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5 best NFL tight end contracts

ST. LOUIS, MO - NOVEMBER 15: Zach Miller #86 of the Chicago Bears celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on November 15, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

We continue our series on the best and worst contracts at each position, this time with the most underpaid veteran tight ends. For each player named, we give the years remaining on his contract, as well as the average annual cap hit he has against the team for the remainder of his deal.

[Editor’s note: All cap numbers are from Over the Cap. To see the five worst TE contracts, click here.]

1. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots

Years remaining: Four

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $9.1 million

Rob Gronkowski has been hands down the best tight end in recent memory. He’s led the position in receiving yards each of the last two years. Not only is he a great receiver, but his 86.8 run-blocking grade was tied for the best among TEs in 2015. Most remarkable is his dominance in yards per route run. Below is a table of the best TE seasons in yards per route run since 2008 (for those with at least 200 routes run). Each of Gronkowski’s last five seasons are among the top 10.

Rank Name Team Season YPRR
1. Rob Gronkowski NE 2013 2.75
2. Tony Scheffler DEN 2008 2.61
3. Rob Gronkowski NE 2014 2.53
4. Antonio Gates SD 2009 2.47
5. Jordan Reed WAS 2015 2.45
6. Rob Gronkowski NE 2012 2.44
7. Jermichael Finley GB 2009 2.42
8. Jimmy Graham NO 2011 2.41
9. Rob Gronkowski NE 2011 2.37
10. Rob Gronkowski NE 2015 2.31

Since Gronkowski is the top tight end by a wide margin, he should be making more money than any other at the position by a decent amount, but that isn’t the case. Six different tight ends have a higher cap hit in 2016, and seven do in 2017. By 2018 and 2019, Gronkowski becomes the highest paid tight end, but Travis Kelce (Chiefs) and Jordan Reed (Redskins) are in the same ballpark. If Gronkowski somehow hit the open market, he would be making a lot more than he currently is.

2. Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans

Years remaining: Three

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $6.2 million

Year after year, Delanie Walker has graded well as a run-blocker, and his receiving has been a work in progress. In each of the last five seasons, though, his receptions and total yardage have increased. Where he has especially improved these past two years is after the catch, forcing 34 missed tackles—the most for all tight ends. While there are plenty of young TEs who have excelled in receiving, it was the combination of Walker's receiving and run-blocking that landed him the second-highest overall grade for tight ends last season, at 92.1.

Just a month ago, Walker signed a two-year contract extension to remain in Tennessee through 2018. It added more years to his deal, but his future cap hits aren’t much higher than what they were last year. In both 2017 and 2018, his cap hit isn’t even among the top 10 for tight ends. Even if you expect some regression since he will turn 32 before the regular season, there is still plenty of reason to believe he can remain a top-10 tight end in 2016.

3. Zach Miller, Chicago Bears

Years remaining: Two

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $2.7 million

From 2009 to 2011, Zach Miller recorded 509 career snaps. He proceeded to miss all of 2012–2014, but then had a career resurgence with the Bears. In 2015, he forced 11 missed tackles, which was tied for fifth-most at the position. That was especially impressive considering three of the four players above him had at least twice as many catches. He didn’t drop a single pass in 2015, and only Dallas' Jason Witten had more catches without a drop among NFL TEs.

This gave the Bears confidence enough to trade Martellus Bennett and make Miller their top tight end, singing his two-year deal earlier this offseason. There is certainly risk involved, however, since Miller has only performed well on a small sample size. For the next two seasons, however, he is set to be paid as if he were one of the worst starting tight ends in the league—which he most certainly is not, finishing with the eighth-highest overall grade at the position last season. If Miller can continue his momentum from 2015, he can make a case for being the most underpaid tight end next year. Even if he regresses some, Chicago was able to bring him back at a good value.

4. Gary Barnidge, Cleveland Browns

Years remaining: Three

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $3.8 million

Gary Barnidge had a career-year after seven straight seasons with fewer than 550 snaps. In most years, he graded out as an average receiver and a good run-blocker. 2015 was bizarre in that he excelled as a receiver and had by far his worst run-blocking season. Where Barnidge was most impressive was on deep passes, catching six of 10 balls thrown his way for 174 yards and a touchdown.

The Browns were happy enough with Barnidge’s performance that in December they gave him a three-year contract extension. Similar to Miller, there is a risk involved because Barnidge has only excelled in one season. Similar to both Miller and Walker, there is also risk of a decline due to being on the wrong side of 30. Despite the risks, Barnidge was a top-10 receiving tight end last year, and is not among the top 30 cap hits for tight ends in 2016. If he can play close to as good in 2016, the Browns are getting a good deal.

5. Jared Cook, Green Bay Packers

Years remaining: One

Average remaining cap hit (per year): $2.8 million

Jared Cook is a tight end that hasn’t fully lived up to his potential. At his best in 2010, he was the league-leader in yards per route run, at 2.38, but the Titans didn’t start giving him serious playing time until Week 12. While he has yet to live up to the hype, Cook has graded out as an average tight end in both receiving and run-blocking. As recently as 2014, he recorded 1.6 yards per route run, which was ninth-best for TEs with at least 300 routes run. (Keep in mind that this was a year in which Austin Davis and Shaun Hill were his quarterbacks.)

Average starting tight ends are making over half a million more than Cook is, so even if the he continues the average play we’ve seen in the past, the Packers added Cook at a bargain. If he improves his production with the best quarterback he’s played with, then Green Bay is getting an even better value.

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