A look at the NFL Tight End Market and Potential Market Movers

Per my recent article on the NFL Cornerback Market, several NFL positional groups have experienced robust growth over the last 5 years. This growth can be attributed to star players maximizing their leverage and the 31.35% rise in salary cap since 2015.  The top 5 of the QB market has grown 57.96%, the safety market has experienced a 51.34% market boom, linebackers at 48.74%, and edge rushers at 40.34%.  

However, there are also positional groups that haven’t experienced the same modicum of success. The stagnant cornerback market was highlighted in my article and the devaluation of running backs has been discussed for several years. Another positional group experiencing sluggish growth is tight end. Since 2015, the top of the tight end market has only grown 6.91%, the lowest growth rate of all positional groups, excluding special teams. Below is a graph illustrating all the positions that haven’t kept with up with salary cap growth.

tight end salary growth

Tight End Market

In looking at the top of the tight end market, 3 of the 5 highest APY values have remained flat since 2016. This includes Jimmy Graham’s $10M APY, Travis Kelce’s $9.368M APY, and Jordan Reed’s $9.35M APY.  In fact, Graham’s $10M APY has been the benchmark for the TE Market since 2014. No other positional group has been close to having the same benchmark for such an extended period. Graham first became the highest paid TE when the Saints extended him to a 4 Year, $40M extension in 2014, eclipsing Rob Gronkowski’s 6 Year, $54M extension from 2012. Graham went on to play the entire deal with the Saints and Seahawks and became a free agent in 2018. The Packers then signed him to a 3 Year, $30M extension and Graham quickly regained the title of highest paid TE with the same $10M APY. The tables below illustrate the top 5 of the TE market by APY and Guarantees.

top 5 tight end contracts
tight end guaranteed money

Other noteworthy deals since Graham’s extension include Greg Olsen’s 2 Year, $17.1M extension with $12.115M guaranteed, Kyle Rudolph’s 5 Year, $36.5M extension with $16.025M guaranteed, and Trey Burton’s 4 Year, $32M FA deal with $22M guaranteed. While Burton’s deal didn’t crack the top 5 by APY, he eclipsed Jordan Reed’s fully guaranteed figure by $4M, setting the new benchmark in Fully Guaranteed at $18M.

Looking ahead, there are 3 players who I believe will uplift the market between now and the upcoming off-season.

Market Movers

  1. Travis Kelce

            The Kansas City Chiefs have had great success with tight ends over the last two decades. From 1997-2008, the Chiefs saw great production from Hall of Fame Tight End, Tony Gonzalez. Several years later, the Chiefs selected Travis Kelce in the 3rd round of the 2013 draft. In his first 33 regular season games, Kelce recorded 1,737 receiving yards and 10 Touchdowns. This led the Chiefs to extend him in 2016 to a 5 Year, $46.8M extension, making him the 2nd highest paid TE at time of signing. Since his extension, Kelce has continued to prove his worth. The table below illustrates his production among other top ranked TEs since 2016.

nfl tight end stats

Further illustrating Kelce’s value, the table below compares his production to WRs since 2016.  Kelce ranks 10th in Yards/G, 9th in TD/G, 11th in Targets/G, and 9th in Receptions/G.

kelce receiving stats

While Kelce will have 2 years remaining on his deal after this season, his level of production has given him the leverage to approach the team for a new deal. The Chiefs have also shown good faith in extending players with multiple years remaining as they extended Mitchell Schwartz this past off season. Regarding a value for Kelce, his representatives should make the case for high producing TEs to be paid like a low-end Tier 1/ high-end Tier 2 WR. This should put him in the $13M-14.5M APY range. Assuming the salary cap for 2020 is set around $200M, an APY between $13M-$14.5M would be between 6.5-7.25 percent of the salary cap. Kelce’s 2016 extension was 6% of the salary cap at time of signing. The highest paid TE by APY as % of signing was Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham at 7.5%. Kelce’s figure should be in that ballpark.

2. Austin Hooper

The Falcons drafted Austin Hooper in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Coming off a Pro Bowl season last year, Hooper’s receiving totals in his first 9 games this season puts him on pace for over 1,000 yards. Hooper is a prime example of a player maximizing his future earnings by producing at the right time as he will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after this season.  It’s doubtful the Falcons will retain him as they will have major cap issues next year, as highlighted in Zack Moore’s recent article. However, Hooper will have many buyers on the open market and should easily surpass all the current benchmarks in the TE market.

3. George Kittle

George Kittle was a great find for the 49ers in the 5th round of the 2017 draft. Since entering the league, Kittle has racked up over 2400 receiving yards, ranking 3rd in TEs. His value to the offense is further validated by his 256 targets since 2017. The next closest over the same time period is Marquise Goodwin at 169 targets. While Kittle has one more year on his deal after this season, the 49ers should do an extension early as he is the focal point in their pass game. Kittle should also eclipse all the current benchmarks in the TE market.

Other Candidates

Other candidates who could uplift the TE Market include Eric Ebron and Evan Engram. After posting career highs in receiving yards and touchdowns last season, Ebron has struggled to find the same level of production this year. However, his first-round pedigree and upside will make him an attractive option for several teams during 2020 free agency. Regarding Engram, the Giants will need to decide on whether to exercise his 5th year option by the first week of May 2020. Thereafter, he’ll be eligible to sign an extension.