Best Tight Ends in Patriots History

Rob Gronkowski (Getty)

There's no doubt that the Patriots have struck gold with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. But to see just how special they are, you need to take a look back at the greats who came before them.

     In the 50-plus year history of the New England Patriots, you can count on Mickey Mouse's hand the number of standout tight ends in team history.

     That's what makes the tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez these last two seasons more improbable for the Patriots. The duo has combined for 184 receptions for 2,332 and 31 touchdowns in only 26 games.

     Over a decade before both Gronkowski and Hernandez were even born, manning the tight end position like no other Patriot before him was the incomparable Russ Francis. During a 1976 Monday Night Football game in Pittsburg, Francis caught six passes for 139 yards. He was then dubbed an "All World Tight End" by commentator Howard Cosell.

     After the Patriots drafted the 6-foot-6, 242-pound Francis in the first round (16th overall) in 1975, he began his pro career starting 11 of his first 14 games. He was second in receiving on the team as a rookie with 35 catches for 636 yards and four touchdowns and was named to the UPI and Football Digest all-rookie teams. He caught passes in his first 13 games as a pro.

Patriots TE Russ Francis vs Broncos at Foxboro Stadium 11/28/1976 (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
     After eight seasons in a Patriots uniform, he's ranks 14th on the team's all-time receiving list with 207 catches for 3,157 yards, second behind only Ben Coates for tight ends. He's eighth on the all-time list with 28 touchdowns and tenth all-time with a career 15.3 yards per catch. He had three 100-yard receiving games.

     Francis was selected to three straight Pro Bowls from 1977 to 1979. He led the Patriots in receiving in 1978 with 39 catches for 543 yards and four touchdowns.

     Francis also came up big in the playoffs. During the 1976 Divisional game against the Raiders, Francis had four catches for 96 yards and one touchdown to lead the team and during the 1978 Divisional game against Houston, Francis caught eight passes for 101 yards and one touchdown.

     Francis retired from the Patriots in 1994 and was selected to the Patriots 35th Anniversary Team. The following year in 1989, the Patriots selected little-known tight end Marv Cook from Iowa in the third round (63rd overall) to take over the position from Francis. Cook, a 6-foot-4, 234-pounder, proved to be a solid fixture on the Patriots offense for the next five seasons.

     Cook ranks 14th all-time in team history with 210 receptions, three more than what Francis caught in eight seasons.

     Cook had 1,843 yards receiving in his Patriots career and proved to be a reliable receiver for quarterback Hugh Millen during both the 1991 and 1992 seasons when he was selected to two consecutive Pro Bowls. He was also selected to the NFL's All-Pro team in 1991.

     Cook's contribution to the tight end position is often overshadowed by the emergence of Ben Coates in 1993. Cook's tenure can be viewed as a bridge between Francis and Coates, but this should not diminish his accomplishments with the Patriots.

Hernandez, Gronkowski
 (L-R) Aaron Hernandez #85 and Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots celebrate a play against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 6, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots won 45-3. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

     The Patriots drafted the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Coates in the 5th round (124th overall) of 1991 NFL Draft and he played as a special teamer for his first few seasons until he overtook Cook for the starting job in 1993.

     Coates quickly became rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe's security blanket for the next 100 games. During those nine seasons as a Patriot (105 starts), Coates became third all-time in team history in 490 receptions (490), fourth in receiving yards (5,471) and second in receiving touchdowns (50) – all tops among tight ends in Patriots history. He also had nine 100-yard receiving games.

     In 1994, Coates set a single-season record for receptions by a tight end with 96 (now tied for third) and still holds the franchise record for receptions by a tight end. He also led the team in touchdown receptions for six straight seasons between 1993 and1998 and led the team in overall receptions five times. Coates was named to the Patriots Team of the Century in 2000 and ranks in the top 10 all time among NFL tight ends in career receptions, yards and touchdowns. He was selected to the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2008.

Patriots tight end Ben Coates vs Steelers 12/13/1997 at Foxboro Stadium (Brian Bahr/Allsport)
     That's three standout tight ends in the span of 50 years and now the Patriots have two in less than two seasons. Hernandez, who has wide receiver speed when healthy, would be the top receiver on most NFL teams. In 22 games, Hernandez has 86 receptions for 981 yards and 11 touchdowns and two 100-yard receiving games.

     Gronkowski has started setting himself apart from Hernandez this season with his second consecutive 10 touchdown season. He's quickly emerging as possibly the best tight end of all-time, even better than Coates. Gronk has 98 receptions for 1,351 yards and 20 touchdowns. Coates had only 30 receptions for 266 yards and 4 touchdowns his first two seasons.

     Gronk also has reached 20 touchdowns quicker than any tight end in league history. He reached the milestone in 26 games, passing Mike Ditka, who did it in 31 games for the Chicago Bears.

     Time will tell if Gronkowski or Hernandez will be able to continue their production over an entire career. It's been a good start for the duo and it's not too early to compare them to the best in team history.

     So enjoy these two great young tight ends Patriots fans, because it may be another 50 years before you see another one.

Kevin Saleeba is a frequent contributor and columnist to Patriots Insider. A former beat writer for local media, Kevin has extensive knowledge of the team and experience covering the Patriots. Share your thoughts on this article, or send your questions to Kevin ( here ).

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