TJ Hockenson’s new contract makes him the NFL’s highest-paid tight end. The former Detroit Lion — who last year was traded to NFC North division rival Minnesota mid-season — will earn $17.125 million per year after receiving more targets, hauling in more receptions, and gaining more yards than only one other player at his position.
That player? Travis Kelce. The Kansas City Chiefs star lapped the field with 1,338 yards, 152 targets, 110 receptions, 12 touchdowns and 29 catches of 20 yards or more. And yet, the two-time Super Bowl champ is grossly underpaid by the Chiefs. Kansas City DL Chris Jones’ holdout for more money highlights the downside of success in a salary-capped league.
Someone has to tuck in their ego. Given the investment into stud QB Patrick Mahomes —for obvious reasons — and the Great Wall of China known as his offensive line, compensating Kelce for his worth as the No. 1 receiver seems like the least they could do. Hockenson will earn $6 million more this season than one of the greatest tight ends in history.
As the Chiefs have cycled through No. 1 receivers — Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and now ex-New York Giant Kadarius Toney — Kelce’s role has grown even more. As Kelce continues to ascend in the record book after his 33rd revolution around the sun, his salary has remained stagnant. Kelce, who hosted Saturday Night Live in March, isn’t as oblivious as he pretends to be either.
Following the extensions of QBs Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts, the football discourse chirped about the diminishing average value of Mahomes’ contract relative to his subordinates. Somewhat quietly, Kelce spilled his private concerns about the relative value of his contract and sounded more like a self-conscious Last Dance-era Scottie Pippen measuring his lightweight deal up against Jordan’s cap-eclipsing salary.
“My managers and agents love to tell me how underpaid I am,” Kelce told Vanity Fair. “Any time I talk about wanting more money, they’re just like, ‘Why don’t you go to the Chiefs and ask them?’”
Kelce got even more introspective ruminating over Hill’s departure from Kansas City.
“When I saw Tyreek go and get $30 [million] a year, in the back of my head, I was like, man, that’s two to three times what I’m making right now,” the former third-round pick said. “I’m like, the free market looks like fun until you go somewhere and you don’t win. I love winning. I love the situation I’m in.”
But it does cross his mind.
“You see how much more money you could be making and, yeah, it hits you in the gut a little bit. It makes you think you’re being taken advantage of,” the University of Cincinnati product added. “I don’t know if I really pressed the gas if I would get what I’m quote-unquote worth,”
Dynasties often combust over money. Hill wanted out so he could become the league’s highest-paid receiver. Chris Jones is in the midst of a protracted holdout while he demands an upgrade from being the ninth-highest-paid interior lineman. Kelce is keeping Andy Reid’s squad afloat, but he also owes it to his peers to push for a better contract.
Jimmy Graham was a harbinger of Kelce’s battle
Nearly a decade ago, Jimmy Graham attempted to radically adjust the tight end payscale forever when he asked an arbitrator to declare him as a wide receiver under NFL franchise tag rules after the 2013 season in which he lined up in the slot or wide 67 percent of the time. If Graham had succeeded Kelce would be one of the highest-paid non-quarterbacks in the league today.
Kelce sounds more contemplative right now, but as the rise of tight end usage continues, the NFL’s biggest receivers should begin comparing themselves to their counterparts at the glamourous receiver position. According to analyst Warren Sharp, 12 personnel was the NFL’s most efficient usage to pass out of last season. Kansas City was in a two tight end, one running back formation more than every team except Baltimore — and the rest of the league has taken notice.
Logic dictates that Kelce should be the NFL’s highest-paid tight end as a starting point. But Hockenson’s $17.125 AAV is just the baseline. But grading Kelce alongside his peers is degrading his actual contributions. Kelce gained the eighth-most receiving yards last season for the Super Bowl champions and half of those yards were gained after the catch. The runner-up behind Kelce was Hockenson (900 yards). The margin between Kelce and his peers at tight end is almost Babe Ruthian. Since Kelce entered the league, no tight end has come close to forcing as many missed tackles.
Putting Kelce in context is astounding. In 2023, he ran twice as many yards per route run when split out wide than any other tight end in football. Out of the slot, his production was more comparable to Tyreek Hill’s or Chris Godwin’s — wideouts — than George Kittle’s. Kelce’s 657 yards from the slot was 200 yards more than the third-highest yardage tight end total and that was a step down from his 743 yards and eight touchdowns from the slot during the prior season. For what it’s worth, Hockenson gained 364 yards in the slot. The line between Kelce and wideouts is almost completely blurred out.
For $14.8 million in AAV and an $11.25 salary in 2023, the Chiefs are getting the value of an upper-echelon receiver at the tight end position. Something in the $20 million per year range would put him in the same tax bracket as Mike Williams, Keenan Allen, and Amari Cooper. The positionless Deebo Samuels’ $23.8 million annual average would be justifiable.
Few tight ends have generated the offensive numbers Kelce has. During the Denver Broncos’ run to a Super Bowl XXXII victory, Shannon Sharpe was the second-leading receiver, barely edged out by Rod Smith. The Broncos repeated the next season, with Sharpe finishing third behind Smith and Ed McCaffrey. In both seasons, Sharpe was outgained by Terrell Davis in the ground game.
Then there’s Rob Gronkowski. Gronk was often injured, so he was rarely active long enough to lead the Patriots or Buccaneers in yards or catches. Yet, Gronk still managed to lead the Pats in yards per game in 2013, despite losing nine weeks due to injury. The five-time Pro Bowler led New England in yardage thrice in 2014, 2015, and 2017.
For all intents and purposes, Kelce is currently one of the NFL’s top slot receivers and one of the awe-inspiring tight ends in league history. He’s been the top yardage leader for the Chiefs in 2014, 2016, 2019, 2020, and 2022. He barely trailed — finishing fewer than 150 yards behind — Hill in 2017, 2018, 2021. Kelce’s dominance is often attributed to his connection with two-time MVP Mahomes, but he’d been arguably the best slot receiver in the NFL since he was playing pitch and catch with Alex Smith. If he plays long enough, he’ll flirt with eclipsing Tony Gonzalez’s records.
Can you imagine an NFL-adjacent league capping players’ pay because of their depth chart position instead of basing it on their productivity? When the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations begin, the slot receiver distinction that allows owners to drive down the salaries of generational tight ends needs to be addressed, in addition to the franchise tag calculation for running backs. Unfortunately, that will be too late for Kelce. But it’s not too late to speak up for himself. The NFL’s best tight end pay should be paid commensurate to his positionless supremacy. Kansas City has staved off their attrition of talent by leaning on Kelce and Mahomes, but it remains to be seen how long they can sustain this.
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