The Washington Times - December 8, 2011, 09:15PM

In Friday’s column, I refer to the current NFL era as the Golden Age of Tight Ends. Here’s some other stuff I dug up, supporting this contention:

1. In the first decade of the ’00s (2000-09), 15 tight ends were taken in the first round of the draft. That’s more than were selected in the ’80s and ’90s combined (14). The list:


● 2000 (2) – Bubba Franks, Packers (14th); Anthony Becht, Jets (27th).

● 2001 (1) – Todd Heap, Ravens (31st).

● 2002 (3) – Jeremy Shockey, Giants (14th); Daniel Graham, Patriots (21st); Jerramy Stevens, Seahawks (27th).

● 2003 (1) – Dallas Clark, Colts (24th).

● 2004 (2) – Kellen Winslow Jr., Browns (6th); Ben Watson, Patriots (32nd).

● 2005 (1) – Heath Miller, Steelers (30).

● 2006 (2) – Vernon Davis, 49ers (6); Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars (28).

● 2007 (1) – Greg Olsen, Bears (31).

● 2008 (1) – Dustin Keller, Jets (30).

● 2009 (1) – Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (20).

Notes: New England took two tight ends in the space of three years – then cycled them out and replaced them with Rob Gronkowski (2nd round, 2010) and Aaron Hernandez (4th, 2010)… . The decade-by-decade breakdown: ’60s (5), ’70s (16), ’80s (5), ’90s (9), ’00s (15), ’10s (1). Remember, though, that pro football in the ’70s was much more of a running game, and many tight ends were primarily blockers.

2. There are six active TEs who have gained 1,000 yards receiving in a season (Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Winslow Jr., Antonio Gates, Clark, Jimmy Graham) – and we should have a seventh by the end of the year (Gronkowski, who needs just 72 more yards in the final four games). There were only seven 1,000-yard TEs in ’80s and ’90s put together (Kellen Winslow Sr., Joe Senser, Ozzie Newsome, Todd Christensen, Mark Bavaro, Ben Coates, Shannon Sharpe). If you lower the bar to 875 yards for the period from 1961 to ’77, when teams played 14 games (875 being the equivalent of 1,000), just five TEs make the cut (Mike Ditka, Pete Retzlaff, Jackie Smith, Aaron Thomas, Willie Frazier).

3. The ’60s actually produced the most Hall of Fame tight ends: three (Ditka, Smith and John Mackey). But that may change as more recent TEs become eligible. Gonzalez and Gates are probably locks for Canton, and Witten is moving in that direction. Gronkowski and the Saints’ Graham, meanwhile, are off to incredible starts, and Vernon Davis might even have a shot at the Hall, especially if Jim Harbaugh takes the Niners back to the heights. (You never know.)

4. Don’t forget about Hernandez, either. He’s still only 22 – and doesn’t turn 23 until next November, about 12 games from now. By the time he does, he could have 150 career catches, maybe more. (He has 99 now.) No tight end in history has had 150 catches before his 23rd birthday. In fact, only one wideout has racked up that many: Larry Fitzgerald (161).

And Hernandez isn’t even the Patriots’ No. 1 tight end; Gronkowski is.