IRVING, Texas -- In his 12 seasons as the New England Patriots' head coach, Bill Belichick has selected nine tight ends, leading to a joke of sorts that it's not a Patriots draft without a tight end.
Much like Bill Parcells, the coach he served under for years with the New York Giants, Belichick understands how a tight end can affect a game in a variety of ways. There is no other position that offers as much versatility to an offense.
A tight end can set up on the line, split wide, in the slot, just off the line and in the backfield.
"I evaluate him as one of the all-time greats," said the Patriots' future Hall of Fame coach. "He's had a tremendous career, still going strong. Good in the running game, good in the passing game, can make plays down the field, a clutch guy in tight situations, he can make any catch over the middle and on third down, red area, those kinds of things. A complete player. I don't see any weak points in his game. Just [an] outstanding guy you have to be aware of at all times. He definitely is a guy that has an impact in the running game, as well. A lot of good tight ends in the league, a lot of good players in every position, he's as good as [it gets]. I'm glad we only play him whatever it is, [every] three or four years. That's plenty."
Belichick's compliment means a lot to Witten -- with an asterisk. With that respect comes extra attention.
"It's definitely flattering to hear," Witten said. "But at the same time I think that he's been able to shut down a lot tight ends with the way they play."
Witten, who leads the Cowboys with 27 catches for 366 yards, is at the top of a class of tight ends that might be the best in a generation in the NFL.
Through five weeks, tight ends have accounted for 13 100-yard receiving games. Tight ends accounted for 18 such games all of last year. Thirteen tight ends are in the top 50 in receptions in the NFL. Witten and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham are on pace for more than 100 receptions. Witten, Graham and New England's Rob Gronkowski are on pace for more than 1,000 yards.
Witten, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be featured parts of Sunday's game between the Cowboys and Patriots at Gillette Stadium. If the defenses want to be successful, they'll have to slow down the tight ends.
"I think tight ends are much more vertical stretch-the-field threats, where before it was keep-the-chains-moving underneath stuff," Witten said. "Now we see a lot of big plays out of these tight ends that are really game-changers, not just three- and four-yard routes."
Defining a tight end is becoming more difficult with the NFL evolving to become a passing league. Just because a player has "TE" listed next to his name doesn't make him a true tight end. Some of them are bigger wide receivers, with teams splitting their duties with players who are primarily blockers.
"I think everybody is looking for that complete tight end, a guy that can block, a guy that can catch, sometimes he'll get mismatches on safeties, sometimes on linebackers," Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "You would like a complete tight end. Once you do have one, you're going to utilize his talents as much as you can. I think the teams that have those good tight ends keep getting mismatches at times, depending on who covers them."
Over the years, there have been special tight ends -- such as Hall of Famers Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow and Shannon Sharpe -- and tight ends with special seasons, including the likes of Ben Coates and Todd Christensen.
Gonzalez, who had a tight-end record 102 catches for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004, is the standard bearer for the position because of how long he has done it. He has had 12 straight seasons with at least 60 receptions.
Witten, who is in his ninth season, has the second-best 60-catch stretch by a tight end with seven straight. Tight ends such as Gronkowski, Hernandez, Graham, Green Bay's Jermichael Finley, Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew and San Francisco's Vernon Davis figure to add to the list as the years go by.
"Having a good tight end, it's really hard to find these guys because the job description is, 'OK, he's got to be big enough, he's got to be 6-5, 260-plus, he's got to be able to run block, he's got to be able to pass block, he's got to be able to go in motion and be a receiver, be a receiver from the line of scrimmage, be a possession guy, but also be a guy who wins down the field,' " Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Those guys don't exist. It's like Jim Thorpe. So, you really have to be a special athlete to play this position."
Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.