I put a lot into this, man. Money, in my mind, is almost secondary at this point in my career. I'm here for the legacy and I'm here to try and make the Kansas City Chiefs the best team possible. So that's my main focus. That's why I'm here.
Kelce, entering his 10th NFL season at the age of 32, is already on a path to becoming a Chiefs Hall of Famer and also an NFL Hall of Famer. His historic production at the tight end position over the last six years and inclusion on the 2010s All-Decade team is an indication of how great a tight end he is.
Kelce can avoid scoffing about being underpaid, but it's hard for anyone else to not look back on his career and think about it. While fans will appreciate his answer about winning in Kansas City and making the Chiefs the best team possible, no one should fault him if he tried to get more money. NFL careers are short and painful.
The fact of the matter is that Kelce has been criminally underpaid his entire career.
Back in 2014, Jimmy Graham had a dispute with the New Orleans Saints who had franchise-tagged him as a tight end. Graham argued that he was functionally more of a wide receiver in Sean Payton’s offense and deserved to be paid the wide receiver franchise tag money instead — $5 million more than the tight end franchise tag. After listening to Graham’s case, an arbiter ruled in favor of the Saints and Graham got tagged with the tight end amount.
This case was a touchstone in a long history of the tight end position being paid at a lower rate in the modern NFL than wide receivers. There are a few factors why this could be the case.
The main proponent is that in the evolution of the NFL from a running league to a passing league, the tight end's role as a blocker left them with lesser value than a wide receiver. If running the ball means less, then why invest substantial money in a player who facilitates running the ball?
Another factor that is hampering tight end contracts is the fact that the middle class of tight ends in the NFL is smaller than the middle class of wide receivers. Even when the NFL switched from a run-focused league to a passing league in the 2000s, this was the case.
As an example, look at the contrast in perceived skills between the 10th-best wide receiver and 10th-best tight end last year. The wide receiver who finished 10th in receiving yards was DJ Moore, and the tight end who finished 10th in receiving yards was Noah Fant. Choosing between those two players is a very easy decision for most folks in football circles.
One would postulate that this means the elite tight ends should get a hefty sum of money due to standing above most of their positional peers in the league, but one issue exists with that. Without a stable middle class of tight ends, the elite tight ends and their agents cannot leverage teams to earn more lucrative contracts.
Kelce’s first extension with the Chiefs showed off this phenomenon. When Kelce first signed his extension, he had not yet tallied a 1,000-yard season. The Chiefs bet on his potential by giving him a five-year, $46M extension. Prices for tight ends around that time were somewhat stagnating, with the only true market-resetting deals in years before being Graham’s three-year, $30M contract in 2014 and Rob Gronkowski’s six-year, $54M contract in 2012. The lack of a middle class of tight ends pushing the market up further kept the price of good tight ends down, leading to the Chiefs locking in Kelce at a bargain rate.
Kelce’s contract was a great value throughout the late 2010s, which eventually saw the Chiefs win a Super Bowl behind a fantastic postseason from him. Many in the NFL media were curious if Kelce would seek more money from the team thereafter. In August of 2020, Kelce received a new extension. However, yet again, the contract came in short of expectations.
Both Kelce and Kittle received new contracts on the same day. Both tight ends ranked seventh and eighth with respect to average per year on their new extensions compared to the wideouts who signed new contracts that offseason. DeDndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, AJ Green (franchise tag), Amari Cooper, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp earned more money per year with their extensions than both tight ends. It was, again, another example of the tight end market being second fiddle to wide receivers.
The interesting thing about Kelce’s second extension was that he could have taken the Chiefs to the cleaners. He was coming off four straight 1,000-yard seasons, was putting up stats similar to a very good wide receiver and just had great performances in a playoff run that ended in a franchise-defining championship. The only tight end in recent history with similar leverage to Kelce during contract talks was Gronkowski in 2012. If there was ever a time for a tight end to seriously reset the market — similar to what Christian Kirk did for the wideout market this offseason — it was Kelce’s second extension.
So when Kelce signed his four-year, $57M contract with no new signing bonus and no guaranteed money after two years, it was a huge shock. A man who could have asked for the world settled for something much less. It was a contract that had almost half the practical guaranteed money Kittle got that same day. It wasn't a contract fitting for a future Hall of Famer.
It's hard to argue with Kelce when he says that money is secondary to him. The value the Chiefs have gotten out of having him being locked in at a very low rate cannot be overstated. Kelce is a generational talent who is being paid at a “solid starter” rate.
Travis Kelce is currently, and has always been, underpaid.