The days of tight ends being blockers who free up space for running backs and who make a couple of plays in the red zone per season are long gone. In the modern NFL, an elite tight end is an offensive weapon who is able to stretch the field and be one of his team's top overall players. Jordan Cameron of the Cleveland Browns is one example.
Cameron is, if I'm being honest about it, more a wide receiver than he is a tight end, but that's neither here nor there.
The best tight ends in the NFL are eventually paid handsomely. As you'll find out below, some are even bargains. The following lists the 10 highest-paid tight ends in the NFL in 2013.
10 Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys: $4.352 million in 2013
Witten will, when all is said and done, go down as maybe the most reliable tight end of his era. He enjoyed his highest touchdown total in 2013 (8) since 2010 (9), and he caught 73 of 111 passes. His yards production was down though, as he went for only 851 receiving yards.
I write “only” there because he hadn't, until last December, failed to finish a regular season without at least 900 receiving yards since 2006.
It's a shame in cases such as Witten's that age has to catch up with professional athletes. He's played in each of his team's regular season games in the past ten years and he's proven to be more than just a safety blanket for quarterback Tony Romo. I may cheer for the New York Giants, but I have no problem giving Witten the respect and praise he has earned.
9 Brent Celek, Philadelphia Eagles: $4.531 million in 2013
Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly utilized a formation that featured four tight ends during the preseason. Then, beginning in September, he changed things up and went with just a single tight end out on the field. Celek and rookie Zach Ertz split playing time, and it was a reason for Celek being targeted only 50 times by quarterbacks of the Eagles.
Celek will again have a cap number of over $4 million ($4.075 million to be exact) in 2014. That's quite a lot of money considering Ertz finished the season with 56 targets and 36 receptions. Ertz will have a 2014 cap hit of under $1.3 million.
Kelly is quick to praise Celek to the media whenever the subject arises, but the Eagles asking the veteran of seven NFL seasons to restructure his deal would make sense.
8 Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons: $5.25 million in 2013
Gonzalez was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs back in 1997. Think about that as you read that he had 83 catches and eight touchdowns in 2013. Yes, Gonzalez did appear in every game during what was a very disappointing season for the Falcons.
The belief is that Gonzalez has called time on his playing days, although he did perhaps leave the door open for what would be an unusual 2014 return that would make even Brett Favre take notice. If there's one thing sports has taught me, it's that you should never say “never.” Maybe we haven't seen the last of one of the all-time greats just yet.
7 Owen Daniels, Houston Texans: $5.75 million in 2013
Daniels has got to find a way to stay on the football field. The eight-year veteran hasn't played a full regular season slate since 2008, and he suffered a fractured tibia in Houston's October 6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. That ended his campaign five games into the season.
He has, in the past, shown what he can do when fully healthy, but he isn't doing Houston much good from the sidelines. With Gary Kubiak out the door, new head coach Bill O'Brien will be bringing in his own offense. Daniels, who is set to have a cap number of $6.25 million in 2014, may be deemed surplus to requirements.
6 Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars: $5.75 million in 2013
The best and most accurate description of Lewis that I've seen/heard: He's paid like a great tight end, but he plays like a good tight end.
Lewis missed almost six entire games last season due to a calf injury. He played well upon returning to the field, however, and there are reports that he will remain with the Jaguars for at least one more year. Jacksonville will be looking for a more complete and more productive season from the tight end who will turn 30 years old in May.
His cap hit raises to $8.25 million in 2014. Only three tight ends had higher cap numbers in 2013.
5 Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers: $6,458,500 million in 2013
Miller participated in 14 games less than a year after he suffered a serious knee injury, one that included an ACL tear. While his toughness and grit should be admired, his inability to grab and hold onto the ball at times, and the fact that he had a single touchdown, could be signs that the wear and tear on his body is slowing him down.
Miller will have a cap number of nearly $9.5 million in 2014. Yikes. All indications are that the Steelers will offer Miller a new deal. They'd better, because Pittsburgh is in a world of salary cap hurt.
4 Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers: $6,862,500 million in 2013
Gates had a major role in what was a Philip Rivers revival season. Only two tight ends had more receptions than did Gates (77), and he added 872 receiving yards and four touchdowns to what is going to be a Hall-of-Fame resume. While Gates is turning 34 years old in June, there's one number that won't worry the San Diego front office:
His cap number is only going up by $500k.
Gates may never again go for 89 catches and 10 touchdowns in a single season. That doesn't mean he isn't worth every cent that he's paid. You can be sure that, if healthy, he'll be a Super Charger once again this coming fall.
3 Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers: $8,739,916 in 2013
Davis is one of the best in the business. He had 13 regular season touchdowns in 2013. New Orleans Saints superstar Jimmy Graham was the only tight end who scored on more occasions (16).
The Niners will be enjoying that Davis' cap number drops down to a cool $7,367,916 next season. That figure would still be good for third-highest in 2013, but you can bet that San Francisco doesn't mind forking out that cash. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is especially grateful to be playing alongside Davis.
2 Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers: $8.75 million in 2013
The story for Finley took a dramatic and dark turn for the worse on October 20 when he put his head down in an attempt to shake off a tackle from Tashaun Gibson of the Browns. Finely was carted off the field, and he ultimately required spinal-fusion surgery. He expects to be fully healed within the next two months, but he hasn't yet been cleared for football activities.
Finley's future remains in doubt. It's possible that he could re-sign with the Packers. He's also been linked with a move to the Giants. Without knowing for sure that he's going to pass multiple NFL physicals, it's hard to predict where Finley will be this summer.
1 Zach Miller, Seattle Seahawks: $11 million in 2013
Miller was certainly not worth his $11 million cap number, but that hardly qualifies him to be a bust. He was part of the best overall roster in football, a team that dominated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
That said, Miller may have to take a pay cut to remain with the world champions.
His cap number drops down to $7 million in 2014, but odds are that Seattle will be looking to free up money in order to keep as much of the title-winning squad intact as possible. Reports are that Miller is happy with the Seahawks. His level of happiness could soon be tested.
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