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Zach Ertz's new contract and the market for Chiefs TE Travis Kelce

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One domino has fallen.

With the news that the Philadelphia Eagles have re-signed tight end Zach Ertz to a five-year extension, the numbers are finally in for the Chiefs to take care of their own, a player who is likely to land his own extension (or a serious free agent deal): Travis Kelce.

John Dorsey already has his work cut out for him this offseason with a slew of defensive stars (and others) ready to enter the free agent market. Dontari Poe is also waiting for his own extension, unless the Chiefs want to create a hole that would resemble an air cabin ripping apart a la any Tom Clancy novel. In short, the to-do list is long.

Kelce is in the same rookie class as Ertz, which also includes other likely extension candidates in Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert. Yet Kelce is arguably the best of the bunch and will find himself paid as such. Before we look closer at Kelce's numbers and situation, let's set some context with a look at Ertz and last year's free agent signings.

Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles

Ertz broke through in a big way in 2015 with an incredible 112 targets from Sam Bradford, but this contract is still more about the future hope for production for Doug Pedersen's new offense than a reward for past performance. Ertz has yet to prove himself as a predictable red zone target, and he's also always had Brent Celek around.

Speaking of, Celek is on the last year of his contract, and he seems a potential candidate for release since the Eagles could see $5 million in cap relief without any penalty by doing so. Here's a look at Ertz's numbers his last two seasons:

Year Games GS Targets Receptions Yards TDs
2014 16 5 89 58 702 3
2015 15 6 112 75 853 2
Julius Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars

In 2015, the Jacksonville Jaguars had money to burn, which helps because the franchise isn't exactly listed among the most desirable locations in the NFL. Fortunately the Jags could afford to outbid everyone else for the services of Thomas, who enjoyed a couple of productive seasons for the Denver Broncos with Peyton Manning at the helm. Manning has made a household name out of guys like Jacob Tamme and Austin Collie, but that didn't stop Jacksonville from shelling out a 5-year, $46 million contract with $24 million guaranteed. Let's take a closer look at the seasons leading up to Thomas' free agency:

Year Games GS Targets Receptions Yards TDs
2013 14 14 90 65 788 12
2014 13 10 62 43 489 12
Charles Clay, Buffalo Bills

Charles Clay was a former sixth round choice languishing on the Miami Dolphins depth chart for a couple years before breaking out in 2013 with a jaw-dropping 102 targets from Ryan Tannehill (for some perspective, the Fins aired it out in 2013 since Clay's 102 were third on the team to Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline). Clay went from total unknown to fantasy must-play, and the trend continued in 2014. While the numbers dropped slightly, Clay definitely enjoyed a strong chemistry with Tannehill.

The Dolphins decided to let Clay enter the free agent market and roll the dice on former Browns TE Jordan Cameron on the (relative) cheap. Clay landed a major deal from the Bills that included even more guaranteed money than what Thomas got from Jacksonville. The final tally: 5-year, $38 million with $24.5 million guaranteed. Now for Clay's numbers:

Year Games GS Targets Receptions Yards TDs
2013 16 15 102 69 759 6
2014 14 14 84 58 605 3

Both players enjoyed two productive seasons in the NFL before they received their contract. With similar contracts, Thomas and Clay set the top-tier for free agent tight end contracts in 2015, doubling the guaranteed money and/or years given to Greg Olson, Lance Kendricks and Jordan Cameron.

With that said, let's take a look at Kelce's numbers over the last two seasons. [Note: Remember Kelce missed his rookie season due to injury.]

Year Games GS Targets Receptions Yards TDs
2014 16 11 87 67 862 5
2015 16 16 103 72 875 5

Clearly Kelce's numbers dwarf those of Thomas or Clay even when he's clearly been the focal point for defenders to key in on. Kelce might have his issues, but he's also an impact player defenses must account for. It could be argued that Clay's numbers were inflated and Thomas had the benefit of playing in Denver's offense. That only enhances Kelce's argument for more money based on a stronger performance in context.

The largest contract ever given to a tight end belong to Rob Gronkowski. The highest average salary for a tight end goes to Jimmy Graham. Combined with Thomas, Clay and Ertz, these four form the upper echelon of all TE contracts in the NFL. An overview:

Name Team Age When Signed Years Total $ Yrly Average Guaranteed
Rob Gronkowski NE 23 6 $54M $9M $12.9M
Jimmy Graham SEA 27 4 $40M $10M $20.9M
Julius Thomas JAX 26 5 $46M $9.2M $24M
Zach Ertz PHI 25 5 $42.5M $8.5M $20
Charles Clay BUF 26 5 $38M $7.6M $24.5

While it's Kelce's agent's job to argue that he deserves to be paid more than anyone else (otherwise why hire him as an agent?), the reasonable approach says that the Chiefs tight end is not in the same league as Gronk. He's not even in the same league as Jimmy Graham. Even with some injury concerns and a down year in 2015, Graham had still put up monster numbers, especially in the red zone, for New Orleans to pay the price (and for Seattle to want him as well). Yet after those guys, there's no reason for Kelce to drop off from those numbers.

The market

Jimmy Graham's deal looks a bit dated by new salary cap standards. Julius Thomas may have been overpaid, but Jacksonville did what it had to do and it did set the mark, like it or not. That means the Chiefs will have to adjust accordingly.

Only four teams spent $10 million on the tight end position in 2015: the Jacksonville Jaguars, the St. Louis Rams, the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans. Gronk's cost is obvious but the other three teams stick out as potentially mismanaging their resources when thinking about approximately 10 percent of the salary cap going to the tight end. I'm sure the Rams like Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks enough, but is that really the wisest use of resources?

Still Ertz's deal shows that teams are going to begin to pony up to pay this new crop of tight ends, and it's hard to imagine the Chiefs offense without him.

Conclusion

This will be either expensive or more expensive, and the timing is up to the Chiefs.

If the Chiefs were to approach Kelce with an extension soon, they'd enjoy a slightly cheaper investment (e.g. Ertz), but they take on added risk (if there's reason to be iffy about Kelce at all). One week ago, the Charles Clay contract seemed like an ideal ceiling for a Kelce extension, but now the Chiefs will have to beat Ertz with any potential deal. Kelce is simply the better player.

The open market, however, would likely swing things much higher. If Kelce isn't signed soon, I could expect him to demand something in the range of 5-years, $45-50 million with $22-plus million guaranteed. That sounds steep, but when compared with the numbers above, it's hard to see how he doesn't get it from someone.