Happy Friday! We’re two weeks from the NFL Draft and we’ll have much more on that event in that time. In the meantime, this week’s issue of NFLTR Review includes:
- How top tight ends became so underpaid
- Domino effect from the Falcons’ decision at No. 4
- Projecting upcoming fifth-year option decisions
How The Tight End Market Fell Behind
There’s a strong argument to be made that no single position outside of quarterback can offer as much of an edge as an elite-level tight end.
Look no further than most of the Super Bowl teams from the past five seasons or so. Chiefs TE Travis Kelce and 49ers TE George Kittle were foundational pieces of the offense, while others like Eagles TE Zach Ertz and even Rob Gronkowski (for both the Buccaneers and Patriots) played pivotal roles.
Kelce and Ertz are bigger, faster and more skilled than 99 percent of the players asked to cover them. At his peak, Gronkowski was basically like a third tackle who was impossible to tackle, and even as he’s gotten older he’s maintained effectiveness in both phases of the game. Kittle’s not yet the blocker Gronkowski was, but he brings a similar impact with his versatility.
All of these players have the receiving ability to take advantage of the inherent mismatches that come when defenses have to account for a player in both the run and pass game.
Still, when you look at the salaries of the top tight ends compared to other positions, it’s hard not to notice a lag. Kelce was more productive than every single receiver other than Stefon Diggs this past season. Yet his $14.3 million average annual salary would rank 19th at the position.
Kittle is simultaneously San Francisco’s best receiving weapon and one of the 49ers’ best blockers. Yet his $15 million per year places him just two spots higher than Kelce compared to other receivers and is also a fair clip from the going rate for the top blockers. The tight end market even lags behind running backs and the narrative for them has become they “don’t matter.”
So what happened? As NFL revenues rose precipitously this past decade under the 2011 CBA, so did salaries at different positions. The highest-paid quarterbacks in terms of average annual salary 10 years ago made $18-$20 million. Today, Patrick Mahomes paces the market at $45 million a year and two others make around $40 million.
Elite tackles and wide receivers now make well over $20 million a year. Guard salaries have grown faster than any other offensive position besides quarterback in the past decade. Tight end salaries have more than doubled but that’s mostly thanks to Kittle pushing the market forward a quantum leap last summer.
*Numbers are in millions
Before Kittle signed his deal, the top of the market had barely moved in five years. The Saints gave Jimmy Graham a deal worth $10 million a year in 2014 to push him past Gronkowski’s $9 million a year. The only movement between that deal and Kittle was the $10.5 million a year the Browns signed TE Austin Hooper for and the $10.6 million franchise tag the Chargers placed on Hunter Henry in 2020.
In the meantime, as the table makes obvious, most of the other positions experienced prodigious growth (with the obvious exception of running back which is its own entirely different problem).
The quarterback boom is well-documented. There were elite talents like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and obviously Mahomes who pushed the bar up but there were also less-acclaimed players like Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan who also held the distinction of highest-paid quarterback for at least a short period of time.
That happened less at other positions. The receiver market stagnated for a few years with Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson holding a firm clamp on the top spots. Antonio Brown finally broke through in 2017 and was quickly followed by Odell Beckham, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins. At tackle, there was a similar pattern, with Jason Peters having a long reign at the top before Trent Williams and Russell Okung edged past him and were shortly followed by Lane Johnson, Laremy Tunsil and David Bakhtiari who pushed it even higher.
That didn’t happen at tight end. There’s more to be mined on why and perhaps we’ll be able to dig into that in a future issue. But to boil it down simply, players like Ertz, Kelce, former Panthers TE Greg Olsen and even former Washington TE Jordan Reed all signed deals for less than Graham’s $10 million a year instead of raising the bar.
If the market was going to move, those were the guys who were going to do it. Even accounting for how dominant Gronkowski and Graham were, it’s kind of inexplicable that Kelce and Olsen didn’t at least edge past them slightly given how much the cap grew from 2012 to 2016. By then, Olsen was in the midst of being the first tight end ever to post three-straight 1,000-yard seasons and was Carolina’s clear No. 1 receiver. Kelce was also well on his way to becoming a star.
Instead, Olsen signed for $7.5 million per season in 2015 and Kelce inked his second contract in 2016 for $9.368 million. Even Reed got $9.3 million a year despite his injury-prone reputation in 2016 and Ertz signed for $8.5 million a year in January of that year.
Looking back, Olsen and Ertz probably needed to move the bar up by several hundred thousand each, while Kelce is the type of player who should have pushed for the same leap that Gronkowski and Graham each got when they signed their deals.
That’s how other positions made such strides while tight end salaries stayed stagnant. The chart shows an almost universal boom across the board from 2020 to 2021 as the cap reached its apex and the new media deals on the horizon helped give teams confidence to spend despite the impact of the pandemic. Salaries for quarterbacks, receivers and tackles all surged.
Tight ends weren’t left out of the boom like running backs or centers — another underrated position — but because the starting point was $10 million instead of $12 or $13 million, things are what they are now.
The conventional wisdom on tight ends has been that they’re not as good at catching passes as receivers and not as good at blocking as offensive linemen, hence being paid less than both. But the on-field results clearly show that’s an outdated way of looking at the position. And it’s not like the NFL can’t adjust to positions becoming more valuable.
Guard has historically also been devalued comparatively and that’s still true to some degree. When teams had to slash cap this year, guard was one of the first places they looked. But guard salaries have grown much faster over the past five years than tight ends as teams have recognized the importance of having stout interior offensive linemen to combat the increasing number of terrifying defensive tackles like Aaron Donald and that ilk.
Perhaps NFL teams will course-correct over the next several seasons and tight end salaries will catch up to match the impact they have on the game. For now, if you’re considering drafting someone like Florida’s Kyle Pitts versus one of the plentiful top wideouts in this class, you probably should break ties toward the tight end who will give you just as much impact for a fraction of the price.
This Week In Football
- No matter what you think about Jadeveon Clowney, the Browns landing the pass rusher on a one-year, $8 million deal in the middle of April qualifies as a huge splash for several reasons. It’s huge money compared to what other players are getting right now, not what Clowney has been seeking for the past few years. And while something has always seemed to hold Clowney back from having a truly dominant season, whether it’s injuries, scheme fit, you name it, he undeniably has the talent to wreck games, especially with Myles Garrett on the other side.
- It was actually kind of a big week for free agent signings, we’ll call it the fourth wave at this point. But perhaps the second biggest story of the week was the Patriots’ decision to cut WR Julian Edelman and his subsequent retirement. Edelman was always going to play until the wheels fell off, and that’s what happened with his knee injury. It’s obviously not impossible for him to go join Tom Brady with the Buccaneers, but I would bet that knee makes it unlikely.
- The Buccaneers of course still aren’t done adding weapons and took advantage of a depressed running back market to sign a top-notch pass-catching back in former Bengal Gio Bernard. Drops are tricky to track but Tampa Bay’s running backs had way too many, and Bernard gives Brady a weapon he didn’t have before. Assuming good health, the Buccaneers are shaping up to be even more of a load than they were last year.
- Another running back found a home, as the Cardinals picked up former Steelers bellcow James Conner to presumably play the big back role in a rotation with Chase Edmonds. Health has been the big question mark with both of them, so it will be interesting to see if Arizona is done making additions.
- The Seahawks continue to try and beef up their pass rush, this time adding DE Aldon Smith to the roster. Seattle actually wanted to trade for Smith at the deadline last year but Dallas didn’t have the foresight to see it would be moving on from Smith months later and it worked to the Seahawks’ benefit. They don’t have one star pass rusher but between Smith, Carlos Dunlap, Kerry Hyder, Benson Mayowa, L.J. Collier, Rasheem Green and 2020 second-round DE Darrell Taylor, they have a lot of options that could cobble together something interesting.
- The Falcons made a couple of interesting signings, giving their special teams a major boost with WR/KR Cordarrelle Patterson and adding a starting safety in Duron Harmon. Patterson is one of the best kick returners in NFL history and HC Arthur Smith will probably find some creative ways to use him on offense. But Harmon is also a very underrated addition and might be more important given how thin Atlanta was at safety before.
- As some players shuttled in, others shuttled out, most notably in Las Vegas where Raiders HC Jon Gruden lost patience with some members of his first draft class, waiving both DE Arden Key and DT Maurice Hurst. Key isn’t that surprising, Raiders beat reporters had already brought him up as a potential camp cut. Hurst was mildly unexpected, as he’d flashed some pass-rushing ability despite being inconsistent. The Raiders adding multiple interior rushers this offseason likely foreshadowed this move, though.
- Draft season continues to inch by, with second pro days a feature this year as the pandemic continues to alter things. Ohio State QB Justin Fields showed off his stuff a second time for a smaller number of teams. Seven teams were reported as attendees ahead of time and Bears HC Matt Nagy was spotted in photos of the event. You don’t want to read too much into the group of teams that were there — Jets, 49ers, Falcons, Lions, Panthers, Broncos, Patriots and Bears — but it is interesting to note who wasn’t, like Washington for instance.
- Not much has changed with the situation between the Ravens and OT Orlando Brown Jr. His agents are still looking for a trade, six teams are still interested and the Ravens still want at least a first-round pick to trade him. The most noteworthy part about the situation is that Brown hasn’t resigned himself yet to playing out his rookie deal at right tackle and looking for a left tackle job in free agency next year, though to be fair it doesn’t make sense for him to do that until after the draft.
- Add Broncos WR DaeSean Hamilton to the list of young receivers teams are making available via trade ahead of the draft, a list that also includes Bears WR Anthony Miller and Patriots WR N’Keal Harry. It’s a strong receiver class, though, so the best these teams can hope for is someone else likes their receivers better than the options that will be available on Day 3.
The Big Picture: How Atlanta’s Decision At No. 4 Impacts The Rest Of The League?
There might not be a bigger domino for how the first round will unfold in two weeks than what the Falcons decide to do with the No. 4 pick.
They’re a legitimate wildcard. No one in the NFL seems to have a true bead on which way they’re leaning. Even their actions — NFL teams lie all the time but they have to tell the truth with their actions — paint a somewhat contradictory figure. They’ve done extensive homework on the quarterbacks who could be available but also restructured QB Matt Ryan’s contract which makes it harder to move on in 2022.
Ultimately, though, there are really only three ways they can go. They can take a quarterback, trade down for a big package of picks or stay put and take a different position. Whichever course of action they take is going to have huge ramifications for other teams and the lay of the land in the first round.
1. Take a quarterback
There’s no consensus on what Atlanta will do but it does seem that this is the way people are leaning with their projections. Either or both of Justin Fields and Trey Lance should be available and both prospects bring a tantalizing blend of arm talent and mobility that has a lot of people in and out of the NFL excited about them.
If the Falcons do pull the trigger on one of those guys, it would mark the first time ever quarterbacks have gone 1-2-3-4 to start the draft. That leaves the fifth quarterback ahead of what is widely seen as the first-round cutoff available, and there’s a good chance that sparks some kind of a trade-up to secure him. The Broncos at No. 9 are seen as the next most-likely quarterback slot, so a team looking to move up would probably reach out to the Lions at No. 7 and Panthers at No. 8 first.
If you’re fans of those two teams, you’re rooting for the Falcons to draft a quarterback. One should have a shot at a decent trade package to move down, the other will have a crack at one of the top three non-QB position players in the draft after the Bengals and Dolphins take their pick. It could be beastly Florida TE Kyle Pitts, precocious Oregon LT Penei Sewell or superstar WR LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase. Either way, one of those teams is adding a blue-chip prospect.
It probably won’t be this year, as the Falcons have the luxury of giving a rookie quarterback a redshirt year which has proven to be beneficial in the past. Both Lance and Fields arguably could benefit tremendously from a year of seasoning, though the Athletic’s Jeff Schultz pointed out if the Falcons wanted to embrace the rebuild, they could trade Ryan after June 1 and avoid the massive dead money hit they’ve set up by restructuring his deal so many times.
In 2022, it gets interesting. Cutting or trading Ryan before June 1 next year results in $8 million in cap savings but $40 million in dead money, which would blow by the record the Eagles just set this offseason for a single dead cap hit. Right now the Falcons have just 20 players under contract for 2022 and $32 million in projected cap space, if the cap climbs back to where it was pre-pandemic, which might not be a given.
Taking on $40 million in dead money sucks a lot of flexibility out of building a roster and results in a ton of logistical issues to sort out in a potential trade. It’s enough to make the Falcons think twice on the front end about if committing to a rookie quarterback makes the most sense, as the pressure will be immense to play him sooner rather than later.
If they do take the plunge, though, Ryan can be safely added to the 2022 quarterback carousel that already looks safe to say will be livelier than this year’s.
2. Trade down
If the Falcons believe they can get three or more high-quality years out of Ryan, which isn’t crazy when looking at how long quarterbacks are playing for these days, they could trade the pick to another team looking to move up. There are still a plethora of potential suitors. The Broncos, Patriots, Bears and Washington all need long-term answers at the position. Even the Dolphins could try to vault back up a couple of slots to secure their top non-quarterback.
Based on what the 49ers gave up to get to No. 3, the Falcons could pull in a haul. Washington might be a little more hesitant to give up a haul of picks, but the Patriots and Bears are teams who could be aggressive enough to pull it off. And Denver only has to climb five picks.
Based on the Jimmy Johnson trade value chart, here’s a rough look at the potential deals Atlanta could be looking at:
- Broncos give up 2021 2nd (No. 40) and 4th (No. 114) to go from No. 9 to No. 4
- Patriots give up 2021 3rd (No. 96) and 2022 1st to go from No. 15 to No. 4
- Bears give up 2022 and 2023 1st to go from No. 20 to No. 4
- Dolphins give up 2021 3rd (No. 81) to go from No. 6 to No. 4
Atlanta probably tries to squeeze Denver for a future first and the Patriots for the same package Miami got from the 49ers, especially if it can create a bidding war for the pick with teams starved for a passer. They could also try and play the draft board, convincing Miami they need to move up if they want Pitts, then either taking the quarterback they would have taken at No. 4 or moving down again and accumulating more picks.
That would add a lot of picks to a Falcons roster that badly needs an infusion of young talent on cheap rookie deals, especially on defense. If Atlanta thinks it can stay competitive with the duo of Ryan and WR Julio Jones for a few more seasons, this might be the move. There is some value on defense but it’s later on in the draft, not at the top, to say nothing of future picks in years where the draft will be more normal.
3. Stay put and draft Kyle Pitts
If the Falcons stay put, the most logical target is Pitts. The only other player you can maybe make a decent argument for is Sewell because of how important left tackle is. But as we’ve written above, an elite tight end is one of the biggest mismatches in the game right now both on the field and when it comes to roster construction. Ryan hasn’t had this level of player at the position since his early years with Tony Gonzalez.
Either way, if the Falcons skipped a quarterback it would push two passers down the board when most have expected at least four to go in the top five. That increase in supply could lessen the demand and urgency to trade up from other teams, though the nature of the quarterback position means it can only fall so far. But perhaps the Broncos and Patriots are content to sit and wait to see who falls?
The Falcons taking Pitts would also make it much more likely we see the kind of precipitous draft day fall that has happened for other quarterbacks like Rodgers, Brady Quinn and most recently Lamar Jackson. The most likely candidates would be either Fields or Jones.
The latter was seen as a late first-round pick in the media until a few weeks ago, so it wouldn’t be as surprising. A year ago, people thought Fields might challenge Lawrence to be the No. 1 overall pick. But his perceived stock has slipped in recent weeks and it’s not outside the range of possibilities that his real stock dips on draft night, even if it shouldn’t.
2022 Fifth-Year Option Projections
On May 3 almost immediately after the draft, teams have a deadline to exercise the fifth-year options for members of the 2018 class of first-round players. The new CBA has added a couple of new twists starting with this class, with the biggest being that the options are now fully guaranteed as soon as they’re picked up.
The NFL also changed the way options are calculated, with different levels for different incentives. Over The Cap has a handy tracker breaking down what each option will cost each team.
Perhaps the changes could result in fewer options being picked up in the future but 2018 is overall a strong class. Only one player, Josh Rosen, has been cut and one — Raiders LT Kolton Miller — has already been extended. Here’s a look, pick-by-pick, at how the rest could shake out:
- Browns QB Baker Mayfield ($18.858 million)
Mayfield made steps forward last season after entering 2020 kind of on the brink in terms of long-term status. He’s not out of the woods entirely but he’s shown more than enough that it should be an easy decision for Cleveland.
- Giants RB Saquon Barkley ($7.217 million)
This is a no-brainer. Barkley’s knee injury might have cost him a chance at being a rare extension candidate after just three years.
- Panthers QB Sam Darnold ($18.858 million)
Carolina has indicated they plan to pick up Darnold’s option. The Jets would not have done so.
- Browns CB Denzel Ward ($13.294 million)
Another easy decision for Cleveland. Ward is developing into one of the NFL’s best man corners.
- Broncos OLB Bradley Chubb ($12.716 million)
Denver reportedly exercised OLB Von Miller’s option earlier this offseason with visions of Miller and Chubb teaming up to rush opposite edges. Expect them to pick up the option for the other half of that duo.
- Colts G Quenton Nelson ($13.754 million)
Easy decision. Nelson is the type of player who could sign a new deal this offseason. It might save Indianapolis money in the long run.
- Bills QB Josh Allen ($23.106 million)
The Bills will absolutely pick up Allen’s option as a precursor to working on a long-term deal this summer.
- Bears LB Roquan Smith ($9.735 million)
Smith had a rocky second season but rebounded this past year in a major way. Bears GM Ryan Pace would be reticent to admit to another first-round miss and fortunately for him it doesn’t look like he’ll have to in this case.
- 49ers RT Mike McGlinchey ($10.88 million)
McGlinchey has firmly established himself on the right side of San Francisco’s offensive line. The option is a good deal for a solid starter so it would be a shock if the 49ers didn’t pick up the option.
- 49ers QB Josh Rosen
After being traded by the Cardinals, Rosen was cut by the Dolphins and no one claimed his rookie deal, nullifying his option.
- Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick ($10.612 million)
Pittsburgh has hit a home run by trading a first-round pick for Fitzpatrick. Exercising the option should just be a formality.
- Buccaneers DT Vita Vea ($7.638 million)
Tampa Bay has already indicated they plan to pick up Vea’s option. For that cost, it’s a no-brainer.
- Washington DT Daron Payne ($8.529 million)
Payne has been a monster in the middle of Washington’s defensive line. Long-term, Washington has a glut of talented defensive linemen and it’s not clear if they’ll be able to pay everyone. They should be able to exercise the option for Payne, though.
- Saints DE Marcus Davenport ($9.553 million)
Davenport took a big step back in 2020 and injuries have been a problem throughout his first three seasons. If the option wasn’t guaranteed, New Orleans might pick it up, hope for a breakout and bank on being able to rescind the option if Davenport continued to struggle. As is, $9.5 million is hard to commit based on what Davenport has shown so far.
- Raiders LT Kolton Miller
The Raiders signed Miller to a three-year extension that also folded in his fifth-year option, which would have been $10.88 million.
- Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds ($12.716 million)
Edmunds took a bit of a step back in 2020 but a shoulder injury played a role in that. Buffalo still appears to see him as a foundational piece of their defense and that would suggest the Bills are likely to pick up his option.
- Chargers S Derwin James ($9.052 million)
Despite an unfortunate run of injuries the past two seasons, James should still be a safe bet for the Chargers to exercise his fifth-year option. As a rookie, he was instantly a rare difference-maker from the safety position.
- Packers CB Jaire Alexander ($13.294 million)
Alexander’s going to become a very, very rich man sooner rather than later as one of the NFL’s best pure cover corners. There’s a good chance that comes next offseason to lower what will be a $13 million cap hit under the option in 2022.
- Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch ($9.145 million)
After bursting onto the scene as a rookie, Vander Esch has played just 19 of 32 possible games the past two seasons between neck issues and a broken collarbone. He has an extensive injury history dating back to college as well, which adds a risk factor if Dallas decides to pick up his option. I’d lean yes but this is one to watch.
- Lions C Frank Ragnow ($12.657 million)
Ragnow has become a rock in the middle of Detroit’s offensive line. Although the option would make Ragnow the NFL’s highest-paid center in 2022 thanks to all offensive linemen being glommed together under one category, this is still a pretty easy decision for the Lions.
- Bengals C Billy Price ($10.413 million)
Price has lost his starting job and been shuttled between center and guard. Cincinnati won’t pick up his option and Price might not even be on the roster Week 1 if the Bengals decide to trade him.
- Titans LB Rashaan Evans ($9.735 million)
It’s worth noting the Titans have declined the last two fifth-year options they’ve had to make decisions on with RT Jack Conklin and WR Corey Davis. They picked up QB Marcus Mariota’s option but didn’t bring him back after that. Evans is in the same borderline status that Conklin and Davis were, perhaps better than Davis but not as good as Conklin. I’d lean toward Tennessee declining.
- Patriots LT Isaiah Wynn ($10.413 million)
When he’s been on the field, Wynn has been really good for the Patriot. The problem is he’s been hurt all three years as a pro. A torn Achilles wiped out his rookie year, and he’s spent 14 games combined the past two seasons on injured reserve with toe and knee injuries. Availability is important to the Patriots but at the same time $10 million is a relative bargain for a starting tackle. I’d lean toward New England giving Wynn the benefit of the doubt.
- Panthers WR D.J. Moore ($11.116 million)
You get the sense that there’s still room for Moore to improve for as good as he’s been his first three seasons. Carolina will pick up his option and Moore has the chance to raise the floor for what an extension will come in at with his play in 2021.
- Falcons TE Hayden Hurst ($5.428 million)
Hurst had a decent season in 2020 after joining the Falcons. He didn’t quite make the impact Atlanta might have hoped when it gave up a second-round pick but 56 catches, 571 yards and six touchdowns isn’t bad. The option for him is super cheap as well. Atlanta might find it worthwhile to pick that up and continue developing Hurst, unless they end up drafting Pitts at No. 4.
- Falcons WR Calvin Ridley ($11.116 million)
Unlike Hurst, this is a slam dunk for Atlanta. Ridley stepped up as the Falcons’ No. 1 target last year while Julio Jones dealt with injuries.
- Seahawks RB Rashaad Penny ($4.523 million)
The baseline option for running backs is dirt cheap. But it’s still too much for Penny who has been unable to stay healthy as a professional.
- Steelers S Terrell Edmunds ($6.753 million)
Edmunds has been a solid starter for Pittsburgh, though at times he’s been a coverage weak link on the back end of the Steelers’ defense. We’ve seen surprising decisions with safeties in the past like with the Colts and Malik Hooker but at just $6.7 million it won’t cost much for Pittsburgh to give Edmunds another year.
- Jaguars DL Taven Bryan ($7.638 million)
Improving the defensive line has been a clear priority for new Jaguars HC Urban Meyer, and Bryan likely becomes expendable as Meyer puts his stamp on the unit. It would be a bit of a surprise if the Jaguars picked up the option for Bryan.
- Vikings CB Mike Hughes ($9.573 million)
Hughes has struggled to stay healthy and the aggressive way the Vikings have added to their secondary doesn’t bode well for his chances of having his option picked up.
- Patriots RB Sony Michel ($4.523 million)
Like Penny, Michel is another first-round running back who has struggled to stay healthy and prove to his team it’s worth picking up the fifth-year option.
- Ravens QB Lamar Jackson ($23.106 million)
The last pick of the round ends up being one of the easiest decisions, as the Ravens will pick up Jackson’s option as a precursor to working on a long-term deal this summer.