The 10 best tight ends in the history of the San Francisco 49ers

You can probably name the three best tight ends in Niners history. But it gets a lot more challenging when rounding out the top 10.

We do it for you.

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85)
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

The three best 49ers tight ends in team history are easy to figure out, but there are 10 total names that should garner interest.

The San Francisco 49ers haven't always been known as a team that consistently boasts elite tight ends, although that trend has somewhat changed over the last 20-plus years.

For most fans, they'll probably recall three names with ease: Brent Jones, Vernon Davis and a major fan-favorite, George Kittle.

After that, though, the list of best tight ends in San Francisco is much tougher to populate.

Going through the team archives dating back to 1946, Niner Noise looks at the 10 best including those three well-known names. Using a combination of statistics, individual accolades, overall team impact and the occasional X-factor here and there, we present you an unashamed list of the 10 best tight ends in 49ers history.

49ers' 10 best tight ends in franchise history

The nature of the position can make analysis difficult. Some tight ends are excellent receivers but were liabilities in blocking, while others rarely cracked the stat sheet because they were busy drum-rolling opponents to open lanes for other offensive weapons.

That said, in a stats-based league, it helps to put up receptions, yards and touchdowns.

No. 10: Garrett Celek (2012-2019)

It helps to be a No. 1 tight end on a roster. And even though Garrett Celek started his tenure with San Francisco behind Davis on the depth chart, he assumed a starting role when the team underwent hard times in the post-head coach Jim Harbaugh era and was the go-between before Kittle arrived.

In 2016 and 2017, Celek posted career-best numbers with 350 and 336 receiving yards, respectively, and he maintained his role as a touchdown target despite Kittle's arrival upon the scene in 2017, scoring four touchdowns.

While Celek's role diminished in 2018 amid injuries, he still managed to score two touchdowns, which helped drive the "Celek Time" moniker given to him by Kittle.

No. 9: Bob Windsor (1967-1971)

Unlike most other positions, the 49ers don't have too many tight ends of legendary status dating back to before the modern football era, although Bob Windsor came close and deserves mentioning.

Playing alongside MVP quarterback John Brodie, Windsor was a two-year starter and enjoyed a career-best 1969 campaign with 49 catches for 597 yards and helped propel the Niners into a playoff contender for the next few seasons.

He finished his career with 1,392 receiving yards and eight touchdowns during his San Francisco span before heading over to the New England Patriots.

No. 8: Delanie Walker (2006-2012)

While Davis commanded most attention during the late 2000s and early 2010s, he had arguably the best backup in the NFL in Delanie Walker.

Some have argued the 49ers should have prioritized Walker over Davis, particularly when the former started hitting his own stride in 2012 when he had 344 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Yet the Niners opted to go with Davis, leaving Walker to turn into a star with the Tennessee Titans a year later.

That said, while never wowing on a per-year basis but playing a variety of roles, Walker nevertheless accumulated 1,465 receiving yards and eight touchdowns during his Niners career, and that yardage total still ranks eighth best in franchise history at the position.

No. 7: Eric Johnson (2001-2006)

Walker was never a starter, but Eric Johnson was, giving him a slight edge in ranking here despite the shorter tenure and the fact Johnson was more of a one-year hit than a consistent presence.

One can only wonder what Johnson's career might have been like, though, if he had played on some good San Francisco teams and avoided the injury bug, which cut out his 2003 season entirely.

A year later, though, he led a hapless 49ers offense with 825 receiving yards despite the team going 2-14.

That turned out to be Johnson's best year by far and accounted for the bulk of his 1,800 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

No. 6: Russ Francis (1982-1987)

Prior to Jones entering the fray, there was Russ Francis.

True, Francis' name is better known for his days with the Patriots where he was named to three Pro Bowls, although he opted to come out of retirement in 1982 and helped the Niners secure their first ever Super Bowl championship.

While never a featured part of those legendary offenses of the mid-1980s, Francis was nevertheless consistent and enjoyed another Super Bowl as a part-time starter on that 1984 Super Bowl-winning squad, often called the greatest overall team in San Francisco history.

That year, Francis played in only 10 games and had just 285 yards, but he followed it up with 478 and 505 receiving yards in 1985 and 1986, respectively.

Upon Jones' arrival in 1987, Francis was an excess commodity, but he still finished his 49ers career with a respectable 2,105 yards and 12 touchdowns, playing alongside many of the best Niners ever.

No. 5: Monty Stickles (1960-1967)

Monty Stickles is widely viewed as San Francisco's first notable tight end, and a number of his team statistics still rank within the top five through to the present day.

Case in point, Stickles' 2,993 receiving yards and 207 catches rank fourth behind the top-three tight ends on this list, and his 14 touchdowns are fifth for the franchise at the position.

The 11th overall pick was a full-time starter for those 49ers teams of the early and mid-1960s, too, which help him land at No. 5 overall.

No. 4: Ted Kwalick (1969-1974)

If Stickles was the Niners' first good tight end, Ted Kwalick was certainly the first great one.

Kwalick didn't exactly pick up where Stickles left off, though, taking a couple of years to fully hit his stride. But, in 1971, the seventh overall pick of the 1969 NFL Draft helped San Francisco reach the postseason by posting 664 receiving yards and five touchdowns en route to his first of three Pro Bowl nominations.

A year later, Kwalick upped his game with 751 receiving yards and a career-best nine touchdowns while securing first-team All-Pro honors.

While Kwalick didn't quite match Stickles' overall receiving totals during his career, his 2,570 yards for the 49ers still rank fifth best at the position, and his personal achievements cement him right behind the big three.

No. 3: Brent Jones (1987-1997)

OK, time for the household names among the Faithful.

If fans feel the 1989 Niners were truly the best team in franchise history over the 1984 squad, then Jones was a massive reason why. He had 500 receiving yards that year after being something of a forgotten an unused commodity after coming over from the Pittsburgh Steelers two years prior.

But that 1989 season kickstarted a lengthy tenure that generated some of the best moments in San Francisco history.

Winning three Super Bowls with the 49ers and four Pro Bowl honors, Jones completely outdid all 49ers tight ends that went before him by racking up 5,195 receiving yards over an 11-year career. Additionally, his 33 touchdowns rank third all time for tight ends donning the red and gold.

Those numbers wouldn't be touched until the next player on our list.

No. 2: Vernon Davis (2006-2015)

Davis was a hot target among Niners fans entering the 2006 draft. And while the former Maryland standout got off to a bit of a rocky start in San Francisco, including a famous run-in with then-head coach Mike Singletary in 2008, Davis was nevertheless poised to become one of the team's great weapons.

Especially when the 49ers finally turned into a powerhouse under head coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011.

2009 appeared to hint at this when he led the NFL with 13 touchdown receptions, influencing his first of two Pro Bowl nods, but 2013 was easily Davis' best campaign in which he matched that touchdown total while also boasting 850 receiving yards in the process.

Year to year, Davis made an impact until 2014 when things began to fall apart for him, Harbaugh and the Niners overall.

Dealt to the Denver Broncos a year later, Davis ultimately won a Super Bowl there before heading home to join the Washington Redskins in 2016.

Before departing, though, Davis set new franchise records at the position, including 5,640 receiving yards (subsequently broken) and a still-best 55 touchdowns.

No. 1: George Kittle (2017-present)

Kittle isn't just regularly viewed as the best tight end in San Francisco history. He's also consistently in the running for the No. 1 tight end in all of the NFL, thanks to his unique combination of route-running skill, blocking prowess and picking up chunks of yards after the catch.

Fans knew they had something special in 2017 when the fifth-round pick out of Iowa set a new league record for tight ends drafted in Round 5 or later by hauling in 515 receiving yards.

However, a year later, Kittle outdid everyone in NFL history at the position by producing 1,377 receiving yards, setting a new record and helping him secure the first of his (currently) five Pro Bowl nods.

Then, in 2019, Kittle was named a first-team All-Pro before backing it up again with another of the same honor in 2023.

Oh, and did we mention he's easily one of the most beloved players in 49ers recent history?

With a career that's continuing strong into his 30s, Kittle might not have the touchdown totals as his predecessor, Davis. But he already smashed the franchise's tight end receiving record and will continue to build upon the 6,274 yards he's posted through 2023.

Simply put, Kittle set a new standard for the position, and that goes beyond just the Niners.

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