Under The Cap
FO's Salary Cap Analyst looks at the economics of the NFL

Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.I. Halsell

Over the first three weeks of our analysis of the top starter contracts in the league, we covered the "skill positions"; this week we start making our way closer to the line scrimmage, as we analyze the top ten starting tight end contracts.

As one looks at the top ten tight end contracts below, immediately some may notice that Chargers tight end Antonio Gates is not one of the highest paid tight ends in the game. Gates just falls out of the top ten with an average per year of $4.42 million, or 11th overall. Gates signed this contract in August of 2005, at the time it made him one of the highest paid tight ends in the game, but it is illustrative of how the tight end market has increased in value over just four years, to the point that Gates has been squeezed out of the top ten. Gates has two years -- 2009 and 2010 -- remaining on his current contract before reaching unrestricted free agency prior to the 2011 season. Going into 2011, Gates will be 31 years old. If he's still playing at a high level (Gates has never had a DYAR ranking lower than ninth in his six-year career and has ranked first in DYAR in three of those six years), then Gates should expect to return to the top ten of highest-paid tight ends, particularly in light of the lucrative contract signed by a 30-year-old Tony Gonzalez in 2007.

In 2007, when Gonzalez signed his contract with the Chiefs, it made him the highest paid tight end in football. As the table illustrates, Gonzalez has since been surpassed by pass-catching tight ends Dallas Clark of the Colts and Kellen Winslow of the Bucs, as well as the Steelers' Heath Miller.

Two months after Gonzalez signed this lucrative deal, the Broncos signed Daniel Graham to a contract that averaged $6 million per year. The Graham contract took the tight end market to another level, as unlike Gonzalez, Graham was not a dynamic playmaker in the passing game. Therefore, Graham's contract raised the bar for solid yet unspectacular tight ends. Interestingly, after the Graham deal, the next big name tight end to sign a new contract was the Redskins' Chris Cooley. In full disclosure, I worked for the Redskins at the time of the Cooley negotiations and there was definitely a concern regarding the impact of the Graham contract on the price point for Cooley. In the end, Cooley accepted a contract that paid him $14 million guaranteed, which was a significant haul for a tight end not named Gonzalez; in exchange for this lucrative guarantee, however, Cooley accepted a lesser average per year.

The most lucrative starting contract for a tight end from a total guarantee perspective is Winslow's $20.2 million guarantee. Moreover, Winslow's guarantee per year of $5 million far exceeds that of any tight end on a multi-year contract and his contract guarantees an impressive 76 percent of the contract's total new money value. We're all familiar with "diva" wide receivers; Winslow is a "diva" tight end, but there's no doubting that when focused and healthy -- like he was in 2006 and 2007, with a little under 2,000 receiving yards in those two years combined -- he is one of the most physically gifted and skilled tight ends in the game from a pass-catching perspective. For Winslow, 2009 is only his fourth full season of NFL football; clearly the Bucs, via this lucrative contract, are gambling that Winslow can return to his prolific form while managing his sometimes difficult personality.

The next tight end to keep an eye to sign a potentially lucrative contract is the Texans' Owen Daniels. A 2008 Pro Bowler, Daniels has ranked in the top eight of DYAR in each of his first three seasons. In 2009, Daniels is playing under the one-year restricted free agent tender of $2.8 million, ranking him 17th amongst starting tight ends. Daniels' contractual future is very much up in the air. If the CBA is extended and Daniels becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency, he faces the prospect of being precluded from free agency via the relatively inexpensive tight end franchise tender, which could be in the neighborhood of $5 plus million in 2010. If the CBA is not extended prior to 2010, then Daniels faces two more years of restricted free agency, unless the Texans feel compelled to give up their leverage and extend his contract.

Here are the top ten starting tight end contracts in the league:

Top Ten Starting Tight End Contracts (in millions of dollars)
Rank Player Club Age at
Guarantee Guar./
New Money
Prev. Year
1 Clark, Dallas IND 28 2/21/2008 6 $20.0m $3.3m 47.9% $41.8m $7.0m $27.6m 17
2 Miller, Heath PIT 26 7/30/2009 5 $12.5m $2.5m 37.0% $33.8m $6.8m $22.6m 12
3 Winslow, Kellen TB 25 4/8/2009 4 $20.2m $5.0m 75.9% $26.6m $6.6m $20.6m 35
4 Gonzalez, Tony ATL 30 1/12/2007 5 $17.8m $3.6m 56.8% $31.3m $6.3m $18.8m 1
5 Graham, Daniel DEN 28 3/9/2007 5 $10.0m $2.0m 33.3% $30.0m $6.0m $20.1m 14
6 Cooley, Chris WAS 25 9/1/2007 6 $14.0m $2.3m 48.0% $29.2m $4.9m $15.9m 20
7 Shockey, Jeremy NO 25 10/14/2005 5 $10.5m $2.1m 45.2% $23.3m $4.7m $14.0m 12
8 Witten, Jason DAL 24 7/24/2006 6 $12.0m $2.0m 43.5% $27.6m $4.6m $15.0m 2
9 Heap, Todd BAL 25 6/16/2005 6 $11.0m $1.8m 40.0% $27.5m $4.6m $14.8m 16
10 Scaife, Bo TEN 28 4/28/2009 1 $4.5m $4.5m 100.0% $4.5m $4.5m -- 23

Next week, we'll analyze the top ten starter contracts at offensive tackle.

Follow J.I. Halsell on Twitter: @SalaryCap101


17 comments, Last at 20 Oct 2009, 1:09am

1 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

When the Broncos signed Daniel Graham, I was really upset because of the size of his deal. (Which isn't so bad when looking at the guarantee per year and percentage guaranteed.) The thing that was funny is that all the Bronco fans online and my father kept insisting he was the best receiving tight end in the league (and yes, it was the best, not one of the best). I still think one of the funniest conversations I've ever had is when my dad was saying, "He catches 60-70 passes a year" and so I showed him the actual numbers--24 catches per year. I still can't figure out how all of those people could be quite so disconnected from reality.

I also always thought it was a strange signing. Shanahan was a big fan of receiving tight ends (Sharpe, Scheffler, Putzier) and was so concerned about wide receiver blocking ability that he probably needed a blocking tight end less than just about anyone, and yet he put that much money into Graham, who then caught 56 passes in 2 years.

7 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

I was against the Graham signing at first. Not so much because I didn't think he could be a valuable addition to the team, just because it completely baffled me that the third best TE in the division (at the time) was about to become the highest paid TE in the league. It also looked suspect because Shanahan had just lost a free agency battle to the Seahawks (Patrick Kerney, I think it was) and they were also making a play at Graham. So it kind of looked like one of those weird Shanahan ego moments, like he just wanted to prove to Seattle that he wouldn't be pushed around.
Then when Graham came in like some pass-dropping machine sent from the future to show people of today how to drop passes more effectively, I was furious. But fortunately, his blocking remained great, and he has become much more reliable in the passing game, so now I am unequivocally happy to have him here.

17 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

Remember, Dan grew up in Denver, and his dad played for the team. Denver signing Graham to a overrated contract didn't really hurt the team - Kerney wouldn't have worked out anyway. It was a win-win for both the team and the Graham family; however, even though he isn't worth 6M/year, he works his ass off for the team, both under Shanny and now McDaniels

3 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

I think so far the Graham analysis shows some of the problems that TE's face. A tackle whose job is blocking is worth his weight in gold. A wr who can catch gets away with murder because of their value. But a TE always gets dinged for what they aren't doing. Sharpe put up huge passing numbers but still gets knocked (unfairly) for his blocking. Graham is a beast in blocking and gets knocked because he hasn't been putting up big passing numbers.

It's not fair because in both cases what they did was what the team needed. For Sharpe the need was pretty clearly for a third receiving option. For Graham the need was clearly blocking help, it hasn't really been until this year that he's been used as a weapon in the passing game. He's been a third OT on the field for us and now he's coming on in the passing game he's worth what he's being paid.

8 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

Really I'm just expressing my frustration with evaluating TE's in general. Specifically though this article which ranks them with by their passing DYAR is just part of the problem. I was ecstatic about Graham when we had Pears in as our starting left tackle. Now I'm still happy to have him because our two TE sets are monstrous but his value as a receiver is a much larger part of my happiness.

I think good stats evaluating TE's are an area that really needs to be studied. Not by me though by someone qualified.

5 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

I don't think any Colts fan has the slightest qualms about Clark's compensation. As noted above, good pass catchers usually get slapped a bit for not being OT-type blockers. Clark is not asked to do too much blocking, but what I have seen has been pretty good. His flexibility is highly valuable, though his porn 'stache from few years back (the same year Jake Plummer sported one) would probably add to his value. At least for me. He seems like a good guy and any new dad who can function at a high level deserves some sort of medal (as does his wife, probably even more so). Sleep deprivation bites.

9 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

"If the CBA is extended and Daniels becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency, he faces the prospect of being precluded from free agency via the relatively inexpensive tight end franchise tender, which could be in the neighborhood of $5 plus million in 2010."

That's only true if DeMeco Ryans has signed a long term contract by that point. Ryans will be in effectively the same contract situation as Daniels come next Spring, new CBA or no, and if the team can only keep one of them it's a no brainer. James Casey was drafted specifically as a hedge against Daniels leaving in 2010. In fact, at least in the short term I'm not sure Daniels is even the second most important potential free agent loss next off-season: Chester Pitts, Dunta Robinson and Kevin Walter will all also be out of contract. Pitts is not a household name (and insofar as he is it's for his horrific early-career performance at left tackle) but he's probably one of the ten best guards in football these days. His injury is a big part of what's wrong with the Texans running game this season.

11 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

Cowboys are getting the best TE in the league for the 8th highest salary? Pretty good value. Witten's the best receiver/blocker combo on there.

13 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

I think Miller is a comparable blocker, but Witten's receiving skills bump him up above him. Interesting comment about Graham's deal being a concern when signing Cooley, as well. I forget sometimes that players and their agents are also keeping up with the Joneses.

Is poster drunk?? - Raiderjoe

14 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

zach miller of rAIders is great up and cominger. contract not in top ten but guy is. top 10: J wittenm, Z Miller, T Gonzalez, gates, H miller clakr, A Gates, J shockey and some others. Coolley not top 10 anymore.

15 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Tight Ends

I have to disagree about that. Cooley has the talent, but cover him and Moss, and that's it. There's no other threat, and the Skins can't even run the ball these days, so why stack the box? He had 850 yds last season, although admittedly, only one TD. He's a good player on a terrible team. I don't see him as being all that different from Zach Miller.

Is poster drunk?? - Raiderjoe