As tight ends continue to gain notoriety and value in the NFL, the length and value of their contracts will continue to grow as well. Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints is widely considered one of the best, if not the best, tight end in the NFL. He recently signed a contract extension for $40 million over four years with $20.9 million of that guaranteed. His contract set the market for tight ends and also set new league highs for guaranteed money and average money per year for a tight end. On Sunday, Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph signed a contract extension for five years and $36.5 million with $19.4 million guaranteed. Rudolph has a great deal of potential, but he isn’t even close to being in the same class as Graham and the other elite tight ends in the NFL. The Vikings chose to pay him a hefty contract based on the player he could become, not the player he currently is.
Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas is due for a contract extension, but putting an accurate value on him can be difficult. Thomas is entering his fourth NFL season, but in reality, 2013 was his first year playing in the NFL. He established himself as an explosive playmaker in the passing game, catching 65 passes for 788 yards, both good for eighth best in the NFL amongst tight ends. He also added 12 touchdown catches, which was good for third in the league amongst tight ends. For as good as he was as a receiver, his run blocking was equally as dreadful and made him a liability on running plays. Broncos GM John Elway made it abundantly clear that he wants Thomas to be a Bronco for a long time, but that he is not at the level of Jimmy Graham. According to Pro Football Focus, Graham lined up as an in-line tight end on 33 percent of his snaps in 2013; Thomas was there for 72 percent of his snaps. We all know Graham was unable to obtain the wide receiver franchise tag he was looking for this offseason, so that argument and bargaining chip is off the table for Thomas’ representatives. At the same time, Thomas brings more potential and is a far bigger threat in the passing game than Rudolph making it a near certainty that Thomas’ representatives will insist on a contract that exceeds the value of Rudolph’s.
The reality of the situation is that Rudolph’s contract with the Vikings was bad news for the Elway and the Broncos. Based on the contracts of other tight ends around the league, Thomas should have gotten an extension right in line with what Rudolph just got. Now, Thomas will likely be seeking something closer to an $8 million a year average salary and more than $20 million guaranteed. Elway has made it clear that Thomas will not be getting a contract in line with Graham, and knowing Elway’s history as a negotiator, this is a contract that could take a long time to get done. Expect his value to fall somewhere in between Rudolph and Graham.