The 2020 offseason changed the landscape significantly when it came to the highest-paid tight ends. Entering the start of the league year, only Hunter Henry on the franchise tag was earning over $10 million per year. However, the ensuing months saw the title of highest-paid TE change hands again, with four players at the position earning over $10 million per year on average when the 2020 NFL season started.
The highest-paid tight ends in the NFL | 6-10
Which tight ends sit in the bottom half of the top 10 when it comes to average annual value (AAV)?
10) Darren Waller, Oakland Raiders | AAV: $7.45m
Waller had another superb season in 2020, and after signing a contract extension, may be the best value on this list. Sitting at the bottom of the highest-paid tight ends in the league, Waller’s play is more reminiscent of a receiver. He finished the season ranked 10th in receiving yards, reeling in over 73 percent of his targets.
9) Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints | AAV: $7.5m
Jared Cook is in a fascinating situation in the coming weeks. The 2020 NFL season was his final one on his previous contract in New Orleans. He had a tumultuous year but finished with 504 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns.
He should garner some interest in free agency in the coming months and could find himself back on this list of highest-paid TEs following free agency. However, he is unlikely to find himself much higher than his current number of $7.5 million.
8) Jimmy Graham, Chicago Bears | AAV: $8m
After entering the season with plenty of question marks, Jimmy Graham put together a solid season in 2020.
He is under contract with the Bears in 2021 but is set to be the third-highest paid tight end in terms of salary cap hit in 2021. Therefore, he could be a candidate for the Bears to cut. After scoring 8 touchdowns in 2020, Graham could find himself commanding a similar number to this if he does hit free agency.
7) Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles | AAV: $8.5m
2020 was supposed to be the season that Zach Ertz put himself in the reckoning to join the likes of George Kittle and Travis Kelce atop the list of highest-paid tight ends. However, it did not turn out that way, as he caught just 50 percent of his targets while missing half a dozen games.
6) Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay Buccaneers | AAV: $9m
Gronkowski’s return in 2020 was a mixed one. He provided Tom Brady with a familiar face but did not produce at his old levels. Gronkowski is set to be a free agent in 2021 but has expressed a desire to continue playing. The most likely outcome would be a return to Tampa Bay, with a potential new contract for Gronkowski likely similar value to the one he played on in 2020.
The highest-paid tight ends in the NFL | 2-5
Which tight ends make up four of the top five highest-paid at the position?
5) Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings | AAV: $9.03m
The emergence of Irv Smith Jr. in the 2020 season has changed the landscape a little for Kyle Rudolph. With a cap hit of $9.45 million in 2021, Rudolph sits as the fourth-highest paid tight end according to his cap hit next season.
One benefit for the veteran tight end is that cutting him would still leave $4.35 million in dead money. However, with Minnesota looking to create cap space for the coming offseason, it would be little surprise to see Kyle Rudolph on the free agent market in a few weeks.
4) Austin Hooper, Cleveland Browns | AAV: $10.5m
Hooper was briefly atop the list of highest-paid tight ends when it came to guaranteed money. Hooper finished the season with 34 targets in the last four games as he and Baker Mayfield developed more chemistry. He should be a big part of the offense in 2021 and beyond, just as this contract indicates he should be.
3) Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers | AAV: $10.607m (Franchise Tag)
Henry played on the franchise tag in 2020 and is now potentially set to become a free agent. The Chargers could consider another franchise tag as they look to keep the offense around Justin Herbert intact.
Henry played 14 games, returning a career-high in receptions, but saw his catch rate drop below 65 percent for the first time in his career. He should command a number similar to what he played on in 2020 if he hits the free agent market.
2) Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs | AAV: $14.313m
Just a few hours after Kittle shot to the top of this list of highest-paid tight ends, Kelce got himself near the apex with a four-year extension of his own. Kelce’s extension is worth $57.2 million, with $28 million in guaranteed money.
With a cap number of $13.25 million in 2021, Kelce will be the highest-paid tight end in the league in that regard. However, when it comes to AAV, he sits just behind the man atop this list.
Who is the highest-paid tight end in the NFL?
1) George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers | AAV: $15m
Kittle’s five-year, $75 million extension set the benchmark for tight ends and could take some toppling. Entering the 2020 season, he ranked in the top 10 in the Pro Football Network Top 100. Kittle had an injury-hit 2020 season, but he demonstrated why he is the highest-paid player in the league at the TE position when healthy.
Which TEs could be next to join this list?
As we enter the 2021 offseason, there are five tight ends that stand out as names potentially joining the top 10 in terms of the highest-paid at the position.
Mark Andrews | Baltimore Ravens
Entering 2020, Andrews looked set to break into the top three highest-paid at the TE position. However, he failed to build on a strong 2019 season in a way that demands he gets an immediate extension.
Andrews is under contract for one more year, and with the Ravens needing more help outside, it will be interesting to see if they lock Andrews up for the foreseeable future. He has proven to be a reliable option so far in his career. However, he is unlikely to be viewed as a playmaker in the way Kittle and Kelce are.
Evan Engram | New York Giants
The first-round pick from 2017 is under contract for 2021 after the New York Giants exercised his fifth-year option. Engram went into the 2020 season hoping to demonstrate he deserved a contract extension. He answered some questions by playing in all 16 games, but his performances raised more question marks.
Engram caught just 57.8 percent of his targets and only found the end zone twice. He dropped 11 passes, including one that cost the Giants a game against the Eagles on Thursday Night Football.
Jonnu Smith | Tennesee Titans
Smith flashed his playmaking potential in 2020, scoring 8 touchdowns. He has broken a handful of long plays during his career and could be an intriguing weapon if utilized correctly. The reduction in catch rate to 63.1 percent may raise eyebrows after catching nearly 80 percent of his targets in 2019.
Smith is a name I would expect to see on the list of highest-paid TEs once free agency opens.
Dallas Goedert | Philadelphia Eagles
Goedert put together a strong season, despite missing five games. He caught 70.8 percent of his targets for 524 yards and 3 touchdowns. He is entering the final year of his rookie deal but might be willing to gamble on himself. With a new offensive scheme in place, a big year in 2021 could see Goedert jump into the top five highest-paid tight ends next offseason.
Mike Gesicki | Miami Dolphins
After a slow start, Gesicki demonstrated his value to the Dolphins down the stretch. He saw 44 targets in the final six games, catching 29 for 332 yards and 4 touchdowns. His chemistry with rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa was clear to see. Therefore, the Dolphins may take this opportunity to secure Gesicki’s services. Any extension should comfortably see him rank among the top 10 highest-paid at the TE position.
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