T.J. Hockenson extension will greatly impact Steelers negotiations with Pat Freiermuth

  • T.J. Hockenson just reset the tight end market in the NFL
  • Steelers could run into some issues with a Pat Freiermuth extension
Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers / David Berding/GettyImages
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Every once in a while in the NFL, we see the market get reset at a certain position. The Minnesota Vikings believe that now is the time for premier tight ends to break the bank. Exactly a week before the official start of the 2023 NFL season, the Vikings just made T.J. Hockenson the highest-paid tight end in the history of the league in terms of average annual earnings.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Hockenson has just inked a four-year, $68.5 million deal that will keep him in Minnesota for the foreseeable future. This contract included a substantial $42.5 million in guaranteed money, and his new salary will pay him $17.125 million per season.

There's no question that Hockenson is one of the better tight ends in the league, but this deal completely resets the TE market in the NFL. Prior to the recent deals for Hockenson and Giants' TE Darren Waller, it was 49ers All-Pro George Kittle who led all players at the position with $15.0 million per year. With this move, future Hall of Famer Travis Kelce drops down to just the 4th-highest-paid tight end in the NFL, per Over the Cap.

An extension like this for T.J. Hockenson stems way beyond the piggy bank of the Minnesota Vikings; it has a ripple effect throughout the National Football League, and the Pittsburgh Steelers going to feel it worse than anyone.

Hockenson extension puts Steelers in a tough spot with Pat Freiermuth

Following the 2023 season, Pat Freiermuth will be entering a contract year in 2024. This is when the Pittsburgh Steelers typically get contract extensions done with their best players, and because he wasn't a first-round pick, they don't have the luxury of handing him the fifth-year option.

Through Hockenson's first four seasons, he has been a Pro Bowler twice. While his reputation may be greater at the moment, Freiermuth has actually been the more productive tight end if you compare these two players at the same stage of their NFL careers, according to Pro Football Reference.

After each of their first two seasons in the league, Freiermuth leads Hockenson in targets, yards, receptions, yards per target, catch rate, and touchdowns. In addition, Freiermuth has graded out better than Hockenson in each of the past two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.

These are the types of numbers that Freiermuth's agent will use in upcoming contract negotiations. Knowing that he's on an even faster pace than the league's highest-paid tight end is notable. It's also noteworthy that Freiermuth is younger than Hockenson and is also developing a reputation as one of the best tight ends in the NFL today.

A collection of these things could very well lead to Freiermuth earning a contract extension that rivals what Hockenson was just able to reel in. While Pittsburgh would love nothing more than to keep Pat around for the foreseeable future, this deal could definitely get them thinking.

After recently spending a third-round pick on Darnell Washington, Pittsburgh could see how his development comes along as a rookie in 2023 before making any rash decisions when it comes to a Freiermuth extension. Forking up $17 million per season isn't exactly chump change, and if it looks like they could have a potential TE1 behind Pat on the depth chart, the Steelers may be inclined to let Freiermuth play out his contract and hit the market.

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If these two parties prove to be way off when it comes to contract negotiations, perhaps the best option would be to slap the franchise tag on Freiermuth following the 2024 season. With how much he is now projected to get, the cap number on the franchise tag would likely be a few million less than he will get in new average annual earnings on an extension.

The Pittsburgh Steelers still have plenty of time to think about this, and Freiermuth's health and performance in 2023 will obviously play a big factor. Still, it's a tad annoying that T.J. Hockenson had to go and reset the tight end market just one season before contract extension talks begin with Pat Freiermuth.

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