Most NFL athletes would likely be thrilled at the prospect of receiving a contract extension that would reset the market at their position. Getting paid as the top player among your peers is a sign of acknowledgment from a team as to how valuable a player is — the best of the best.
But George Kittle isn't like most NFL athletes. He's rare. And tight end contracts don't pay like most other high impact positions.
With Kittle entering the final year of his rookie contract, this has the makings of a complicated series of negotiations between Kittle’s camp and the 49ers’ front office. Rumblings are already beginning to bubble that these two sides are facing a significant divide in what Kittle's services are worth. NFL.com’s Jeremy Bergman reported over the weekend that Kittle and the 49ers were “not close at all.”
“Kittle's agent, Jack Bechta, told NFL Network's Mike Silver that he doesn't ‘care about the tight end market. I'm being paid to do a George Kittle deal.’ Unsurprisingly, given Kittle's demands, Silver reported Friday that there has been no movement on extension talks since preliminary discussions in February and the two sides are “not close at all,” Bergman wrote.
In the purest sense, San Francisco is not wrong to point to the tight end market, just as Bechta isn't wrong to point out Kittle is an absolute unicorn and one of the rarest, most challenging assignments to neutralize in all of football. Why is this posturing so important now? Because the highest-paid tight end in the NFL — Los Angeles' Hunter Henry — will receive $10.6 million in pay this season. That's equivalent to the pay of the 21st highest-paid wide receiver in football; effectively a bargain considering Kittle's contributions in the passing game. Kittle has contributed 173 receptions for 2,430 yards and 10 touchdowns over the last two seasons while also serving in the traditional role of an in-line blocker who whoops up on helpless linebackers in the running game.
Those 2,430 receiving yards are the sixth-highest individual total in the NFL over the last two seasons combined, trailing only Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Travis Kelce, DeAndre Hopkins and Michael Thomas. And it could be argued that Kittle's all-around contributions, including those in the run game, make him even more valuable and unique than some of these receivers too. It's quite a complex, complicated set of conflicting points of view.
But the NFL's evolution has changed the expectations for tight ends. And while there have always been receiving stars at the position, such as Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, the pay hasn't swelled at an equivalent rate — in part because talents like these are so hard to come by. The 49ers now face the prospect of signing the next great one in a time of rapid salary cap expansion and must find the common ground needed to appease Kittle's desired price. He's worth it, and he's likely going to break the glass ceiling currently situated overtop of tight end compensation.
What is he actually worth? That's for Kittle and the 49ers to decide. But even a 10% increase and reset of the tight end market will leave Kittle 25-33% short of a significant landmark — top-10 wide receiver money. That figure is $16.2 million annual average salary and, based on Kittle's performance on the field, it's a reasonable ask. Whether or not San Francisco agrees or ultimately decides to play hardball and count his snaps from in-line versus detached from the formation to try to prove their point will determine how volatile Kittle's negotiations get.
The team hasn't been shy on big contracts in the past, and so there's reason to believe this divide can be closed with logic and understanding that Kittle's game doesn't play by the same rules as the rest of the position (minus Travis Kelce and perhaps Zach Ertz). But for that to happen, Kittle's camp must dig their heels in and stand their ground. They've got the leverage and the numbers to back their case.