Super Bowl LIV will showcase the highest-profile matchup in tight end history: Kansas City's Travis Kelce vs. San Francisco's George Kittle. Each was essential in elevating his team to the NFL’s biggest stage.
Although Hall of Famers John Mackey and Mike Ditka faced off in Super Bowl V, both were on the downsides of their careers and playing in an era with limited passing volume and less NFL exposure. The only other Super Bowl matchup on this level came two years ago, when Pro Bowlers Rob Gronkowski of New England and Zach Ertz of Philadelphia played in Super Bowl LII. But the Eagles' tight end was not on the Patriots superstar's level.
Next Sunday's duel (6:30 ET, FOX) comes at a perfect time for tight ends. In addition to displaying all-world skills, All-Pros Kelce and Kittle can cement cases for market-correcting contracts.
Despite presenting some of the NFL’s most difficult coverage assignments, tight ends are second-class citizens, value-wise. Kittle and Kelce claimed three of the past four first-team All-Pro slots, with the Chiefs' star interrupting Gronkowski’s reign in 2016 and reclaiming the spot in 2018. Kittle, whose 2018 receiving total (1,377) is the most in tight end history, ascended to that status this season.
Gronk's contract helped relegate this position to its present point. His six-year, $54 million extension set a tight end standard in 2012, but it kept the future Hall of Famer tied to the Patriots through 2019. And the oft-rigid franchise held its most talented player to that deal through his retirement. As Gronk’s Pats pact morphed into an alarmingly team-friendly accord, tight end salaries stagnated for nearly a decade. Several second-tier wide receivers subsequently lapped Gronk and his tight end brethren.
Just days after becoming extension-eligible in January 2016, Kelce signed a five-year, $46.8 million Chiefs extension. Jimmy Graham, who inked a three-year Packers deal worth $30M in 2018, remains the only tight end to top that. Twenty-four wide receivers make more than Graham; 27 out-earn Kelce. Among the wideouts signed for more than Patrick Mahomes’ most consistently dominant target are zero-time Pro Bowlers Jamison Crowder (Jets), Tyler Boyd (Bengals) and Sterling Shepard (Giants).
The Chiefs are ground zero for the gargantuan gulf between wideout and tight end earnings. Sammy Watkins' ludicrous three-year, $48 million contract -- which ignited a 2018 wide receiver sea change in salaries -- averages over $6M more per season than Kelce's deal. A distant third in Mahomes’ pecking order. Watkins caught 52 passes for 673 yards this season. Watkins' two-year Chiefs totals trail Kelce’s 97-reception, 1,229-yard in 2019. Kelce is now underpaid on a Gronk level.
The heir to Gronk’s status as the best all-around/"Y" tight end, Kittle is vital to a 49ers passing attack that lacks the luxuries Mahomes and Tyreek Hill provide the Chiefs. Kittle, Pro Football Focus’ top player this season, has emerged as one of the modern NFL’s best draft picks. Chosen 146th overall in 2017, the Iowa product has amassed 2,945 yards receiving in his first three seasons, a record for a tight end.
Kelce, a third-round pick whose skill set leads the increasingly prominent “big wide receiver”/"F" tight end contingent, carries an even more impressive stat line. His 6,465 career yards are a tight end-most through seven seasons. Kelce accomplished this despite missing 15 games his rookie season because of microfracture knee surgery.
When Kelce signed his $9.4M-per-year deal four years ago, the salary cap resided at $143.28 million. The cap is now $188.2M. Almost nothing has changed on the tight end front. Yet amid the salary freeze, the two positions whose job descriptions involve tight end coverage saw their markets balloon.
The safety landscape re-established itself after a curious 2018 lull; its top wage-earners now make nearly $15M annually. Thanks to the Jets’ wild $17M-average annual value C.J. Mosley contract, perennial All-Pro Bobby Wagner of the Seahawks held leverage to raise the bar for off-ball linebackers to $18M per year. While cornerbacks are trapped in a similar holding pattern, teams have benefited more from the tight end market's standstill. Tight ends bring easier-to-gauge value compared to corners, adding to the weirdness of the position’s present state.
At 26 and set to make an unreasonable $735,000 in a contract year, Kittle will be tasked with blasting through the low ceiling. The salary cap will rise to around $200 million once the 2020 league year begins, and the impending new CBA could well increase the yearly cap spikes. Kittle could reasonably command close to $15M per year, which would still come in well south of the highest-paid wideouts but bring a rarely seen (but deserved) positional markup. Once this happens, Kelce, Ertz and others will take notice.
Kelce has compiled a tight end-record four straight 1,000-yard seasons since signing his re-up. Two seasons remain on his deal, but he will turn 31 next season. He is running out of time to cash in on the contributions he has made to the NFL’s premier offense. The Chiefs may be in a difficult spot financially. Kansas City has a monstrous Mahomes extension to finalize and a likely franchise tag situation for defensive tackle Chris Jones to navigate,
It seems unjust that Gronkowski was not the one to usher in this seemingly imminent new financial reality, but his dominance provided a blueprint for tight ends’ capabilities under the league’s increasingly pass-friendly rulebook. His immediate successors should benefit, establishing a road map for tight ends to earn salaries more in line with the players charged with covering them.
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