UPDATE: Ian Rapoport is now reporting that the Kansas City Chiefs, in reaction to George Kittle’s new contract, have negotiated a new deal with Travis Kelce that bumps his average annual salary up to what we now call “Kittle range.” Kelce was previously making about $9.3M per year.
Note: This story was originally published at 2:25 a.m. CT and has since been updated with additional information.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, Ian Rapoport reported that tight end George Kittle was finally close to an agreement with the San Francisco 49ers on a contract extension. It appears Kittle will become the highest paid player at his position in league history.
Final numbers: 5 years, $75M with $30M guaranteed at signing ($40M guaranteed for injury).
Before this extension, Kittle was set to enter the final year of his rookie contract. Of course, Kittle was drafted in the fifth round the same year the Titans selected Jonnu Smith in the third (with a pick acquired in the trade with the Los Angeles Rams involving the number one overall pick in 2016). Jonnu is currently set to play on the final year of his rookie deal.
Does George Kittle’s new contract affect how the Titans will handle Jonnu Smith?
With this deal, the top-ten highest paid tight end contracts in terms of average annual value look like this:
- George Kittle $15M/year
- Travis Kelce — Between $14.25M/year
- Hunter Henry — $10.6M (franchise tag)
- Austin Hooper — $10.5M/year
- Kyle Rudolph — $9M/year
- Rob Gronkowski — $9M (one-year deal)
- Zach Ertz — $8.5M/year
- Jimmy Graham — $8M/year
- Jared Cook — $7.5M/year
- Darren Waller – $7.5M/year
Comparing the numbers of these tight ends to Smith’s production last season, you have to wonder if these contracts will have any impact on Smith’s next deal.
|Rob Gronkowski (2018)||13||72||47||682||3|
Looking at this list, you’d have a hard time making a case for Jonnu to crack the top-10 salaries of the NFL’s tight ends (if, say, you were Smith’s agent). Every player listed had more targets and catches than Jonnu, more or equal touchdowns, and only Kyle Rudolph had fewer receiving yards (although if you add Jonnu’s rushing yards, his total yards from scrimmage would be greater than Jimmy Graham’s).
That said, Jonnu Smith is a prime break-out candidate for the Titans based on what he did last season. In addition to his obvious promotion to the “TE1” position on the roster with the departure of Delanie Walker, Smith also scored very highly in advanced metrics.
He was second among all players (and first among tight ends) in Next Gen Stats’ Yards After Catch Over Expectation metric (his teammate A.J. Brown was first). And in a Pro Football Focus fantasy football article, they wrote this about Smith:
“Jonnu Smith did not only break tackles in 2019, but he may have broken PFF’s elusive rating scale. His 1,023.1 elusive rating is the highest that a tight end has ever earned and was the highest among all players in 2019.
“Smith earned that grade by finishing third in missed tackles forced on receptions (14) and No. 1 overall in missed tackles forced per reception (0.4) among tight ends with at least 30 receptions. His YAC per reception also ranked second (8.1).
“Smith also forced five missed tackles on just four rushing attempts. Rushing attempts for a tight end are rare, but with Smith’s size-speed combination — 6-foot-3, 248, 4.62-forty time — the Tennessee Titans would be wise to feature him with as many touches as he can handle.”
Smith worked out all offseason with Ryan Tannehill in South Florida continuing to develop chemistry. After some of the incredible catches Jonnu made down the stretch last season, he’s earned Tannehill’s trust in those situations (as Tannehill explains in the video below). Smith recently spoke about his goals to be the best tight end in the league, and he seems to be focused and ready to take that next step.
All of this to say, the Titans and General Manager Jon Robinson would be wise to work out an extension with Jonnu Smith now rather than later. If Smith has a big season, he won’t be concerned with the potential shrinkage of the NFL salary cap. While there’s nothing Smith could do in one season to earn “Kittle/Kelce money,” he could make a case to put himself in the top ten tight end salaries with a strong 2020 campaign.
On the other hand, it takes two sides to make a deal. While the Titans would be smart to lock up Smith now, Smith may elect to bet on himself, play out his rookie contract, and try to hit it bigger with his next deal.
If I was in his shoes, I might be more comfortable taking the guaranteed extension, especially now when the future seems less certain than ever.