An offense's No. 1 receiver doesn't need to be a wide receiver.
The tight end position is more than capable of serving as a team's primary threat in the passing game. It already is in some instances, though it's not treated as such even as the game's financial landscape drastically changes.
Last season, six tight ends were on the other end of 100 or more targets. The Baltimore Ravens' Mark Andrews led the way with 107 receptions for 1,361 yards on 153 targets. Over the last five seasons, the top tight end averaged 143 targets. This trend started approximately 15 seasons ago when Tony Gonzalez posted back-to-back 150-target campaigns.
Yet the tight end market hasn't experienced the same type of inflation wide receiver has in recent months. In 2007, Marvin Harrison was the game's highest-paid wide receiver at $8.4 million, according to Over the Cap. Gonzalez made $4.5 million during that campaign.
This offseason alone, nine wide receivers signed deals with an average annual salary between $20 and $30 million. For comparison, the San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle is the game's highest-paid tight end. His deal is worth $75 million in total and $15 million annually. Those numbers would rank 10th and 24th, respectively, among wide receivers.
The top performers at the position have taken notice, especially after teams used three of the eight franchise tags for 2022 on tight ends. Why? Because it was a cheaper alternative at a mere $10.9 million this season.
Of those three, they're all headed in different directions.
David Njoku and the Cleveland Browns agreed to a four-year, $56.8 million contract extension. The Miami Dolphins' Mike Gesicki signed his franchise tender, whereas the Dallas Cowboys and Dalton Schultz appear to have reached an impasse. As ESPN's Adam Schefter reported, the two sides are not expected to agree on a contract extension before the deadline.
Last season, Schultz had as many targets and touchdown receptions as Amari Cooper, albeit in two more games. But his usage rate shows how valuable he can be in the Cowboys offense, even if it's not currently reflected in contract negotiations.
Schultz becomes an interesting case study for the position and how teams view it in the future. The Las Vegas Raiders' Darren Waller believes tight ends should benefit from an expanding role.
"I feel like it's a position that's becoming more and more fit to carry a team's passing game," Waller said during an interview on Chris Long's Green Light podcast (h/t Kevin Patra of NFL.com). "You see it on a lot of different occasions with myself for a couple years, Travis [Kelce], for a long period of time, George, Mark Andrews setting franchise records in Baltimore, Kyle Pitts, just guys that have all the abilities necessary to be the focal point of the passing game for teams and hopefully being compensated as such."
Waller is a wide receiver convert who led the Raiders in receiving yardage during the 2019 and '20 campaigns by eclipsing 1,100 yards. Back and knee injuries slowed him last season, costing him six regular-season contests. He still finished second on the squad in receptions and receiving yardage.
"I don't even really look at him as a tight end, though he can function as one," an AFC coordinator told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "You can line him up anywhere. He can bully smaller DBs and has the speed to separate. He's a guy you can throw vertically to and have no reservations, can throw him jump balls, quick passes over the middle. His range is pretty incredible."
Meanwhile, teammate Hunter Renfrow, who has yet to eclipse 1,100 receiving yards in a season, signed a contract extension this offseason that pays him more than double what Waller makes annually. To be fair, Waller is due an extension as well and the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Vincent Bonsignore wrote that one appears to be "imminent." Even so, it will still likely be less than Renfrow's deal based on the current market.
Schultz isn't the best candidate to test a tight end's maximum earning power, because he's not counted among the elite as one of the league's best weapons.
"He can handle multiple roles—competitive blocker, can bend to get in and out of breaks. Not as dynamic as others on this list but really solid," an NFC offensive coach told Fowler.
Eventually, there will be a discernible difference in earning potential between the current top tier of tight ends and those entering the league at a young age.
Waller's age—he turns 30 in September—limits his earning power. Kittle and Kelce are already considered the league's two best tight ends and have been for some time. Kelce, in particular, has served as the engine to Kansas City's offense since he first led the Chiefs in receiving during the '16 campaign. He's posted six straight 1,000-yard seasons and holds the single-season NFL record by a tight end with 1,416 receiving yards.
Kelce consistently creates mismatches and makes himself an available target and producer after the catch for quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Without the seven-time Pro Bowl selection working the middle of the field, the seam and crossing routes, the Chiefs offense wouldn't be nearly as effective.
Kittle is a little different in that he's hell to tackle in the open field, but he's equally dominant as a blocker. He also hasn't played a full regular-season slate since 2018.
But Kelce and Kittle are already the game's two highest-paid tight ends, and they're both locked up through 2025.
A market inefficiency currently exists. The game's best tight ends are impact players and capable top targets in a pass-first league. They must be big enough, athletic enough and explosive enough to create mismatches and chunks plays while simultaneously providing an in-line option in certain situations.
"At the end of the day, you know the impact that a certain guy is having on your team, and he should be paid according to that impact," Waller said on Long's podcast. "I feel like [tight end presents] the most complex set of skills that you have to have on the field. You look at a certain craft, I mean, quarterback and corner are ridiculously hard to do, but at the same time, the wide range of skills that you have to have, I feel like it's no more than a tight end, and I don't think it's close."
The current crop of elite tight ends has set a precedent as the focal point of an NFL offense. A new breed will necessitate a reset of the position's financial reality. The next stars are already entering the league or will do so in the next few years.
Kyle Pitts serves as the nexus point toward the position's future. Pitts is unlike any tight end anyone has ever seen. Prior to the '21 draft, one longtime scout described the 20-year-old prospect as "so glaringly amazing," per The Athletic's Bob McGinn.
An executive told McGinn: "People say, 'He's a tight end. They can't change a game.' This guy can. I graded Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow II. Especially with the way football is played nowadays, he is just rare. He is a game-changer."
The rookie didn't disappoint. The 6'6", 246-pound target, whom the Atlanta Falcons chose with the fourth overall pick as the highest-drafted tight end ever, made the Pro Bowl in his first season and became only the second rookie at his position to record 1,000 receiving yards. Pitts runs routes like a wide receiver. He's capable of contributing in any alignment. His size, length and fluidity create nightmare fuel for defensive coordinators.
Pitts is merely the tip of the spear. Three prospects are already well-known to NFL scouting departments even though they're still very young.
The Georgia Bulldogs claim a pair of premium talents in Brock Bowers and Arik Gilbert. Bowers burst onto the scene as a true freshman when the 6'4", 230-pound target led the national champions with 56 catches for 882 yards and 13 touchdown grabs. Gilbert transferred to Georgia last season and didn't play. But he's a 6'5", 248-pound option who thrives when working out wide. The LSU commit caught 35 passes for 368 yards as a true freshman.
Notre Dame's Michael Mayer is the other standout. Mayer entered the hallowed halls in South Bend, Indiana, as a 5-star recruit. He immediately became the Fighting Irish's top target with a team-high 42 receptions in 2020 before improving that number to 71 the following season. His 15 explosive plays from the slot or out wide tied for the most by a tight end last year, according to Pro Football Focus' Anthony Treash.
Pitts and the incoming trio will become trendsetters, because they are difference-makers. Offensive schemes revolve around matchups, not position designations.
Much like the outdated terms of defensive end and outside linebacker merged into a homogenous group referred to as edge-defenders, tight ends should be treated like their pass-catching peers—as plain ol' receivers. And their paychecks should reflect their impact.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.