Within hours, George Kittle and Travis Kelce signed contract extensions Aug. 13 that reset the market for NFL tight ends. It had been a long time coming, and if the rule of three were in play, Zach Ertz would have been the likely next domino to fall.
But Ertz, generally considered to be in that company, didn’t follow his tight end brethren two weeks ago, nor has he yet to ink a new deal. While the curious timing suggested that he and the Eagles could be close, it may have ultimately complicated negotiations.
Kittle’s and Kelce’s contracts, based upon their per-year averages of $15 million and $14.312.5 million, aren’t that disparate. But the guarantees and structures are, and it’s conceivable to think that Kelce wouldn’t have done his four-year, $57.25 million extension had he known the particulars of Kittle’s five-year, $75 million one.
In other words, Kittle signed a favorable contract, while Kelce signed what most experts have deemed a team-friendly deal.
The two tight ends aren’t in similar situations. Kittle, 26, is four years younger and on his second contract, while Kelce is on his third. That difference can explain why the former was paid more even though he has yet to accomplish what the latter has in his first seven seasons.
But the 30-year-old Kelce is a generational talent. Despite missing nearly all of his rookie season, no other tight end in NFL history has as many yards receiving (6,465) in his first seven seasons. And only two have as many catches (507). One is Ertz, who has the most (525), ahead of Jason Witten (523).
Kelce and Ertz have been paired since they were drafted in 2013. They’ve become two of the best receiving tight ends in the league, signed similar second contracts around the same time, and have maintained a level of excellence as they enter their eighth years.
Whatever your preference in player, Kelce’s contract would normally be the comp for Ertz, who is a year younger. The Eagles are likely to enter negotiations under that premise. There have been preliminary discussions, per NFL sources, after months of silence. Ertz’s representation would clearly prefer Kittle’s deal, which could explain the delay.
Kittle’s overall guarantee is not only nearly double Kelce’s -- $40 million vs. $23 million – but he received an $18 million signing bonus up front, while Kelce received no new money in 2020. Kelce’s contract is also backloaded with more new money coming in the latter part of the deal, which isn’t ideal for someone who will be 34 and 35 in the last two years.
There could be other reasons for the holdup. Ertz, after all, still has two years left on the five-year, $42.5 million extension he signed in the 2016 offseason. But he’s now only the seventh highest-paid tight end in the NFL, based upon per-year averages, and may want to be a part of the market resetting.
Ertz has also repeatedly expressed his desire to finish his career in Philadelphia. But the disparity between the Kittle and Kelce extensions could complicate a marriage that has previously been congruous.
“I do think he should try to get a deal done,” former Eagles president Joe Banner said. “I don’t think he’ll get Kittle’s numbers, but I don’t think he should be far from them.
“I’ve been in this from both sides. He’s going to have to argue that Kelce’s deal is an aberration, that Kelce took a bad deal, and he shouldn’t be stuck with that. But when you start cherry-picking comp deals, negotiations can become difficult.”
Further complicating an agreement is the Eagles’ peculiar dynamic of having two starting-caliber tight ends. Ertz is the established veteran, but Dallas Goedert, who is entering his third season, is an ascending talent. The Eagles would like to keep both long-term, but their ability to retain Goedert will likely depend on getting Ertz to agree to a cost-effective extension.
And therein lies the problem. While Kelce could say he took a team-friendly deal to help the Chiefs win more Super Bowls, Ertz’s willingness to assist the Eagles – and no one questions his loyalty – could come at the expense of his future with the team.
It’s fair to speculate how far he may go. He dutifully waited his turn behind Brent Celek after the Eagles drafted him in the second round. He even entered his fourth season as the No. 2 tight end even though he was being paid substantially more than the No. 1. And then two years later, the Eagles took Goedert, also in the second round.
Ertz has always played with a proverbial chip on his shoulder. The latest slight came when he was ranked well below Kittle, Kelce, and Rob Gronkowski in Madden rankings.
“I do consider myself in that upper-echelon of guys, that same tier with all those guys,” Ertz said earlier this month. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but I think a lot the guys in this building feel the same way about me.”
The Eagles certainly don’t want to poison the well with a homegrown player who was pivotal in their winning a first Super Bowl and who could one day end up in Canton. But they also don’t want to be hampered by an expensive, long-term contract that could make it difficult to also keep the 25-year-old Goedert.
Ertz hasn’t been accessible to reporters since Aug. 7, and Goedert hasn’t spoken since last season. The Eagles and Ertz’s agent, Steve Caric, declined comment for this story.
Banner, a salary cap expert, sees a way the Eagles could keep both tight ends. They would extend Ertz now and Goedert possibly as early as next offseason and overlap the contracts so that there’s only one year – 2022 – in which both are being paid like franchise tight ends. Goedert’s numbers thereafter would rise, while Ertz’s would fall.
“I think it’s going to be tough,” Banner said. “I would be surprised if they at least didn’t try what I suggested and therefore fight hard to get the best deal they possibly can with Ertz, to at least make it mathematically work for the short term to have them both. And then take the challenge on of trying to convince Goedert this is something he should want to do.”
That may prove difficult. Goedert, like Ertz, is an alpha. Last year during training camp he was asked how many other NFL teams he would start for and he said 29, excluding the Eagles (Ertz), Chiefs (Kelce), and 49ers (Kittle). Confidence aside, this was after his rookie season when he caught only 33 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns.
But Goedert nearly doubled his numbers in his sophomore season, catching 57 passes for 607 yards and five touchdowns. He finished second on the team behind Ertz, who for the fourth straight season led the Eagles with 88 catches for 916 yards and six touchdowns.
They became the first tight-end duo to lead their team in receiving since the 1970 merger. It was likely an outlier because the Eagles were besieged by either injuries or poor play at receiver. But two-tight-end sets are important in coach Doug Pederson’s scheme, and just because three draft picks were expended on receivers this offseason doesn’t mean the use of 12-personnel will decrease.
It helps that they are stylistically different, with Ertz more the precise route- running, sure-handed receiver, and Goedert more the blocking, yards-after-catch physical one. But can the Eagles keep both happy on the field?
“That’s one thing that’s really good about both of their personalities,” Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said Monday. “They both just want to win. They want to win so badly. So if one week Dallas is getting more balls, and one week Ertz is getting more balls, as long as we’re winning, we’re all on the same page.”
And they may be on the same page if the Eagles, who have long been among the more fiscally sound teams, can find ways to structure their extensions to meet both demands. The Eagles’ draft investment in young receivers and running backs over the last two years, in fact, suggests a readjusting of their salary cap to make room for keeping both Ertz and Goedert.
But first tight end.