After Week 1 of the 2015 season, we took a look at the Cleveland Browns players who were providing the most and least on-field value for the money they are being paid this year. Among those who were lined up in the Low Price/High Snap Count column was tight end Gary Barnidge, who, through just the first game, was costing the Browns just $1,127 per snap. But his on-field value has skyrocketed since that game, when he played 61 snaps but had only three receptions for 38 yards.
Now, Barnidge has totaled 24 catches on 31 targets, for 374 yards and three scores, all personal bests. With one touchdown and at least six catches in each of his last three games, he ties Ozzie Newsome’s all-time tight end records for the Browns. And he’s played 84.1 of Cleveland’s total 359 offensive snaps so far this year, according to Pro Football Focus, putting him on the field far more often than the Browns’ other tight ends, Jim Dray and Rob Housler.
He’s also making less than Dray and Housler. Dray is earning $1.9 million this year and Housler, $1.76, compared to $1.2 million for Barnidge, who is in his final year of the three-year contract he signed with Cleveland in 2013. As such, the Browns rank merely 17th in tight end spending in 2015. The value the Browns are getting from Barnidge right now cannot be understated. His per-snap price has dropped to $983.12 while the value of what the Browns are getting from him on the field has been steadily on the rise. Beyond the yards and the touchdowns is the fact that Barnidge is doing the majority of his heavy lifting on third downs, with 11 receptions for 206 yards and two of his touchdowns coming on that down. He is tied with Travis Benjamin in first downs so far this year, with 16, and is second to Benjamin in yards after the catch, with 97. Only four tight ends have better grades as receivers than Barnidge, based on Pro Football Focus’ metrics, while through Week 4, Football Outsiders ranks Barnidge as the seventh-most valuable tight end in the league overall and 11th in value per play. All while ranking 45th at the position in 2015 salary.
Barnidge won’t always come so cheaply, though. He’s having a career season while also being in a contract year—two things that, when combined, generally yield prodigious paydays in the offseason. If the Browns don’t do it, some other team will, but the good news is that the Browns will have among the highest amount of cap space in the league in 2016. They can easily afford to pay Barnidge, and even a change of coaching staff or general manager shouldn’t prevent that from happening. The question, though, is: What is Barnidge worth?
Right now, only the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski has more receiving yards than Barnidge—and that’s by just one yard, though it should be noted that the Patriots have played one fewer game than the Browns at this point (they’ve already had their bye week). He’s trailed by Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Tyler Eifert and Washington’s Jordan Reed, none of whom are among the league’s highest-paid tight ends for one reason: They were mid-round picks still working off of their rookie deals. But Gronkowski’s $54 million contract is not a proper benchmark for Barnidge, because, let’s face it, Barnidge isn’t Gronkowski (for one, he needs to be a better blocker).
A deal like the one belonging to the Carolina Panthers’ Greg Olsen might be a better target for Barnidge moving forward. It reflects his value to his team and his value in relation to other highly-paid tight ends. In March, the Panthers signed Olsen to a three-year, $22.5 million extension that includes $12 million in guaranteed money. That guarantee is the main reason why this deal looks to be a good one for Barnidge to model any upcoming negotiations on—that figure is 57 percent of the total contract value. Gronkowski, meanwhile, has only 24.4 percent of his deal guaranteed; Jimmy Graham has a guarantee of just 32.5 percent. The only highly-paid tight end with a greater guarantee percentage is Buffalo’s Charles Clay, at 64.5 percent, and that only came about because he was the object of a multi-team bidding war in the spring.
So, what would Barnidge’s per-snap price look like should he be given a deal like Olsen’s? Assuming, for the sake of simplicity, identical deals, Barnidge would be in line to account for $6.3 million in total salary cap space for the year. That means, divided between 16 games (which, for snap reasons, we’re working with here instead of 17 weeks), a per-game payday of $393,750. To date, he would have earned $1,968,750 and, divided by his 302 snaps, would mean $6,519 earned per snap. Given that Olsen is the NFL’s fifth-highest earning tight end this year and that Barnidge is the league’s seventh-most valuable tight end through Week 4—something that could only get better when the Footballl Outsiders release their Week 5 numbers—and it seems like more than fair value for Barnidge. It may be a little pricey, but that makes sense given the market for tight ends, where demand far exceeds supply. A lack of tight ends of Barnidge’s talent level means he gets paid a bit more than he would if there were 20 of him floating around for NFL team’s to sign.
Essentially, the Browns are getting production out of Barnidge that is equivalent of the NFL’s highest-paid tight ends, making him a high-value player for the team. But his payday approaches, and the Browns are in the position to give him the money he’s worth. It’s not Gronkowski-level cash, to be sure, but multi-millions and a high guarantee are in his future, and as long it’s within the Olsen range, the Browns will still be getting a ton of bang for their bucks in the years to come.