At first glance, Travis Kelce’s contract extension with the Kansas City Chiefs might appear to be just the latest in a line of big deals orchestrated by general manager Brett Veach. But every lucrative contract the Chiefs have sealed since Veach became their GM three years ago had a common thread: They all went to younger players.
Patrick Mahomes and Chris Jones this year, Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu and Tyreek Hill last season, Sammy Watkins and Anthony Hitchens in 2018 -- all of them were 27 or younger when they signed those deals. And those seven players will count $102,288,371 against the salary cap in 2020.
The Chiefs may eventually look back on Thursday's contract extension with Kelce as money well spent. His $14.3 million per season ranks second in the league for tight ends, just behind the $15 million per year deal inked earlier Thursday by the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle, who turns 27 in October. But the Chiefs are assuming more risk with Kelce, who turns 31 in October, than they have with any of their other big signings.
Kelce will be 36 when his newly extended contract expires. He could still be playing well by then. Other tight ends have succeeded at a similar age. Tony Gonzalez in the five seasons from age 33 through 37 caught more than 400 passes for more than 4,100 yards. Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Shannon Sharpe were also productive at identical ages.
Kelce appears to be as safe a thing as a 30-year-old can be. He's still on top of his game, coming off a fourth straight 1,000-yard season, which is something no tight end had ever done. He's been durable, missing just one game since his rookie season in 2013. He seems to have controlled his temper, a thing that once had him taking ridiculous penalties. Teammates and opponents rave about him.
"I haven't seen another tight end do the things he can do," said Chiefs backup quarterback Matt Moore. "It's pretty impressive. He sees things as a quarterback would. He sees things open up before they do. Then you combine that with his body control and his ability to get open and there's not many guys like him."
"You don’t know where Kelce is going to be or what route he's going to run," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. "Most guys have a route tree. They run a shallow cross, a deep cross, a corner route, a middle read. Kelce is running every route that a slot receiver or a big-time wide receiver runs. They're asking Kelce to do some things that are very, very difficult, and he pulls it off. It's maddening to not only our team but, I think, any team that plays the Chiefs."
Even so, Veach has strayed from his usual way of doing things here. With the other big-money contracts, he hasn't just rewarded an underpaid player or free agent for what he's already done but what he will produce through the life of the new contract.
The Chiefs haven't received their money's worth on all of Veach's big contracts, most notably Hitchens'. But things are trending well with many of the others, particularly Mathieu, Clark and Hill. Watkins hasn't given the Chiefs a lot in two seasons except when they needed it the most.
It's too early to tell with Mahomes and Jones, but at their ages, Mahomes 24 and Jones 26, it's reasonable to expect they'll deliver. The Chiefs could wind up paying Mahomes a half-billion dollars over the next 12 seasons, but there's an excellent chance they'll look back in 2031 and conclude they got a great deal.
Maybe they'll feel the same way about Kelce in 2025. That just doesn't feel like it's as sure a thing, at least not in 2020.