Tight End Contract Tiers

The free agency period is long over and we now have a few games worth of results to assess how recent signees are performing compared to their compensation. The question I’m trying to answer with this research is: “Is Team A getting the proper value out of its contract with Player B?”


I’ll revisit this topic throughout the season as we have more and more data to work with.

Today, I’m looking at how tight ends are producing relative to their contract tier expectations. For a similar analysis on wide receivers, please see the Wide Receiver Contract Tiers post from earlier this week.

Methodology

Tight ends are responsible for two duties: blocking and receiving. For now, I’m only considering the receiving production that a tight end gives his team. Please use the comments section below if you believe I’m being unreasonably harsh on a particular player’s contract if they have a substantial impact on their team’s running game that should be considered when evaluating their APY.

To determine different tiers for tight ends, I looked at players on non-rookie contracts sorted by APY and drew lines where the appeared to be a significant drop in either APY or production. I then prorated the players’ recent seasons on a 16 game pace to determine an expected season for a tight end in each tier.

APY

Catches/16Targets/16Catch %Yards/16

TDs/16

Tier 1$9M+8012066%1,000+11
Tier 2$6.5M-$9M7511068%800+5
Tier 3$4M-$6.5M558563%500+4
Tier 4<$4Mn/a – Veteran Backup

Tier 1

There are currently only five tight ends that have an APY in excess of $9M. These are the tight ends that cause opposing defenses the most headaches from a matchup perspective.

Tier 2

Tier 2 tight ends are productive, but are a clear step down from the Tier 1 group. The primary difference between Tier 1 and Tiers 2 is touchdowns. The tight ends with Tier 1 contracts are expected to score double digit touchdowns. Out of all of the tight ends currently on Tier 2 contracts, only Antonio Gates has completed a season with more than 8 touchdowns. Some of the Tier 2 tight ends match the Tier 1 production in terms of catches and yards, but fall noticeably short when comparing touchdown totals. Greg Olsen is a good example of this. He has averaged 80 catches and 1050 yards over the past two seasons, but only has 6 and 7 touchdowns in those two years.

 Tier 3

Tier 3 tight ends have established themselves as valuable receiving weapons, but don’t have the same impact as Tier 1 or 2. Out of the 25 recent seasons I considered across seven tight ends on Tier 3 contracts, only two seasons exceeded 800 yards or 65 receptions.

Tier 4

Tier 4 tight ends are veteran players that are not a significant part of their offensive game plan. These are players that are expected to have fewer than 50 receptions, 500 yards, and minimal touchdowns. Many of these players are primarily blockers when on the field.

Results through 2016 Week 4

Most of the new tight end contracts are signed when the player has just completed their rookie contract or has one year remaining on his rookie contract. For most tight ends, their first veteran contract APY is an indication of where the player should grow rather than where they have been. With that in mind, a tight end’s prior annual production should be seen as a floor for future performance. At this point in the season, I have not included any mention of missed games as a negative. As the season progresses, giving us a larger sample size, missed games will start to hurt a player’s value.

16 Game Pace

Tier 1 ContractsCurrent APYCatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsAPY Value
Travis Kelce$9.37M8811676%8808High Tier 2
Jordan Reed$9.35M10014071%1,0528Tier 1

 

Travis Kelce: Kelce is on pace to set career highs across the board. However, this production is just below what should be the minimum for his current contract. His current pace for yardage needs to increase by a minimum of around 15 yards per game and his touchdown rate is a bit below his expectation based on APY. Given that he is on pace to set career highs, Kansas City should be content with his production, but this contract should be considered at best a fair value rather than a bargain for the team.

Jordan Reed: Reed is also on pace for career highs in every category except touchdowns. At this point, his touchdown rate is slightly low, but the rest of his production is in line with a Tier 1 contract. For both team and player, this contract looks fair at this point. Once we have a larger sample size, if Reed’s touchdown pace doesn’t increase, I’ll downgrade his production into the Tier 2 range and will consider his contract a slight overpayment.

16 Game Pace

Tier 2 ContractsCurrent APYCatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsAPY Value
Zach Ertz$8.5Mn/a – Injured
Dwayne Allen$7.35M447658%5324Tier 3
Coby Fleener$7.2M5211246%6524Tier 3
Delanie Walker$6.7M5910148%8485Tier 2

Dwayne Allen: Allen’s current pace would be almost identical to the career highs he set as a rookie in 2012. Unfortunately, based on his APY, Indianapolis should be expecting about 50% more production than he has given them so far. His receiving lines are very similar to what should be expected on a Tier 3 contract with an APY closer to $6M rather than the $7.35M on his current contract.

Coby Fleener: It seems as though every analyst has taken time to express shock at Fleener’s lack of production so far in New Orleans. Fleener is currently on pace for an annual line very close to his prior three years in Indianapolis. If that pace is maintained, New Orleans will be getting around $6M production on a $7.2M contract. Considering that Fleener offers next to nothing as a blocker, his receiving production needs to increase to justify his contract.

Delanie Walker: Walker’s production is pretty close to what should be expected. His catch totals are a bit low, but his yardage and touchdowns make up for it. This is another example of a contract that has been fair to both the team and player.

One note for all three of the above players: their catch rates of 58%, 46%, and 48% are well below what should be expected. The Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 tight ends should have catch rates at or above 63%.

16 Game Pace

Tier 3 ContractsCurrent APYCatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsAPY Value
Jordan Cameron$6M435973%3205Low Tier 3
Antonio Gates$5.5Mn/a – Injured
Ladarius Green$5Mn/a – Injured
Brent Celek$4M213267%3840Tier 4
Marcedes Lewis$4M324080%3884Tier 4

Jordan Cameron: Cameron is currently on pace to come in on the low end of Tier 3 production, which would indicate that his current APY of $6M is a bit high. The team is receiving the production of a player that should be closer to $4M APY.

Brent Celek: Celek’s contract looks to be an example of paying for past production. His $4M APY indicates a player than should be expected to catch around 55 passes for at least 500 yards and 4 touchdowns each year. His career highs over the past three years (2014, 2015, 2016 pro-rated) are 32 catches on 51 targets for 398 yards and 3 touchdowns. The last time Celek’s production indicated a $4M APY contract was 2013 and even then he was showing a distinct decline in production over prior years. Celek’s contract isn’t too much higher than it should be given that he’s already at the cutoff for Tier 3/Tier 4, but the team is not getting a good return on his current contract.

Marcedes Lewis: Lewis is another player that shouldn’t be considered to be too overpaid but also isn’t giving his team a very good return. Over the past 5 years, Lewis has exceed 500 yards once (540 in 2012), has never exceeded 52 receptions, and has a total of 10 touchdowns (2 per year). His 2016 production puts him on pace to fall short of the Tier 3 expectations for another year.

16 Game Pace

Tier 4 ContractsCurrent APYCatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsAPY Value
Zach Miller$2.75M718486%62412Tier 2/3
Garrett Celek$2.5M406067%5240Tier 3
Larry Donnell$1.67M324473%2004Tier 4
Jack Doyle$1.67566488%5728Tier 2/3

There are too many Tier 4 contracts signed in 2016 to list here. Included in that total are injured players and players that are primarily blockers when on the field. The chart above shows players that are producing above their APY or have done so in the past.

Zach Miller: If we ignore Miller’s touchdown pace for a minute, the rest of his production is more in line with a player on a $6.5M contract. Currently, the Bears are getting a great return on his $2.75M APY contract. Back to his touchdown rate: even if he only scores twice in the remaining 12 games (after 3 in his first 4 games), his overall production would still be in line with a player with at least double his current APY.

Garrett Celek: With another 9 catches for 55 yards, Celek will match his career highs set last year. Once he scores a few touchdowns, his production will be closer to a player on a $4-5M APY rather than his current $2.5M.

Larry Donnell: Donnell had a breakout year in 2014 with 623 yards and 6 touchdowns on 63 receptions, which would be a fair return on a $6M+ APY contract. Fortunately for the Giants, his current APY is only $1.67M.

Jack Doyle: I mentioned in the Dwayne Allen note above that the Colts should be expecting about 50% more production. That production is currently coming from Jack Doyle. Doyle has already set a career high in yardage and with 5 more catches and one touchdown will set career highs in those categories as well. If Doyle can maintain the pace he has set through 4 games, he will have given the Colts around $6.5M APY production on his $1.67M contract.

  • Hans

    Was Jimmy Graham omitted from this list due to the odd nature of his contract and circumstances?

    • Charles Crawford

      For this piece, I only looked at 2016 free agent signings. Graham signed his contract in 2014.