The San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle and Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce just became the two highest-paid tight ends in the NFL. According to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport. Kittle signed a five-year extension worth $75 million, while Kelce reportedly signed a four-year extension worth $57 million.
According to Spotrac, Kittle’s new deal ($15 million) puts him just ahead of Kelce ($14.3 million) in terms of annual value, while the Los Angeles Chargers’ Hunter Henry is next among tight ends with an annual salary of $10.6 million—the value of his one-year franchise tag.
The Cleveland Browns’ Austin Hooper is the only other tight end slated to earn over $10 million per year on his current deal. Considering that he was the league’s highest-paid tight end in terms of annual value—not counting the tagged Henry—when he inked that contract, it’s safe to say that Kelce and Kittle have reset the market to a pretty substantial degree.
Now, it’s worth noting that Kittle and Kelce are not your run-of-the-mill tight ends. As ESPN’s Field Yates recently pointed out, they’re players who appear on pace for the Hall of Fame:
Teams usually won’t hesitate to pay a true difference-maker, which is exactly what Kittle and Kelce are.
“When you have a guy like George who is different and is special, and it’s not just about being the best tight end in the NFL, it’s who he is after that,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told KNBR’s Murph & Mac Show (h/t Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area).
However, these massive paydays aren’t solely about Kittle and Kelce individually. The reality is that an elite pass-catching tight end has become one of the most important assets a modern NFL offense can feature—and contracts are beginning to reflect this.
Why Are Tight Ends So Valuable?
Having a top-tier pass-catcher at tight end is not some new NFL fad—Kellen Winslow was posting 1,000-yard seasons in the early 1980s. However, as NFL rosters have evolved, offensive coordinators have been able to utilize tight ends to create bigger and more significant mismatches regularly.
Much of this has to do with the way NFL offenses have shifted to feature the pass first and often the most. Defenses have responded by utilizing often smaller but quicker and rangier linebackers and safeties to improve coverage.
Brian Urlacher, considered a rangy middle linebacker in his day, was a stout 6’4″ and 258 pounds. Cory Littleton—who signed a three-year, $35.3 million deal in free agency largely because of his coverage ability—is listed at 6’3″ and 228 pounds.
An elite tight end is almost always a speed/savvy mismatch against a linebacker, but in many cases, they are now also a physical mismatch. Historically a size/strength mismatch for defensive backs, tight ends can attack them with speed and route-running ability as well.
This has to do with how modern tight ends are developed and trained. No longer a player who occasionally sneaks out of the trenches to catch a pass, the modern tight end has the speed, field vision and footwork of a No. 1 wideout.
Tight ends like Kittle and Kelce can mix it up with linebackers and safeties while also keeping pace with cornerbacks. They’re the ultimate safety blanket for a quarterback because they are almost never in an unfavorable situation.
Just consider the fact that when Kittle broke out during the 2018 season—with 1,377 yards and five touchdowns—he did so with the tandem of C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens at quarterback. Kelce had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons before Patrick Mahomes took over as the Chiefs quarterback.
Of course, tight ends are still expected to block, and the great ones—like Kelce and Kittle—can do so at a high level.
The tight end has truly become one of the most versatile chess pieces for an NFL offensive coordinator, and they’re changing what offenses are able to do and how they do it.
What’s Next on the Contract Front?
Only four tight ends are scheduled to make more than $10 million annually, but that is going to change. There’s too much value at the position, as Bleacher Report’s Ian Kenyon recently pointed out:
Now, Brandin Cooks and Jarvis Landry are fine pass-catchers. Cooks can take the top off a defense, Landry is a reliable chain-mover, and both have been 1,000-yard receivers. However, Kittle, for example, can do both of these things while also bullying defenders as an in-line blocker.
Getting that sort of versatility for the same price as a good-but-not-All-Pro wideout is a tremendous value. Before long, we’re going to see elite tight ends land contracts that line up closer to those of elite wide receivers.
This is similar to how defensive tackle contracts have started to catch up with edge-rusher contracts.
Teams are more often leaning on interior pressure to combat quick-pass offenses and to take away space in the pocket. While quarterbacks can move up to avoid edge-rushers or get the ball away before they arrive, it’s more difficult to escape a defensive tackle attacking head-on. The market has started to reflect this, and elite defensive tackles like DeForest Buckner—who inked a four-year, $84 million extension this offseason—are starting to enter $20 million-per-year territory.
A changing approach to defense has elevated the market value of defensive tackles, and a changing offensive approach can do the same for tight ends. As they become more prominent pieces of NFL passing attacks around the league, the gap between tight end and wideout contracts will also narrow.
While the next tight end to get paid might not top the deals of Kelce and Kittle in next-man-up fashion, the two Pro Bowlers have kicked the door open for tight ends to regularly top $10 million per season. This is tremendous news for tight ends like Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles, Darren Waller of the Las Vegas Raiders and Mark Andrews of the Baltimore Ravens.
Ertz, an established tight end and three-time Pro Bowler, could land an extension next offseason. However, he’ll have a year left on his current deal at a cap hit of $12.47 million.
Theoretically, Philadelphia could put off paying Ertz for another year, though he may believe that he should be paid among the league’s very top tight ends. He certainly believes he is one of them.
“I consider myself in that upper echelon of guys, in that same tier with all those guys,” Ertz said, per Jimmy Kempski of the PhillyVoice.
Waller just signed a four-year extension with the Raiders, so Las Vegas shouldn’t be in a hurry to grant him a new deal. However, if he continues to produce as he did in 2019—90 catches, 1,145 yards and three touchdowns—Waller may soon want a raise.
Waller’s annual salary is currently $7.53 million. He, Kelce and Kittle were the only tight ends to top 1,000 yards this past season.
Realistically, Andrews is the tight end likely to benefit the soonest from the new contract landscape. The Oklahoma product was a first-time Pro Bowler in 2019 and finished with 852 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, and he serves as Lamar Jackson’s de facto No. 1 receiver in Baltimore’s offense.
Andrews is hoping that his strong 2019 campaign is merely a jumping-off point.
“Looking back this offseason, had a ton of time to think and watch film, really work on my body to get to that next level,” Andrews said, via the Ravens’ official website. “I want to be the best tight end. I’m not there yet. I’m excited to be able to show what I can do this year.”
Eligible for an extension next offseason, the 2018 third-round pick is set to earn less than $1 million in 2020 and just $1.13 million in 2021.
While tight ends such as Andrews will strive to be more like Kittle and Kelce on the field, they’ll also be grateful for what they’ve accomplished at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, teams that don’t have a Kittle or a Kelce on the roster will continue digging to find them.