The 10 best tight ends in the history of the New England Patriots

Who leads the list of all-time great New England Patriots tight ends?
New England Patriots tight end Ben Coates
New England Patriots tight end Ben Coates / Chris Covatta/GettyImages

The tight end position has proven to be among the most impactful positions on any NFL offense.  Whether it's adding protection in the run game or catching passes, if a team has the right athlete playing the position, the results could be pure dominance. 

Just look at the New England Patriots, a team that has been fortunate to have great tight ends wear the uniform throughout the franchise’s 64-year existence.

One could argue there would be no Travis Kelce if it wasn’t for some of the great tight ends to wear a Patriots’ uniform. When it comes to centering the offense around the tight end, the six-time Super Bowl champions who dominated the NFL for two decades, highlighted by great tight end single-season performances, have always been a team reliant on a good to exceptional pass-catching tight end.

So, who are the greatest at the position to ever wear the Pat Patriot logo?  Let’s explore the players who stand out.

Criteria for selection:

Many factors make a good tight end stand out within the offense.  Whether it’s blocking, creating mismatches with dynamic pass-catching skill, or a combination of both, a successful tight end will do whatever their team asks, which adds to their character as great team players on and off the field.

So, for this list, the players who made the list had to have played a minimum of three-plus seasons for the Patriots and were ranked based on their most productive season. Also considered is the players' impact on winning, offensive production, and other elements they brought to their team. 

While some of these players succeeded with other teams, they either started their careers or continued their careers with the Patriots.  Just to note, there is one player who should be on the list based on his skill level and performance, but off-the-field issues and the magnitude of those issues have resulted in exclusion from this list based on off-the-field character.

This is also a living list as one player on the current roster still has a chance to further cement his career as one of the best tight ends in Patriots history.

The top 10 tight ends in New England Patriots history:

10. Don Hasselbeck

When it comes to the combination of size and skill, Don Hasselbeck may have set the foundation for modern-day tight ends who have played for the Patriots in a singular season.

Drafted by the team in 1977, the father of former NFL QB Tim Hasselbeck didn’t light the NFL on fire his first few seasons with the Patriots, but he was a serviceable tight end.  At 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, he was big and did show off his pass-catching abilities a little.  Prior to the 1981 season, Hasselbeck had the most receptions, with just 13 in 1979, but boy, did he break out in 1981 with 46 catches for 808 yards and six touchdowns.

The 808 yards receiving in a single season is why Hasselbeck made this list at No. 10.  That ranks him ninth overall in franchise history when it comes to most receiving yards in a season by a Patriots tight end.  Most impressively about the outstanding season for Hasselbeck is that he did that in playing just 14 games that season. 

Hasselbeck never had a season close to that again. In 1983, he was traded to the then-Los Angeles Raiders, where he went on to become a Super Bowl champion. He played a season with the Minnesota Vikings before retiring with the New York Giants in 1985.

9. Jim Whalen

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the late Jim Whalen held it down for the Patriots at tight end in the late 60s.  A product of Boston College, Whalen was selected twice in 1965 before the NFL AFL merger.  He was selected with the No. 23 overall pick in the 1965 AFL Draft by the Boston Patriots and the No. 51 overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings.

Obviously, he decided to play for the Patriots, where he quickly established himself as a reliable target. In his rookie season, he caught 22 passes for 381 yards, but a 100-yard-receiving game against the Oakland Raiders gave Patriots fans a glimpse as to what was to become of the Massachusetts native's career.

After the merger, he established himself as a top-10 tight end in the 1965 season and really broke out in 1968 with his best season as a Patriot. The tight end caught 47 passes for 718 yards and seven touchdowns that season, earning First-team All-Pro selection.

As one of four tight ends to put together four consecutive 500+ yards receiving seasons, Whalen isn’t a name that would come to mind among most Patriots fans, but any fan following the team since the start will remember Whalen as a reliable target.  

Whalen was traded to the Denver Broncos in 1969 and retired from the league in 1971 after a short stint with the Washington Commanders (they weren’t known as the Commanders back then).

8. Daniel Graham

When the Patriots drafted Daniel Graham in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft, there were high expectations that the former Colorado Buffaloes star would become the next great tight end to wear a Patriots’ uniform.

Not only was he physical and athletic, but he entered the league as an instant mismatch for defenders.  That didn’t exactly pan out the way the Patriots and fans hoped.  He played on an offense led by Tom Brady, an offense that depended on the tight end.  But dropped passes got in the way of Graham making the impact he was drafted to make as far as catching the ball.

In his first season with the Patriots, Graham caught just 14 passes for 150 yards and one touchdown.  He followed that up with his best season in the NFL, with 38 receptions for 409 yards and four touchdowns.  In that season, he was a factor in helping the team win their second Super Bowl with his ability to contribute to the offense by catching and blocking.  He further solidified himself as one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL in the seasons to follow.

Overall, Graham played five seasons with the Patriots and was a part of two Super Bowl championship teams.  While he had his flashes catching the ball, Graham could’ve been a lot higher on this list if he lived up to the player he was coming out of Colorado. 

Impressively, however, Graham transformed his game and became a solid contributor in other ways.  He played another four seasons with the Denver Broncos before finishing his career with the New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans.

7. Lin Dawson

When it comes to late-round picks who made a name for themselves in a New England Patriots uniform, Lin Dawson is one of the players who tops that list. 

Drafted in the eighth round of the 1981 NFL Draft out of N.C. State, Dawson played his entire career with the Patriots.  In his nine-year career, this former Patriots tight end started 75 games with 117 receptions for 1,233 yards and eight touchdowns.  His best year in the NFL came in 1984 when he caught 39 receptions for 427 yards and four touchdowns.

Although he doesn’t stand out as one of the flashiest tight ends to wear a Patriots uniform, he was an essential part of the team’s offense in the early 80s, serving as a prime target for Steve Grogan and Tony Eason. Whether blocking or finding mismatches in the passing game, Dawson was the ultimate Patriots professional, finding ways to balance his physicality and pass-catching skills to help the offense strive.

6. Hunter Henry

Just imagine if Hunter Henry played with Tom Brady?

Drafted by the then-Los Angeles Chargers in 2016, Henry quickly established himself as a big, reliable target at the tight end position.  In his rookie season, he caught 36 receptions for 478 yards and followed that up with a solid sophomore season, then injuries got in the way for the 6-foot-5, 258-pound tight end.

After missing the entire 2018 NFL season, Henry bounced back with a career-high 652 yards receiving in 2019 despite playing just 12 games.  Following another 600+ receiving yards season in 2020, Henry landed a three-year $37.5 million deal with the Patriots. 

In his first season with the team in 2021, Henry became a favorite target of rookie quarterback Mac Jones putting together another 600+ receiving yards season with nine touchdown passes. 

While Henry’s production tailed off a bit the following two seasons, he has established himself as one of the leaders in the Patriots’ offense.  That leadership earned him another three-year deal with the team worth $27 million.  The hope is that Henry can help another young quarterback grow as a reliable target in the league.

It’s hard not to think about what would’ve been had the Patriots been able to pry Henry away a couple of seasons sooner so he could’ve played in a Brady-led offense. Things could’ve looked much different if Brady had a weapon like Henry in 2019.

5. Benjamin Watson

Benjamin Watson cracks the top five of this all-time list. The Patriots' first-round pick of the 2004 NFL draft played alongside Daniel Graham in his early years as the team dreamed of a two-headed monster at tight end.

Selected out of the University of Georgia, Watson's versatility was on display during much of his NFL career.  After missing all but one game during his rookie season, Watson bounded back with a solid season in 2005 with 29 receptions for 441 yards and four touchdowns, becoming one of the primary targets for Brady.  He followed that up with his most productive season in a Patriots uniform in 2006, when he caught 49 receptions for 643 yards.

While Watson never reached All-Pro status, his place in Patriots history among tight ends stands out because he was involved in some memorable plays.  One play that will always stand out came in an AFC Divisional round loss to the Denver Broncos where Watson tracked down Champ Bailey to prevent a 100-yard pick 6. 

It was Watson's speed and never-giving-up attitude on the play that made the moment stand out. Watson went on to have his best career later in his career as a member of the New Orleans Saints but returned to the Patriots to end his career in 2019.

In all, Watson played for the Patriots, Saints, Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens, but he will always be remembered for that one play.  His numbers weren’t too shabby either!

4. Marv Cook

When it comes to underrated great players to have worn a Patriots uniform, tight end Marv Cook is near the top of that list.  But, for this list of the 10 greatest Patriots tight ends, he is in the top 5.

A versatile, talented pass-catching tight end, Cook played in 112 games in his NFL career, with 257 receptions for 2,190 yards and 13 touchdowns. While he also played for the Chicago Bears and Rams, Cooks's best years in the NFL came with the Patriots.

Selected in the third round of the 1989 NFL Draft, the Iowa alum didn’t see much action during his rookie season but blossomed in year 2 in the NFL with 51 receptions for 455 yards.  Cook followed that up with back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons.

 With a career-high 808 yards receiving in 1991, Cook ranks in the top 10 for all-time great seasons for a tight end in a Patriots’ uniform. 

What hurts Cook is that he played during a time when the Patriots were the laughingstock of the NFL. That could also be impressive, considering the quarterbacks he was catching the ball from. But as a player who put the team ahead of himself, Cook was as reliable as they came as far as moving the chain and coming up with the big play.

3. Russ Francis

If you're looking for a big bruising, pass-catching tight end, the late Russ Francis defined the position during his time in the NFL.

At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, Francis was a powerful force in the passing game, creating mismatches and missed tackles throughout his NFL career.  With the Patriots starting in the mid 70s, Francis was a prime target from the start.  During his rookie season in 1975, he caught 35 passes for 636 yards and four touchdowns. 

He followed that up with three consecutive Pro Bowl nods.  Ironically, those three Pro Bowl seasons weren’t his best statistically.  His best year in a Patriots’ uniform came in 1980 with 664 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. 

In what seemed like just the start of his career, Francis retired following that season but returned to the NFL in 1982 with the San Francisco 49ers where he went on to play another six solid seasons in the NFL. 

One could say Francis set the mode for the modern day tight end, especially regarding the top two tight ends on this list.

2. Ben Coates

The greatest player to wear the No. 87 before the greatest player to wear No. 87 in a Patriots uniform was Ben Coates.

Coming in at No. 2 on this list, Coates is one of the most memorable offensive players in Patriots history because of his size, power and athletic skill in catching the football.  While he did play most of his career catching the ball from Drew Bledsoe, one could only imagine his career if he played with Brady. 

Rivaling the same size frame as Francis, Coates was a punishing receiver who made a mark for himself in 1993 when he broke out as a Patriots tight end with 53 receptions for 659 yards and 8 touchdowns.  It was his yards after the catch and ability to break tackles that made him really stand out as a unique target in the NFL.

With five consecutive Pro Bowl nods between 1994 and 1998, Coates was one of the best in the NFL.  His top season was in 1994 where he caught 96 receptions for 1174 yards.  The next four seasons to follow he averaged over 65+ catches per season becoming a security blanket for Bledsoe and helping the Patriots offense really thrive during that period.    

While he finished his career with the Ravens in 2000, Coates is one of the beloved Patriots of all time. Yes, he followed Francis as a lethal pass-catching tight end but he really set the ceiling for the No. 1 tight end on this list.

1.Rob Gronkowski

The Patriots are going to have a decision to make when they decide to retire the No. 87. If you thought Ben Coates was tough to cover, Rob Gronkowski further defined the role of the tight end, especially in the Patriots’ offense and especially catching the ball from Mr. Brady.

Selected in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the Patriots took a risk on a player with back issues. It was a risk that paid off the team as Gronk showcased his elite ability immediately. Following a strong rookie season in 2010, Gronkowski really made his mark on the league in his sophomore season catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.

His dominance continued the years to follow as he helped the team win three Super Bowls. During his prime, there was no doubt Gronkowski was the best tight end in the league, but the one thing that held him back was injuries.

When healthy, Gronk was simply dominate in putting together some of the best seasons ever for a tight end. His presence in the Patriots offense was undeniable as without him, the team still found ways to move the ball, but with Gronk they were close to unstoppable.

Gronk ultimately retired in 2019 just to return a year later and play with Brady in Tampa Bay. The dynamic duo went on to win another Super Bowl before Gronk officially called it quits in 2021. In that final season, he still caught 55 receptions for 802 yards and 6 touchdowns.

If it wasn’t for health and a little drama with Bill Belichick, there is no telling what heights Gronk would’ve reached during his career as if those heights he did reach weren’t great enough.

More Patriots coverage: