Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith is set to become an unrestricted free agent in two weeks.
Here’s what an extension with the Titans, or a contract with a different team in free agency, could look like.
(All values for existing contracts come from Over the Cap, a tremendous resource for which I am grateful.)
ABSOLUTE CEILING: Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
In the eyes of many, Kelce is the best tight end in the NFL, and he’s paid like it. His $14.3 million annual average value makes him the second-highest paid player in the league at his position behind only 49ers superstar George Kittle.
Kelce is a truly dominant player and a major catalyst for the Chiefs’ juggernaut offense. He is many, many notches ahead of Smith as a player and, as a result, Smith won’t be getting a salary anywhere near this territory.
ABSOLUTE FLOOR: Eagles TE Zach Ertz
Ertz’s 2016 extension with the Eagles gave him an AAV of $8.5 million. Smith will definitely exceed that margin.
Inflation over the last four years has decreased the value of Ertz’s contract and, in turn, increased what Smith will be able to get. Ertz’s deal is the floor, here.
Browns TE Austin Hooper (Four years, $42 million, AAV of $10.5 million)
Hooper’s contract is probably the best comparison for Smith.
Like Smith will in 2021, Hooper entered free agency in 2020 as a quality receiving tight end but not a major difference-maker.
Hooper had just set a career-best mark of 787 receiving yards which, though pretty good for a tight end, isn’t terribly exciting.
Smith is similarly a player who produces at a good-not-great level; Hooper’s career production is actually markedly better than Smith’s.
As a result, Smith’s agent will likely be able to argue for a contract of similar value to Hooper’s, though interested teams will be able to counter that Smith’s limited production makes his value less than what Hooper’s was.
Buccaneers TE Rob Gronkowski (Six years, $54 million, AAV of $9 million)
Gronkowski, who played for the Buccaneers in 2020, just wrapped up the final year of a monster, six-year extension he signed with the Patriots in 2012.
When Gronkowski signed that deal, he was in the prime of his Hall-of-Fame career and the undisputed best tight end in the NFL, if not the best all-time. Back then, a $9 million AAV was a big deal for a tight end.
Now, not so much.
Eight years of inflation have turned what was once a major payday into a less-than-stellar value for a quality veteran.
Because of that inflation, Smith will almost certainly make at least what Gronkowski got in 2012, even though he’s nowhere near Gronkowski in terms of talent and production (really, no one ever has been).
The constraints on the 2021 salary cap stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to more players taking shorter deals with the hopes of cashing in down the road at a more opportune time.
Smith seems like the ideal candidate for a shorter deal. Not only would that allow him to hit free agency again under a better financial situation for the NFL and before he turns 30, but it would also give him the chance to increase his production and really cash in afterward.
The franchise tag value for a tight end in 2021 is projected to be $10.167 million, according to Over the Cap.
The Titans may choose to go that route for Smith, but $10 million is a lot for a team that needs to be wise about its cap-related decisions to pay for a player who recorded less than 900 receiving yards from 2019-2020.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Smith possesses a great deal of athleticism and he’s made his share of big plays for the Titans since the team drafted him in 2017, but his value is limited. He’s inconsistent and recorded less than 900 receiving yards from 2019-2020.
There will likely be tight-end-needy teams, though, who overestimate Smith’s value and give in to what his agent will probably want.
PROJECTED CONTRACT FOR JONNU SMITH
- Length: Three years
- Total value: $30.75 million
- Guaranteed money: $19 million
- Average annual value: $10.25 million