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George Kittle and Travis Kelce Just Shattered the Ceiling for Tight End Salaries

In deals reported hours apart from each other, the league’s two best tight ends reset the market for their position—and reinforced their teams’ long-term plans

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

George Kittle is many things, but normal is not one of them. He is one of the best pass catchers in the NFL, but also one of the best blockers. He sets receiving records and also pancakes defenders while laughing. So it is not surprising that he did not want a normal tight end contract.

On Thursday, Kittle agreed to a contract extension worth as much as $75 million across five years, or an average of $15 million per season, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. That makes Kittle the NFL’s highest-paid tight end, surpassing the $10.5 million multiyear annual average value earned by Cleveland’s Austin Hooper. But the base value of NFL contracts is a fugazi. The more representative number to judge by is guaranteed money, and Kittle’s deal is guaranteed for $30 million at signing, plus another $10 million guaranteed for injury, according to the Pardon My Take podcast, which reported the news first. Not only is $30 million of “practical” guarantees the most for any tight end, but it is more guaranteed money than Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz have combined.

Perhaps taking exception to that fact, Kelce agreed to a contract extension hours later for a four-year deal worth $57 million, or an average of $14 million per year with $28 million in guarantees. The deal is not worth as much as Kittle’s but it is a well-earned raise of nearly 50 percent. Let’s look at both deals and why they make sense.

George Kittle: Five years, $75 million

Kittle’s agent, Jack Bechta, told NFL Network in May that he was not comparing Kittle to either of those players, or anyone else at the position. “I don’t care about the tight end market,” he said. “I’m being paid to do a George Kittle deal.” That is a fair stance. In 2018, Kittle set the single-season record for receiving yards for the position with 1,377 (breaking the record Kelce had set hours earlier). As a receiver, Kittle is one of the three best tight ends in the NFL along with Kelce and Ertz. Those three players have the speed, agility, size, and strength to bully smaller players and separate from larger ones. But Kittle distances himself from the pack with his blocking. In the same year he set the receiving record, he was also the third-highest-graded run blocker at the position, according to Pro Football Focus. (Kelce ranked 23rd, while Ertz ranked 42nd of 46 for players with at least 200 blocks.) Some players, like Ertz, are employed primarily for their receiving skills. Other tight ends are on a roster purely for their blocking skills. Kittle does both of those things better than almost everyone else. Kittle’s combination of receiving and blocking is like Mike Trout’s combo of hitting and fielding, except Mike Trout did not get a tattoo of the Joker the day before his wedding. Seriously, look at this tattoo.

Kittle’s rare mix of skills has not been seen since peak Rob Gronkowski, and it makes him crucial to the 49ers, who rely on players who can do many things on offense. Kittle has led San Francisco in targets and receiving yards in each of the past two seasons because his versatility works perfectly for the 49ers offense. Head coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme relies on each play looking identical before the snap, and even for the first couple of seconds after. Runs, play-action passes, quarterback rollouts—whatever the concept is, the 49ers want to delay the reveal of what is happening as long as possible, and are more committed to that delay than any other team. The hope is that doing so will create confusion and make defenders indecisive or ineffective. But to make every play look similar requires players who can do many things competently (it is similar to how NBA teams now need 7-footers who can hit 3s—it’s better to have many areas of competence than glaring strengths and weaknesses). Kittle does everything at an elite level. For example, here’s Kittle catching a 61-yard touchdown in a 37-8 demolition of Green Bay in November.

Kittle, lined up on the left of the offensive line, fakes a run block to the inside linebacker, darts to the left sideline for a pass, pulls a double move, heads back to the middle of the field, and outruns defensive backs (!) for the score. This is the equivalent of that 7-footer in basketball drilling a 3-pointer. When someone is so talented in the crowded area (be it the paint in basketball or the line of scrimmage in football), it makes them even harder to guard when they also have skills in space.

San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York has been agreeing to plenty of contract extensions recently. Shanahan signed a new deal in June, and two weeks ago, the team also extended general manager John Lynch, lining Lynch and Shanahan up together through 2024. The 49ers have established the rarest thing in the NFL: security for key decision-makers to think long-term. And the first big long-term decision this combo has made since signing their own extensions was to make sure Kittle is under contract through the rest of his prime.

Lynch and Shanahan also have had to make some hard choices. In March, the duo swapped defensive tackle and captain DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis and replaced him with South Carolina rookie Javon Kinlaw. (The Colts signed Buckner to a deal that will pay him $21 million annually, tied for fifth-highest among defenders.) Kinlaw is expected to be a better run defender, but may not contribute as much to the pass rush, which defined the team last year. The 49ers defense allowed the second-fewest yards per drive and fourth-fewest points per drive, but may not generate the second-best pressure rate while rarely blitzing like they did last year. On offense, receiver Emmanuel Sanders also left for the Saints this offseason, and receiver Marquise Goodwin was traded to Philadelphia. That left the receiving group thin even before Deebo Samuel broke his foot. Now Samuel may not be ready for Week 1 nor 100 percent healthy this season.

The receivers who must replace them are either inexperienced (first-round rookie Brandon Aiyuk, 2018 second-rounder Dante Pettis), or inexperienced and recovering from injury (2019 third-rounder Jalen Hurd, receiver Trent Taylor). The only wide receiver the 49ers have from last season who caught more than a dozen passes is Kendrick Bourne, who had 30 receptions for 358 yards last year. The 49ers’ most reliable pass catcher after Kittle is fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Even if their inexperienced wide receivers benefit from Shanahan’s scheme sorcery, the coach will still need to rely on Kittle. Depending on a tight end and a fullback as key receivers is not a normal team setup, but Kittle is not a normal tight end. That’s why he isn’t getting paid like one.

Travis Kelce: Four years, $57.25 million

Travis Kelce had a reality dating show called Catching Kelce, so he isn’t normal either, nor is his play. Kelce was drafted in the third round by the Chiefs in 2013, making him part of the original Andy Reid class in Kansas City. He has become an essential part of the offense. Speedy receivers Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Sammy Watkins allow the Chiefs to stretch defenses vertically and along the sidelines, and Kelce is the man who breaks defenses by going over the middle. He is such an outstanding athlete that Reid has entrusted him to line up at quarterback, rushing for a touchdown in December.

But receiving is obviously his bread and butter. Since 2016, the only players with more receiving yards than Kelce are Atlanta’s Julio Jones ($22 million annually), New Orleans’s Michael Thomas ($19 million annually), Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins ($16 million annually), and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans ($16.5 million annually). Kelce has long been one of the best receivers in football, but because he is technically a tight end, he was paid about half of what his true peers are making. Now he is much closer to earning what his production justifies. Considering Kelce turns 31 in October, this might be his last chance at a major payday.

Ironically, Patrick Mahomes’s massive new contract made this Kelce deal easier, not harder. The quarterback’s half-billion-dollar extension across the next 12 years will actually pay him relatively little in the short term. Mahomes will make the same amount over the next three seasons ($63 million) as Carolina quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Back in March, the Chiefs were down to just $171 in cap space, according to ESPN’s Field Yates. But the Chiefs massaged that number, and Mahomes’s extension added just $30,000 of cap space for 2020. Mahomes and the Chiefs kept his compensation light until 2023 so Kansas City could re-sign its other stars and keep its Super Bowl group together. One of those players was defensive tackle Chris Jones, a key defender who was in a tense contract negotiation with the team this summer. Jones signed a four-year extension guaranteed for $37 million in July.

“When Pat’s deal got done, Pat texted me and said ‘Let’s get this thing done. I left some on the table, let’s get this thing done,’” Jones told reporters in July. “And that’s when I had the security that me and the Chiefs were going to work something out.”

Between Kelce and Kittle’s deals, the two players have given a sorely needed update to premium tight end compensation. Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz, who has two years left on his deal and is the next tight end in line for a big raise, makes less money than teammate Alshon Jeffery. Before Kelce’s raise, he made roughly half of what teammate Tyreek Hill earns ($18 million on average). NFL negotiations often rely on precedent at the position, but tight ends don’t have much earning power. The franchise tag, which averages the top five salaries at the position, is $18.5 million for wide receivers this year, while the tight end price tag is $11 million. (Jimmy Graham once tried to fight this but lost in arbitration.) Lesser receivers have long made more money than top tight ends because of their job titles. What makes Kelce and Kittle so valuable on the field—versatility at the tight end position—also made them underpaid.

But with Kittle and Kelce signing these two deals hours apart, the economics of football may be slowly aligning with the changes on the field. Each was paid for what he does, not the position he plays.

This story was updated at 2:05 p.m. PT on August 13 with additional information after publication.