will receive credit for being the most dynamic and impactful tight ends in franchise history, but Francis was the original. A two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler, Francis was New England’s top target during his original stint from 1975-1980, totaling 196 receptions for 2,996 yards and 28 touchdowns. The original “All-World Tight End,” Francis would go on to take a year off before winning a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers and returning for one last run with the Patriots.
Francis even had a successful post-football career in wrestling, something other men on this list cannot accurately boast.
2. Ben Coates (1991-1999)
The original No. 87 to play tight end in New England, anyone who watched Coates play knows he was special.
Drew Bledsoe’s top target for much of the 1990s, Coates made five-consecutive Pro Bowls and notched three All-Pro berths throughout his nine seasons with New England. By the time he departed, Coates had racked up 5,471 yards on 490 receptions, reaching the end zone 50 times. His 50 touchdowns rank third in franchise history while his number of catches and yards numbers rank sixth and seventh, respectively.
Following the end of his NFL coaching career, Coates became the first tight end inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame.
1. Rob Gronkowski (2010-2018)
This one was a slam dunk. Not only is Gronkowski the greatest tight end in Patriots history, there’s a case to be made that he is the best in NFL history.
Whether it be stats, moments, impact on the game or his buddy-cop relationship with Brady, Gronk has turned the tight end position into one that people actually care about. In his nine seasons with the Patriots, Gronkowski made five Pro Bowls, was named All-Pro on four occasions, won three Super Bowls, won the 2014 Comeback Player of the Year award and set the single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end (17 — 2011). In 115 games played with the Patriots, Gronkowski totaled 521 receptions for 7,821 yards and 79 touchdowns — the latter being a franchise record.
That doesn’t even include the moments, which there are plenty. There’s his game-sealing catch in Super Bowl LIII, his insane one-handed grab against the Denver Broncos in 2013 … deep breath … his three-touchdown game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, an other-worldly catch-and-run against the Indianapolis Colts in 2014, his nearly-Super Bowl sending touchdown in the 2015 AFC Championship Game or his touchdown catch in Super Bowl XLIX.
There never has been and never will be anyone quite like Gronk.
Also Considered: Marv Cook (1989-1993), Daniel Graham (2002-2006), Don Hasselbeck (1977-1983).