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Dawson Knox and the Booming NFL Tight End Market

The Bills signed Dawson Knox to a $53.6 million deal that made him the No. 6 highest-paid NFL tight end by total value. Let’s talk about what that means for the broader TE market.

A good or great tight end provides a security blanket for a quarterback. Now, NFL teams are giving them security in their wallets with richer contracts and longer deals.

Dawson Knox of the Buffalo Bills happens to be the latest example of a solid tight end who cashed in handsomely one year before the end of his rookie contract. The 2019 third-round pick out of Ole Miss recorded 101 catches for 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns through his first three seasons, notably finishing the 2021 season ranked No. 1 among NFL tight ends in receiving touchdowns with nine.

His payday suddenly vaults him up among the league’s highest-paid tight ends, trailing only George Kittle (49ers), Travis Kelce (Chiefs), Dallas Goedert (Eagles), Mark Andrews (Ravens), and David Njoku (Browns) — all of whom make at least $13.6 million annually.

Compare that to 2012, when Rob Gronkowski was the NFL’s highest-paid tight end with an annual salary of just $9 million. That number would rank just 13th in 2022.

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Considering how the game has evolved regarding the use of tight ends—specifically after the Patriots chose to feed Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez early and often between 2010 and ’13— it’s safe to say the high salaries are justified given how often quarterbacks now use them as not just safety valves, but focal points. In fact, four of the top five top-paid tight ends in football signed their current deals within the past year.

Before we dig deeper, let’s take a look at the details of the NFL’s five biggest active tight end contracts by total value:

* Signed a deal within the past year

  • George Kittle: 5 years, $75 million ($15 million AAV) // $40 million guaranteed
    • Unrestricted free agent in 2026
  • *Travis Kelce: 4 years, $57.25 million ($14.3M AAV) // $22.8 million guaranteed
    • Unrestricted free agent in 2026
  • *Dallas Goedert: 4 years, $57 million ($14.3 AAV) // $35.2 million guaranteed
    • Unrestricted free agent in 2026
  • *Mark Andrews: 4 years, $56 million ($14M AAV) // $37.6 million guaranteed
    • Unrestricted free agent in 2026
  • *David Njoku: 4 years, $54.8 million ($13.7M AAV) // 28 million guaranteed
    • Unrestricted free agent in 2026

The 2026 offseason will repeat a similar trend: Rookies from the 2022 draft class who weren’t already extended the year before — as we just saw with Knox’s re-up with the Bills, players are eligible to sign a first extension after three years in the league — have a chance to reap the sort of hefty benefits the above players have laid the groundwork for by setting and re-setting the market for tight end talent.

There were 19 tight ends selected at the 2022 NFL Draft, which tied a 2015 record for most tight ends selected in the past decade. And considering that Kittle, Goedert, Andrews, and Njoku are all under the age of 30, they could all be jumping back into the free agent pool in 2026, too. We could be looking at the busiest, richest tight end frenzy in NFL history

The Year of Franchise Tagged Tight End

The franchise tag allows NFL teams to select one player set to become an unrestricted free agent and guarantees them another year under contract at a predetermined salary number based on the player’s position. Each team receives one franchise tag per year, and not all use it. Though the vast majority of players would prefer a multi-year extension over getting tagged, its benefits can technically work for both sides — teams retain a key player who might have left for nothing in free agency, while players set to hit the market in a slower year (think 2020 as the pandemic took hold) can strategically kick the can down the road.

Interestingly, out of the eight NFL teams who used the franchise tag before the March 2022 deadline, three tendered a tight end: Njoku (Browns), Mike Gesicki (Dolphins), and Dalton Schultz (Cowboys).

While Njoku did ultimately sign a bigger deal, Gesicki and Schultz will each make the $10.9 million salary designated for tagged tight ends this season, which makes them the joint ninth highest-paid TEs in the league. That $10.9 million figure is actually low, however, when taking into account that it’s currently the third-lowest tag price among the 12 positions on the field; running backs ($9.6 million) and kickers/punters ($5.2 million) are the only ones who earn less.

Who’s due in 2023?

This can always change depending on performance, injuries, and shifts in the market, but Gesicki, Schultz, and Tyler Conklin of the Jets have a chance to be hot commodities during the 2023 offseason. A player can actually be franchise tagged up to three times, but there’s an increase in pay that comes with each re-up — expect the open market to come calling if they haven’t been extended before then.

TNF Tight End Duel: Dawson Knox vs. Tyler Higbee

All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.

  • Any time touchdown: Knox (+175) | Higbee (+200)
  • First TD scored: Knox (+1200) | Higbee (+1300)
  • Over/Under receiving yards: Knox (35.5) | Higbee (38.5)
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