Through our review of the Eagles’ all-time greatest players, we’ve seen some areas where the team has historically lacked talent. However, one successful position group over the years has been tight ends. So who are the best Eagles tight ends of all time?
Tight end is a more recent moniker. From the days of Shibe Park and Franklin Field, pass-catchers could be backs, ends, and flankers. Seeing as many played two ways, there wasn’t as much specialization as current talent.
Five of the franchise’s top-nine receiving yards accumulators are tight ends. The offenses have made stars of seemingly obscure names. Lower-round picks became Pro Bowlers.
Our list considers the various achievements of each player, how they affected team success, and their effects on the game. Going on numbers alone does not tell the story; players of yesteryear wouldn’t match up with longer seasons and more pass-oriented mindsets. Hopefully, this will spark some interesting debates from beach chairs and cookouts.
Top 10 Best Philadelphia Eagles Tight Ends of All Time
Donovan McNabb had two big weapons at tight end during the 2000s. LJ Smith joined the Eagles as a second-round pick in 2003 out of Rutgers.
After some contributions as a rookie, Smith caught 34 balls for 377 yards and five scores in the NFC Champion 2004 season. He also opened the scoring in Super Bowl XXXIX, his lone career playoff TD.
While the team went downhill in 2005 with injuries and controversy, Smith had perhaps his strongest pro season. He set career marks for catches (61) and yards (682). Following up in 2006 with 50 catches for 611 yards and five TDs, he appeared to be ready to lead the Eagles offense going forward.
However, injuries limited productivity in 2007 and 2008. After playing in all 48 regular-season games from 04-06, he only made it to 23 games the last two years he was on the Eagles. After a short stint with the Ravens produced two catches in 2009, Smith was out of football. Last I heard, he was running a Plato’s Closet consignment clothing store, and a paint and drink studio in Central Jersey.
I’ll admit, I have no idea who this guy was, mainly because I wasn’t very old when he played. However, he was one of the offensive mainstays throughout the 1980s.
The New England Patriots drafted John Spagnola in the 9th round of the 1979 draft out of Yale University. Yeah, those used to be things. However, the Pats cut him and he wound up in Philly, closer to his NEPA roots.
Spagnola worked his way into the lineup and played all 16 games in each of his first two seasons. In 1980, he caught 18 balls for 193 yards, including 3 TDs, as the Eagles made it to their first Super Bowl.
Injuries shortened his 1981 season and miss the entire 1983 campaign. After returning from the herniated disk, Spagnola produced his two best seasons with the Eagles. 1984 saw a career-high 65 catches for 701 yards. The following year was 64 catches, 772 yards, and five TDs.
After these seasons, productivity went down again. He caught less than 40 balls and 400 yards in his final two years with the Eagles. He finished his career with one year each in Seattle and Green Bay, with seven total catches between those two stops.
Jack Ferrante was part of the generation of NFL players that played both ways – when they weren’t fighting in World War II. Yeah, very different stock of men.
Ferrante joined the team in 1941 and played three games before spending two years in the armed forces. After a few catches in 1944, Ferrante caught 21 balls for 464 yards and seven touchdowns. Over the years, he continued to improve and excel at the end – both ways. Twice he was second-team All-Pro. He caught seven more touchdowns in the team’s 1948 championship season.
His best year may have been his last when he caught 35 balls for 588 yards and three TDs – in just 12 games. After that year, he left football – at age 34. His name may be lost to some modern fans, but he was honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of their all 1940s decade team.
Keith Jackson may have enjoyed the best career start of anyone in Eagles history. After the team drafted him 13th overall in 1988 out of Oklahoma, where he won a national title, he made three straight Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams.
Only his rookie year did he play all 16 games, catching 81 balls for 869 yards and six scores. He followed that up with seven catches for 142 yards in the infamous “Fog Bowl” divisional-round loss to Chicago. In 1989 and 1990, he compiled over 600 yards in both seasons, including six more scores in 90, on just 50 catches.
Jackson was part of a talented offense but stood out for his size and reliability. However, he didn’t make 16 games in another season until 1991, where he had the least catches (48) and receiving yards (569) as an Eagle, albeit with the team’s worst QB injury season in franchise history.
If Jackson stays in Philly, at the least, he probably challenges some career records and would make the team Hall of Fame. He could have possibly helped the team compete better against Dallas in the 90s. There’s one problem with this what-if: the Eagles were broke.
In the 80s and early 90s, the league used Plan B to prevent players from moving freely and keep salaries depressed. Two work stoppages couldn’t fix anything. A handful of players took the NFL to court and a federal jury agreed with them in September 1992. When the ruling came down, Jackson was not signed by the Eagles, who were cash strapped under owner Norman Braman.
Jackson filed an injunction to enter free agency. He succeeded and signed a multi-million dollar deal with the Dolphins. With similar numbers to 1991, he made another Pro Bowl. He stayed in the league for four more years, winning a Super Bowl in Green Bay with former Eagles teammate Reggie White. Yeah, there’s a reason people were happy when Braman finally sold the team.
The Eagles have seen multiple tight ends make three straight Pro Bowls. Keith Jackson, a first-round pick from powerhouse Oklahoma, was not that much a surprise. The next name on our list, not so much.
Lewis joined the Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 1997 after playing college ball at BYU. He played all 16 games as a rookie, with four scores in 12 catches. After missing most of the 1998 season, Lewis was cut from the team and signed with the Rams. The Rams let him go midway through their Super Bowl campaign and Lewis resigned with the Eagles. He had three TDs in six games.
2000 was the start of an incredible run for Lewis. He caught 69 balls for 735 yards, both career highs, with three scores. Two more seasons with over 40 catches, including a career-high six TDs in 2001, preceded two more Pro Bowl appearances and two playoff runs for the Eagles.
While his regular-season numbers dropped as the Eagles moved to the Linc, he still had one more major game in him. Lewis caught two touchdowns against the Falcons as the Eagles FINALLY won an NFC title game in the 2004 season. His second score sealed the game and set off one of the biggest celebrations in franchise history.
Alas, that TD to make it 27-10 Philly was a Pyrrhic one. In the play, Lewis suffered a Lisfranc injury that kept him out of the Super Bowl and half of the 2005 season. That would be his last year with the team and in the league.
It is rare to see position players of today attempt kicking and usually happens when an injury occurs. We’ve seen Mark Simoneau hit one of two extra points in a 2005 game. However, back in the 50s and 60s, smaller rosters meant teams usually couldn’t afford specialists. Stars like Pat Summerall and Paul Hornung handled these duties for their teams. In Philadelphia, that fell to Bobby Waltson.
Walston joined the Eagles in 1951 as a 14th round pick out of Georgia. While juggling duties, he caught more than 10 balls in 10 of his first 11 seasons. He had a career-high with 41 receptions and 750 yards in 1953, followed by 11 touchdowns in 1954. That season, he led the league in scoring with 114 points.
Walston made consecutive Pro Bowls in 1960 and 1961, the former being the team’s championship season. After making just four catches in nine games, Walston left the team in 1962. He was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-1950s team.
Brent Celek was a model of consistency and durability in Philadelphia. In 11 seasons, he only missed one game, during the 2012 campaign.
A fifth-round pick from Cincinnati, he saw spot starts in his first two years. 2009 was his breakout, posting career highs for catches (76), yards (971), and touchdowns (8). This was the first of five straight campaigns with over 500 receiving yards.
Celek played up the middle and in dangerous areas. He would get hit, get up, and go again. He had a major touchdown against the Giants in the miracle comeback at MetLife in 2010.
While he was solid through his career, he wasn’t quite spectacular. Celek’s productivity dropped after 2013, as he became less involved with the offense. However, when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, fans were very pleased to see Celek get a ring after 11 years with the team. That season would be his last in the NFL.
Pete Retzlaff was first drafted in 1953 by the Detroit Lions in the 22nd round. However, he didn’t make the team and went into the Army. He joined the Eagles after serving the country in 1956.
After three years as a flanker, Retzlaff moved to tight end, despite having led the NFL in 1958 with 56 receptions and making a Pro Bowl. His first season at the new position saw him make 34 catches for 595 yards. In the championship year of 1960, Retzlaff caught 46 balls for 826 yards and five scores, making another Pro Bowl.
When the league expanded to a 14-game schedule, Retlzlaff made 50 or more catches for four of the next five seasons. From 1963 to 1965 he made three straight Pro Bowls, including an All-Pro selection in 1965 when he also won the Bert Bell Award for his 66 reception, 1,190-yard season which led to 10 touchdowns.
Retzlaff retired after the 1966 season and later worked three seasons as general manager from 1969 to 1972. He didn’t do as well in that role as he did as a player.
At the writing of this list (June 2021), Zach Ertz’s future with the franchise remains in question. Should he stay with the Eagles, his spot may change. As of now, 2nd place seems good.
Zach Ertz joined Philadelphia in 2013 as a second-round pick. He was brought in as the heir apparent to Celek and in an attempt to help the offense. After a quiet rookie year, he accumulated 58 catches for 702 yards and 3 TDs in 2014.
2015 saw the first of five straight seasons with over 70 catches and 800 yards. He became a primary target for #2 overall pick Carson Wentz. When the team won the Super Bowl, he had 74 catches for 824 yards and eight scores in the regular season.
Ertz’s amazing Superbowl TD catch before the two-minute warning proved the game-winner against the Pats, a virtual duplicate of the play Jesse James made against the same defense that was dubiously ruled an incompletion. Of course, the review of Ertz’s TD probably caused more agita across the Delaware Valley.
Ertz set the club record for catches in a season with 116 in 2018, the only season he has (so far) started 16 games. Accumulating 1,163 yards and eight TDs, he also broke the league single-season record for a tight end, established by Jason Witten from Dallas with 110 receptions in 2012.
Ertz followed the season with 88 catches in 2019, the third-best in franchise history. His 916 yards led the team and earned him a third-straight Pro Bowl. After airing contract renewal demands in the offseason, Ertz fell off in 2020, playing just 11 games with 36 catches for 335 yards as the offense sputtered all year.
If he doesn’t play another snap in midnight green, he will have made significant contributions to the franchise. If he stays, he may become the franchise’s best-regarded tight end.
Pete Retzlaff and Zach Ertz may have better career stats of all Eagles tight ends but, Pete Pihos is regarded as perhaps the franchise’s best offensive player as well. The fifth-round pick from Indiana was able to return to college after being drafted in 1945 (he had already been drafted by the Army and served in World War II).
Pihos made impacts on both sides of the ball in his first season of 1947, helping the Eagles make their first championship game. In his second year, he caught 46 balls for 766 yards and 11 scores, as the Eagles won their first NFL title.
From 1949 to 1955, Pihos made the Pro Bowl or All-Pro every season. In the last three years of his career, he led the league in receptions, including the “Triple Crown” in 1953 with 63 catches, 1,049 yards, and 10 scores. Oh yeah, he did this while playing end on defense most of those seasons.
Pihos made the NFL Hall of Fame All-1940s team and was inducted to Canton in 1970, four years after going into the College Football Hall of Fame.