To be a truly great National Football League tight end is to be one of the most-versatile athletes in the game. NFL tight ends must have the hands of a wide receiver, size of a petite offensive lineman, and a desire for getting down and dirty when blocking for running backs or quarterbacks.
New Orleans Saints superstar Jimmy Graham attempted to make history this summer when he tried to change his designation from tight end to wide receiver in order to obtain a more expensive contract. That pursuit didn’t go Graham’s way, however, and that is one reason why he is not on this year’s list despite the fact that he netted a guaranteed $20.9 million.
Here are the 10 highest-paid NFL tight ends for 2014.
All values taken from Spotrac
10. Jermaine Gresham — Cincinnati Bengals: $4.832 million cap hit
Cincinnati looked to mimic a model utilized by the New England Patriots over the years when the Bengals featured both Gresham and rookie tight end Tyler Eifert on offense last season. Gresham, twice named to Pro Bowl squads (2011 and 2012), went for 46 catches, 458 receiving yards and four touchdown receptions in 2013. Eifert had 39 grabs, two touchdowns and 445 receiving yards.
2014 will be a make or break season for Gresham, as he is set to be out of contract next winter. It is widely believed that the Bengals, who recently locked up quarterback Andy Dalton for at least the next several years, will want to see Gresham perform in a handful of regular season games before the club is willing to engage in active contract negotiations with the 26-year-old.
In short, Gresham will be playing to get paid.
9. Rob Gronkowski — New England Patriots: $5.4 million cap hit
Gronk is, simply put, the top receiving tight end in the NFL (apologies to Mr. Graham) when he is fully healthy. Granted, his best days in the league came when he was playing alongside the now-incarcerated Aaron Hernandez. Those looking to write Gronkowski off would do well to remember that he once again will be reeling in passes thrown by all-time great quarterback Tom Brady.
The biggest concern regarding the 25-year-old is that he hasn’t been able to stay on the field. Gronkowski has appeared in 18 regular season games over the past two years. He is, this August, coming off of a torn ACL, the most serious injury of his professional career.
8. Martellus Bennett — Chicago Bears: $6.025 million cap hit
Consistency has been an issue for Bennett over the years. He began his debut season in Chicago with three touchdown grabs in the first two games of the 2013 campaign, and Bennett was, after Week 2, set to finish the season with 80 total receptions.
That did not happen.
Bennett had only two touchdown grabs in the final 14 weeks of the season. His last jaunt into the end zone came on November 24. Some would point to the fact that Bennett did not receive a desired number of red zone targets last year.
Get open, Mr. Bennett, and the targets will come.
7. Heath Miller — Pittsburgh Steelers: $6,133,166 cap hit
The end of the current Pittsburgh era has been greatly exaggerated. Ben Roethlisberger is 100 percent healthy and also fully focused on leading the Steelers back to the playoffs. The team’s defense is not getting the respect it deserves from some national analysts.
Miller, who was dealing with a knee injury last summer, is also set to have a bounce-back campaign.
The 31-year-old is no longer in his physical prime, but Miller has a noted chemistry with his starting quarterback. Big Ben looked to his tight end 101 times back in 2012, and Miller finished that year with eight touchdowns in 15 regular season appearances. Look for this duo to enjoy another successful year so long as both avoid injury bugs.
6. Jared Cook — St. Louis Rams: $7 million cap hit
Cook began 2013 by lighting it up against the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis tight end caught seven of ten passes, he found the end zone on two occasions, and he ended the contest with 141 receiving yards.
Those would all prove to be season highs for the 27-year-old.
Cook could be on the verge of once again struggling to routinely produce impressive stats. Quarterback Sam Bradford tore his ACL for the second time in under a year, and he has been lost for the season. Shaun Hill is currently the starting quarterback for the Rams.
5. Vernon Davis — San Francisco 49ers: $7,142,916 cap hit
Davis is, if history is an indication of what is to come, set to have a letdown season in 2014. He had 13 receiving touchdowns last year, only the second time in his career that he had such an impressive TD tally. Davis went for 13 touchdowns back in 2009.
His receptions total dropped from 78 to 56 the following season. He found the end zone only seven times in 2010.
Davis could realistically be eying the end of his days in San Francisco. He will turn 31 years old next January, and his current contract with the club expires after the 2015 season. How Davis produces this year will impact what his future will be with the Niners.
4. Antonio Gates — San Diego Chargers: $7.3625 million cap hit
Gates has been one of the top receiving tight ends of his generation. He will, barring unforeseen setbacks, finish his career with over 10,000 receiving yards. He could, when that day comes, retire having accumulated over 100 total touchdowns. Gates still has the goods to win one-on-one match-ups against most defenses in the NFL.
The Kent State product will be looking to prove this fall that age is only a number.
Gates had four scores in 2013, his lowest touchdown tally since his rookie campaign (Gates had two touchdowns in 2003). He did have 77 catches last year, his most receptions in a single season since 2009. Ladarius Green, about to enter his prime, could take targets away from Gates in 2014.
Green had four touchdowns in his final six games of 2013.
3. Greg Olsen — Carolina Panthers: $7.8 million cap hit
Olsen has been a reliable target for two separate organizations since he was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft. After appearing in 14 contests in his debut pro campaign, Olsen hasn’t missed a regular season game. He had 20 touchdowns in four seasons with the Bears, and Olsen found the end zone 21 times in his first three years with the Carolina Panthers.
The 29-year-old has had a rough go of it this summer. Olsen was forced to sit out of a preseason game due to a calf injury that is supposed to be healed up before September arrives. He then took some time away from the club in late August after his son underwent open heart surgery for a third time since 2012.
2. Marcedes Lewis — Jacksonville Jaguars: $8.25 million cap hit
Lewis nearly saw his eight-year Jacksonville career come to a halt this past winter. He suffered a calf injury in 2013 that cost him close to six full games. With the Jaguars in the midst of (another) franchise reboot, Lewis easily could have been a cap-casualty in the offseason.
He will still be looking to prove that he has plenty left in the tank.
Lewis could be a fantasy football sleeper in 2014. While Chad Henne is expected to start at quarterback for the Jags, he is merely keeping that seat warm for rookie Blake Bortles. Some experts see Bortles as the top quarterback of this past draft class.
1. Jason Witten — Dallas Cowboys: $8.412 million cap hit
A franchise living legend, Witten has developed into “Mr. Cowboys.” He is about to begin his 12th season in the pros, all of which have been spent in Dallas. He has played in 175 of 176 regular season games since 2003, and he has 879 career receptions, 9,799 receiving yards and 52 total touchdowns.
Dallas fans needn’t bother planning Witten retirement festivities just yet. The 32-year-old had eight touchdowns and 73 receptions in 2013. While age should slow him down a bit at this stage of his career, Witten will likely remain the top tight end on the Dallas depth chart for at least the next couple of seasons.