SANTA CLARA, Calif. — With the NFL draft over, Joe Staley’s retirement official and the Trent Williams trade complete, there appears to be one important domino left when it comes to big roster decisions for the 49ers this offseason: the looming contract extension for tight end George Kittle.
“We’re very interested. George isn’t going anywhere,” general manager John Lynch said on 957 The Game last week. “We’re going to work hard to try to get it done.”
San Francisco this offseason has come to grips with the financial realities of having a Super Bowl roster. Which is why Lynch deemed it necessary to trade defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 13 pick that resulted in his replacement, Javon Kinlaw. There were other players who needed raises and giving Buckner the $84 million extension (averaging a $21 million per season) would have impacted the rest of the roster.
By deciding not to pay Buckner, the 49ers had the room this spring to bring back defensive lineman Arik Armstead, safety Jimmie Ward and maintain flexibility in future years when stars like Kittle, linebacker Fred Warner and defensive end Nick Bosa would inevitably need new contracts to keep the championship window open.
Kittle is an immediate focus because, according to league rules, he’s eligible for an extension this offseason for the first time following the completion of his third year. He was a bargain at $719,000 last season and would earn just over $2.2 million on the final year of his rookie contract in 2020.
Warner won’t be allowed to negotiate until after the coming season, while Bosa can’t get a new deal until after 2021. That long-term view illustrates the logic in choosing not to pay Buckner, and instead rolling with Kinlaw on a cheap rookie contract, rather than trying to squeeze Buckner’s new deal into diminishing cap space.
Kittle, 26, was the 49ers’ only first-team All-Pro last season. He quickly evolved into one of the league’s best players despite being the 146th player taken in the 2017 draft. Many argue he’s the best blocking tight in football while also serving as San Francisco’s top pass catcher.
Which is why Kittle’s next contract could reshape the way tight ends are viewed and compensated.
“I think (Kittle and his representatives) have got motivation just to reset the tight end market, as do we for him. It’s just finding that sweet spot, where that is,” Lynch said. “When that happens, I don’t know. But we’re working hard, as are they, to try to make that happen. George is going to be a part of the 49ers for a long, long time.”
That “sweet spot” could come significantly higher than any other tight end has been paid. Austin Hooper in March signed with the Cleveland Browns for four years and $44 million that included $23 million in guarantees. His $11 million annual average is the highest in the league for the position and just over the $10.6 million value on the franchise tag.
Perhaps Kittle’s value should be weighted differently. Kittle and his agent, Jack Bechta, could make a strong case Kittle deserves a contract akin to the league’s top receivers, a far more lucrative position than tight end.
According to Overthecap, 19 receivers make more than $11 million per season. And given Kittle’s dramatic impact on San Francisco’s top-flight running game, which anchored their third-ranked scoring offense, he’s a more valuable player than many of them, perhaps with Michael Thomas and Julio Jones as the rare exceptions.
Of course, the running game has been devalued throughout the years while teams emphasize the pass and build around their quarterbacks. That may serve as a case against Kittle when comparing him to the game’s highest paid receivers.
Here’s the thing: statistically, Kittle was the most efficient pass catcher in the NFL last season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kittle led the entire league in yards per route run (3.12), an average that accounts for times a player was used in the passing game. It was significantly higher than Thomas’ (2.88), Stefon Diggs (2.69), Jones (2.44), Davante Adams (2.33), Mike Evans (2.30), Amari Cooper (2.29), Chris Godwin (2.24) and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (2.23).
Kittle, who won the team’s prestigious Len Eschmont award for courageous play, still managed to lead the league in the category despite finishing 29th in total targets (106) and missing two games in November due to ankle and knee injuries. He’s the only tight end in 49ers’ history to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season. And he’s done it twice in a row. Kittle was second in yards per route run in 2018.
Kittle was also responsible for the biggest offensive play of the regular season that proved massive in helping San Francisco get the No. 1 seed and advance to the Super Bowl.
Would it be crazy to pay Kittle $15, $16, $17 or $18 million per season? It sounds like a lot. But his value to the 49ers, specifically, makes him worth a contract in the ballpark of the league’s highest-paid receivers, not Austin Hooper.
Looming in the background of any big-dollar player contract is the league’s murky financial future among the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s a chance the upcoming season is shortened and/or games are played with no fans in attendance, which could significantly alter the salary cap in 2021 and beyond.
As Albert Breer of the MMQB noted this week, each team could lose $100 million in revenue if games are played in empty stadiums, which would lead to a $48 million hit on the salary cap for each club. The 49ers currently have just over $49 million in projected cap space for 2021. Though as Breer points out, the league would likely smooth that cap decrease over multiple seasons to avoid a disastrous team-building situation.
Which could also be why the 49ers and Kittle wait to execute a deal until the league’s financial future comes into focus.
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