And I'm sure this list will be somewhat controversial, and here's why: several coaches that I talked to suggested that I leave out spread "tight ends" who never played with their hands on the ground.
"They're just flexed-out receivers," said one coach, who pointed to the fact that Missouri's Martin Rucker and Kansas's Kerry Meier played essentially the same position. Kansas called Meier a wide receiver, while Missouri labeled Rucker a tight end.
And if you look across Big 12 history, when coaches had a legitimate, hand-on-the-ground tight end to choose, they often picked him for All-Big 12 teams over the Chase Coffmans of the world.
Why do I keep bringing up Missouri tight ends? Because they're at the heart of this debate. Coffman won the Mackey Award in 2008 as the nation's best tight end, but he never made first-team All-Big 12 from the coaches. And while Rucker earned first-team honors in 2006, he was stepped over by the coaches in 2007, despite grabbing 31 more catches for 323 more yards and three more touchdowns than he did the previous year. Why? Because the coaches had an in-line tight end to choose from in Brandon Pettigrew, who couldn't touch Rucker's stats but had more respect as a blocker and all-around tight end.
And while Michael Egnew earned first-team honors the last two years, he did so when there was a dearth of in-line tight end talent in the league.
That's a really long explanation for a reason you won't find any of those tight ends on this list. They were considered for the wide receiver spots instead. And all four players selected below were players that any coach would consider an "actual tight end."
Here are the picks:
First Team: Daniel Graham, Colorado
Graham brought home the league's first John Mackey Award, a fitting tribute after earning consensus first-team All-America honors as a senior. A strong blocker, Graham also caught more than 80 passes over his final two seasons, including a 51-catch, 753-yard, six-touchdown performance in his last year on campus. Graham could stretch the field well, averaging almost 15 yards per catch over that year. And despite a number of great tight ends in the Big 12's early years, Graham was selected to the All-Big 12 All-Decade Team in 2005.
Second Team: Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma
Gresham is the best pure receiver on this list, and was the first-team All-Big 12 pick in 2008, when Coffman won the Mackey Award. Gresham was an impact player as both a sophomore and as a junior, finding the end zone 25 times. As a junior, he caught 66 passes for 950 yards and 14 scores. And while most people focused on Sam Bradford's season-ending injury in 2009, it's worth noting that Gresham was knocked out before he even got a chance, missing his senior year after tearing cartilage in his knee. Gresham might be the best receiving tight end in Oklahoma history, and when that history includes Keith Jackson, it's really saying something.
Third Team: Alonzo Mayes, Oklahoma State
How do you know you're good? When you only play in seven games as a senior and you still earn first-team All-America honors. That's precisely what Mayes, a big-play receiving tight end did. To be fair, Mayes made those games count, snagging 29 passes for 424 yards and seven touchdowns before missing the rest of the season with injuries. Projecting those stats over a 12-game season (Oklahoma State played 11 games, plus a bowl that year), Mayes would have had 50 catches for 727 yards and 12 touchdowns. As it was, he accounted for nearly one-third of Oklahoma State's receiving yards that year … despite missing almost half the season.
Honorable Mention: Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State
The lone player on the list not to earn All-America honors, Pettigrew has been lauded by former opponents and coaches as one of the most balanced tight ends that the Big 12 has seen. Pettigrew could be dominant as a blocker, and is probably the best blocker on this list. That he was also able to go out and add more than 1,000 receiving yards over his final two seasons. He actually had more receiving yards and touchdowns as a junior in 2007, when he was a first-team All-Big 12 pick, than he did as a senior in 2008. That's not to say he wasn't still effective. In 2008 he was still the team's No. 2 receiver … right behind Dez Bryant.