NFL free agency is always full of surprises; this year was no different. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the cycle was the aggressiveness of the New England Patriots—and perhaps the most aggressive contracts in New England’s spending spree were their tight end deals.
New England made both Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith $12.5M APY players, below just George Kittle and Travis Kelce in yearly value among all tight end contracts. With Austin Hooper making $10.5M per year on his deal in Cleveland, you’re looking at the only five multi-year tight end contracts to average eight figures in NFL history. That’s right. The first tight end contract to average $10M per season was signed in March of 2020, and by March of 2021, we had five such deals signed. The tight-end market is ballooning. And rightfully so.
We didn’t get to see much of Kittle this past season, as he struggled with injury, but Kittle’s back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2018 and 2019 marked only the 12th time an NFL tight end has had such consistent receiving success. Throw in Kittle’s elite blocking ability in a run-heavy offense in San Francisco, and his mega-contract seems deserved; so does Kelce’s, as the quasi-WR has more 1,000-yard receiving seasons (5) than any other tight end in history.
But Hooper? That contract felt a little hefty at the time. Then Smith, who has never crested 500 receiving yards in one season, got a bigger deal. Then Henry, with a history of knee injuries and no 16-game seasons over his five-year career, got the same deal. They might round out the top-five tight-end contracts with Kittle and Kelce, but they don’t feel like similarly valuable players.
And they aren’t! But when the true top players secure contracts they deserve, they become a rising tide that lifts all boats. With the ceiling of $10M+ contracts busted by Kelce and Kittle and the floor set by Hooper, bloated tight-end contracts are about to become a lot more popular. Henry and Smith are just the beginning.
An expected 2022 cap ballooning after the sudden drop of 2021 cap space will leave teams flush with space, and the next guard of NFL tight ends is thundering toward free agency. After Kelce, Kittle, and Darren Waller (more on him later), the most productive 2020 tight end on a yards/game basis was Baltimore’s Mark Andrews, a key cog of the Ravens’ system and a 2022 free agent. Then comes Philadelphia’s Dallas Goedert, another top blocker who should see a jump in volume with Zach Ertz soon to be out of Philadelphia—also a 2022 free agent. Then comes Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki, who had a bit of a breakout year, is a top red-zone target, and—you guessed it—is a 2022 free agent.
Production isn’t that stable, but new contracts are all about recent production and future potential. Barring sudden drop-offs in quality of play from Andrews or Goedert, they are strong candidates for $10M+ extensions with their own teams; Gesicki seems a bit more likely to hit the open market, given the deep wide receiver and tight end room in Miami.
Those three players are poised to break the $10M ceiling in next year’s cycle—Waller should be the fourth. Waller signed an extension during the 2019 season worth $9M per year that secured him through 2023. It wasn’t a terrible choice at the time, but with Waller’s recent production—only Kelce has been more productive over the last two seasons—he’s now woefully underpaid. Waller’s remaining three years will pay him only $20M, with no guaranteed money outside of 2021. Waller is a clear holdout candidate for the 2022 training camp cycle, in that he has no guaranteed money, and a quasi-restructure could help the Raiders create cap room, if that’s something they want to do.
Beyond these four, there are plenty of other dart-throw candidates for 2022 extensions. Both Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson become eligible for extensions after this season, though they’re likely to play out their rookie deals and their fifth-year options. Rob Gronkowski, who seems likely to retire, is technically a free agent after 2022—and he isn’t the only one. Green Bay Packers’ touchdown specialist Robert Tonyan, the New York Giants’ inconsistent and beleaguered Evan Engram, Washington breakout star Logan Thomas, and eternal enigma O.J. Howard are all 2022 free agents. None of these seem likely to break the $10M barrier, but there’s always a shot—and if they sign strong seven-figure deals, they’ll serve as benchmark contracts for the negotiations of other players.
Big-money tight ends are here, and they’re here to stay. No agent worth his salt would struggle to build an argument out of bucket stats that his client is better than Smith or Henry, so long as that client is a decently productive tight end. And as teams come into the windfall of a new TV deal, someone, somewhere will meet their asking price. So if you want an elite tight end for your squad, be prepared to open your wallet. This position is on the rise.