It’s a golden age of tight end production in the NFL. Pass catching tight ends like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham used to be outliers at the position but now that type of usage is standard at the position. The two leaders at the position are currently George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers and Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs. Fittingly, both agreed to new contracts on Thursday to set the bar at the top of the market.
For years, tight ends salaries had been depressed because of the historical nature of the position. The majority of tight ends did not have a massive impact on the passing game and the pay scale reflected that. That kept the price of the franchise tag down — the average of the top salaries at the position — even into the 2020 season. The tag number at tight end for 2020 was just $10.6 million, above just running back ($10.3 million) and special teams ($5 million).
Any top of the market extension will start with the tag number because if a deal cannot be made at the end of the contract, the team always has the option of the tag. But even the 2020 tag number was helped by the backend of some older contracts with cap hits that were never expected to actually be seen that are now off the books. Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers will play 2020 on the tight end tag yet is also slated to have the highest cap hit at the position this season, pending the structure of the Kittle and Kelce deals.
Austin Hooper, now of the Cleveland Browns, got the biggest tight end contract in free agency and he’s only set for a $10.5 million average salary with $23 million guaranteed.
San Francisco has not been afraid to blow out the positional precedent when handing out contracts. Both the deals of Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Juszczyk reset the market when signed. Garoppolo’s deal has since been surpassed by multiple quarterbacks, but Juszczyk is still the biggest outlier at his position.
Kittle’s deal comes in at a reported five years and $75 million with $30 million guaranteed. The $15 million average annual salary clearly now paces the position, well over the marks of Henry and Hooper. Kelce’s deal is another four years and $57.25 million with $28 million guaranteed, which will be added on to the two years Kelce already had left on his contract. That total will pay Kelce just over $14 million per year.
Tight End Salaries
*figures estimated from current reports, other numbers per Over The Cap
Even with those market smashing prices, both Kittle and Kelce could be considered steals with these new deals. The problem at tight end is the baseline for the tag is so far below the market for wide receivers ($17.9 million) despite the league’s best tight ends (specifically Kittle and Kelce) being just as valuable as the top wide receivers in the passing game.
During the 2019 season, Kelce and Kittle were fourth and seventh, respectively, in receiving EPA per Sports Info Solutions. That wasn’t just about volume, either. Kelce was the 11th most targeted player but Kittle was just 31st. Among 38 players with at least 100 targets, Kelce was second in positive play rate (the percentage of plays with positive EPA) and Kittle was seventh. By just about any metric these two were top-10 receivers, but they won’t crack top-10 receiver money.
EPA on receptions, 2019
*data per Sports Info Solutions
Currently, Brandin Cooks has the 10th highest average annual salary for wide receivers at $16.1 million. Even at Cooks’s healthy peak, he was not adding more value to a passing game than Kittle or Kelce. Kittle’s figure could slot in just behind Jarvis Landry ($15.1 million) at 11th overall for wide receivers.
Admittedly, AAV is not the best way to judge contracts, but even once we get more details on the better value metrics, such as three-year cash flow, these two tight end contracts won’t come close to those of the league’s highest-paid wide receivers.
The current tight end-wide receiver dynamic is reminiscent of the time when left tackles were getting paid significantly more than right tackles while defenses were starting to move edge rushers around and the protection of the quarterback’s blindside held more weight as a buzzword than value on the field. The responsibilities of the left and right tackle have become virtually the same and that is now the case for receivers and the league’s top tight ends.
Kelce, without factoring in other tight end responsibilities, is one of the league’s most dangerous slot receivers. He ranked 15th in targets when lined up in the slot (83) and third-most EPA generated behind only Tyler Lockett and Michael Thomas. Kelce’s ability to be a straight up receiver also gives the opposing defense a matchup issue when they want to defend against heavier personnel.
When the Chiefs used 12 personnel with Kelce and another tight end on the field, the defense rarely used a base defense. Kansas City saw just 10.7% of their 12 personnel snaps against a base defense last season. That allowed the Chiefs to run against lighter defensive personnel — though the Chiefs weren’t a particularly efficient run offense regardless of the situation — but it also allowed Kansas City to force mismatches through the air.
Kelce was third among all receivers in targets against a nickel defense (96) and second in EPA. When teams played nickel against Kansas City’s 11 personnel, that put Kelce over a linebacker he could outrun and in 12 personnel, it matched Kelce up with a defensive back he could typically out muscle.
Kittle has the opposite impact on San Francisco’s offense, one that does its best work striking through the air from heavy personnel. The 49ers used a high rate of 21 personnel last season and 76.5% of their dropbacks from 21 personnel came against a base defense. That usually left Kittle against helpless linebackers and there were few receivers who did more damage in the passing game against base. With four defensive backs on the field, Kittle was third in targets (41) and third in EPA.
Both tight ends are also tremendous blockers. Kittle does most of his work like an offensive lineman near the line of scrimmage, while Kelce can attack in the open field. That added ability allows their teams to hide the intent of the play before the snap. Neither’s presence nor alignment tips the defense off to whether the play will be a run or pass.
These players bring a unique dynamic to their offenses and while neither is running down the field like a Julio Jones, they have made just as much of an impact in the passing game as their wide receiver peers. Both deservedly set the market at their position, but the artificial cap already placed at tight end allows Kittle and Kelce to make more money than any other tight ends in league history and still come out as bargains with the potential for surplus-value against the salary cap.