Comparing the Outstanding Careers of Jason Witten and Antonio Gates

Both players are bound for the Hall of Fame, and they helped change the position into what it is today. But based on the numbers, who had the better career?

I want you to close your eyes and remember a simpler time. Oh, well, I guess you can't read with your eyes closed, so go ahead and open them. Whoops, I guess you can't read that, either. I will just wait until you open your eyes again.

Oh, hey. Welcome back! How was your nap?

Let's venture together way back to the year 2003. It was a magical year. 50 Cent's absurdly popular album Get Rich or Die Tryin' was released. Outkast unleashed Hey Ya! on the masses. The greatest movie of all-time was also released that year. I am talking, of course, about Cradle 2 the Grave starring Jet Li and DMX.

In that same year, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates began their careers in the NFL.

Witten was drafted in the third round by the Dallas Cowboys, and Gates went undrafted before being signed by the then-San Diego Chargers. They have miraculously remained with the same teams throughout their 15 seasons in the league. However, recent rumors indicate that their careers are coming to a close. Witten is reportedly retiring, and Gates has been given his final farewell from the Chargers.

Their careers couldn't have begun much differently, but both guys ended up changing the way modern tight ends play the game. With their careers now likely coming to an end, who has had a better career?

Traditional Stats

Both of these tight ends are surefire Hall-of-Fame players -- no question -- and let's start by looking at some more traditional statistics before diving into our advanced metrics

Player Games Receptions Receiving Yards Receiving TDs
Gates 220 927 11,508 114
Witten 239 1,152 12,448 68

Witten is the ultimate ironman at the tight end position, having played through broken ribs and a lacerated spleen. He also walked uphill in the snow to every game. In all, Witten missed just one game -- a remarkable achievement -- and it came in 2003, his rookie year, meaning he played all 16 games in each of his final 14 seasons.

Gates was tough as nails, too, playing through plantar fascia tears, dislocated toes, and other horrific injuries. Gates missed more games over his career, but both players were about as reliable and tough as it gets. In fact, the NFL had to change a rule because Witten continued to run after losing his helmet on a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit.

The advantage in games played gives Witten the edge in most of the counting stats.

Witten leads Gates in career receptions by more than 200 grabs. He averaged 4.82 receptions per game for his career while Gates averaged 4.21 per contest. Witten ranks fourth in league history among all NFL players in total receptions, trailing only Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez, and Larry Fitzgerald. That's a decent list to be on.

Witten also leads Gates in career receiving yards, but Gates was the big-play threat of the two.

Witten averaged 10.8 yards per catch while Gates averaged 12.41 yards per reception. Gates leads the way by a drastic margin when it comes to touchdowns as he is the all-time leader in touchdowns among tight ends and sixth overall in NFL history with 114 receiving scores. Even in the final years of his career, Gates had a nose for the end zone, scoring 27 times over his last four seasons.

Advanced Metrics

Let's dig into some more advanced statistics using our Net Expected Points metric.

NEP measures the number of points a player adds versus expectation. If a player catches a 5-yard pass on 3rd-and-10, it's a lot less valuable than making that same 5-yard reception on 3rd-and-3. NEP accounts for that. We'll also look at Reception Success Rate, which is the percentage of catches that resulted in positive NEP. (You can read more about NEP in our glossary.)

Our metrics tell a similar tale to the traditional numbers -- while Gates caught fewer passes than Witten did, he was much impactful on a per-catch-basis.

PlayerReception NEP Per CatchSuccess Rate

For a reference point so you can appreciate how insanely good Gates' numbers are, the league average for Success Rate among tight ends since the 2000 season has been between 80.0% and 84.3% in each year. The single-season league-average clip for tight ends in Reception NEP per catch has never been above 0.97 in the history of our database, which dates back to 2000.


As previously stated, these two players were incredibly talented and along with the aforementioned Tony Gonzalez, Witten and Gates helped change the tight end position forever.

Witten was on the field more, playing in every single regular season game since the start of the 2006 season, and that durability allowed him to rack up more receptions and yards than Gates did.

On the flip side, Gates scored 46 more touchdowns than Witten did -- a significant amount -- and he was also more efficient on a per-reception basis.

Whether you prefer Witten or Gates, just be grateful that you were around to watch them play football. What a treat.