Analysis

Show Them the Money! Why Are Tight Ends Still so Undervalued?

It’s been a great year for NFL wide receivers. Tyreek Hill was traded to the Miami Dolphins and given a four-year, $120 million contract extension that included $72.2 million in guarantees.

The Las Vegas Raiders acquired Davante Adams from the Green Bay Packers and gave him a five-year, $140 million deal with $65.7 million in guaranteed money.  The Philadelphia Eagles traded for A.J. Brown and immediately handed him a four-year, $100 million contract extension, more than half of it guaranteed.

The Los Angeles Rams rewarded Cooper Kupp for winning the pass-catching triple crown – he led the league in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947) and touchdowns (16) – by giving him a three-year, $80 million contract extension.

That makes 14 NFL wideouts who now have deals averaging $20 million or more per year.

The current annual average of the league’s 10 highest paid wideouts is $25.2 million. The only position with a higher top-10 annual average is quarterback ($43.5 million).

What About the Tight Ends?

All of the wide receiver paydays during the last six months have not trickled down to their pass-catching cousins at tight end, a position that curiously continues to be one of the most undervalued in the NFL.

The top 10 tight end contracts average just $12.8 million per year heading into the 2022 season. The only three positions with a lower annual average are the three interior offensive line spots – center ($11.1 million), right guard ($10.4 million) and left guard ($9.8 million).

Twenty-four wideouts – 24 – are averaging more per year right now than the highest paid tight end, the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle ($15.0 million).

“Everybody agrees about the value of a tight end to an offense,” said Mike Tannenbaum, a former NFL executive and co-founder of The 33rd Team. “Yet, it’s not been a position that is paid well compared to other positions.”

“There’s no good answer [for why tight ends are underpaid],” said Joe Banner, a former NFL executive and co-founder of The 33rd Team. “The only answer I have is that they have been [underpaid] in the past, and they have never really caught up. But, I can’t think of another position that continues to be that out of line.”

There are 104 players in the league averaging more per year right now than Kittle. This includes 21 offensive linemen, 10 defensive ends, 10 linebackers, seven defensive tackles, 10 cornerbacks and five safeties. Kittle, a three-time Pro Bowler, has averaged 5.6 receptions and 76.4 yards per game during the last four years and is one of the league’s best blocking tight ends.

There are 121 players averaging more than Travis Kelce ($14.3 million), a seven-time Pro Bowler, and three-time first-team All-Pro.

“I remember what Kittle had to go through to get what he got [in 2020],” Banner said. “They were [stuck] on $10 million-$11 million for a long time. When the 49ers finally agreed to give him $15 million (in August of 2020), the Kittle people felt they broke open the market and got the market to adjust.”

“Which was true from what [the tight end market] had been,” Banner added. “But it wasn’t and isn’t even close to true compared to other positions, particularly wide receiver. Old beliefs die slowly in the NFL.”

Tony Romo understands the value of a great tight end. He played with one of the best, Jason Witten, for most of his career. Witten, a future Hall of Famer, is the NFL’s fourth all-time leading receiver with 1,228 catches.

He averaged 84 receptions per year in the nine seasons he played with Romo in Dallas. Yet another tight end, Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, is third all-time in career receptions with 1,325.

“You’re worth what they pay you,’’ Romo said. “But I think tight ends are invaluable. If you have a great tight end, in many ways, they’re even more valuable than a top (wide) receiver, because they not only help the passing game but also the run game.

There is No Shortage of WR Talent

Wide receiver value has shot through the roof even though there is seemingly no shortage of good ones. Teams are handing huge deals to the likes of Hill, Adams, Brown, Kupp, et al, even as the draft is dominated by them.

Six wide receivers were taken in the first round of this year’s draft. A total of 17 have gone in the first round of the last three drafts. Why break the bank for a veteran wideout if there is a seemingly endless supply of them coming out of the colleges every year?

“That’s the great debate right now,” Tannenbaum said. “Are Kansas City, Green Bay and Tennessee correct [in trading away their veteran wide receivers and using the draft to find replacements]? Or are Philadelphia, Miami and Vegas right? You really can make the argument on both sides. Nobody is going to blame Miami for giving up a one for Hill. He’s arguably the most explosive player in the NFL.”

“The converse is A.J. Brown v. [Titans first-round pick] Treylon Burks,” Tannenbaum added. “Can Burks be 80 percent of A.J. Brown for 10 cents on the dollar? If I’m Mike Vrabel, I’d rather put the money [saved by trading Brown] into a pass-rusher. I love AJ Brown, but I can’t justify [giving him $25 million a year] when I can go get a Burks with the 18th pick in the draft.”

Top Tier Tight End Talent is Scarce

While every draft seems to be chock-full of game-changing wide receivers, quality tight ends have been a little harder to come by. There’s been just one taken in the first round of the last three drafts. That was Kyle Pitts, who was selected by the Atlanta Falcons with the fourth pick in the 2021 draft. That’s the highest a tight end has been taken in NFL history.

The 6-foot-5-inch, 245-pound Pitts had 1,026 receiving yards on 68 catches as a rookie. He led all tight ends in yards per catch (15.1) and was third in first-down receptions (43).

Pitts isn’t eligible for a contract extension until after the 2023 season. But if any current tight end has a chance to get a $25 million-a-year deal, it could be him.

“Because our league puts such a premium on points scored, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, I think maybe somebody like Pitts will be the guy that has a chance to meaningfully change the [tight end] market,” Tannenbaum said. “Because of his athleticism and his ability to convert on third down and be a playmaker in the red zone and things like that. I don’t know that he’ll ever be a great blocker. But financially, I don’t think that will impact him much.”

Tight Ends Do More Than Catching the Football

Good blocking tight ends like the 49ers’ Kittle and the Eagles’ Dallas Goedert can be huge assets to a running game. The Eagles led the league in rushing last season, and Goedert was a big reason why.

But most teams are happy if their tight ends can be just serviceable blockers. 

“If they can be just good enough where they get their ass kicked with dignity [you’re happy],” said Marty Mornhinweg, a former NFL coach and current The 33rd contributor.

Tight ends are a matchup problem for defenses in the passing game. Many are too big to be covered by a slot corner or safety and too fast to be covered by a linebacker.

If you’re a team like the Eagles that also has No. 1 wideouts like A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith on the outside, it’s going to open things up inside even more for the tight end.

“We haven’t had anybody game plan against us yet,” said Goedert, who finished second to Pitts last season in yards per catch by a tight end (14.8). “So, it’s hard to know how they’re going to try and defend us. But any time you have two No. 1 receivers on the outside, it’s going to open everything up in the middle. I’m hoping to work in the middle. Go against linebackers and just find different ways to get open. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

“If you’ve got one of those special athletes at the tight end position, there’s so much you can do with them all over the field, but especially in the red zone,” Mornhinweg said.

That’s certainly been the case in Kansas City where Kelce has become one of the league’s most potent red-zone forces for Andy Reid. He has 57 career touchdown catches. With 42 of them coming in the red zone.

His 32 red-zone touchdowns since 2017 are second in the league to Davante Adams’ 46. Yet, there are 121 players in the league making more money than him. Go figure.

“So many of these great receiving tight ends, offenses are taking them out of the pass-protection because the tackles are so much better today than they’ve ever been,” said Ronde Barber, a former cornerback and current The 33rd Team contributor. “That allows the tight ends to do what they do best.”

“Defensive coaches now try to scheme tight ends out of the game,” Barber added. “You’re not necessarily going to put a man on a man. Because it’s usually a loss. So, you try to find ways to make the quarterback work away from where he wants to go.”

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