George Kittle is one of the more unique players in the NFL. The 49ers tight end has been San Francisco’s most proficient pass-catcher and arguably one of its best run-blockers over the past three seasons.
Kittle’s agent, Jack Bechta, recently told NBC Sports Bay Area he believes the 26-year-old “unicorn” deserves a contract befitting his particular set of skills. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah was discussing Kittle’s negotiations recently, and the pundit believes the tight end’s annual salary could be nearly double that of the current largest contract at the position, Cleveland Browns tight end Austin Hooper.
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“I think he’s gonna find his way closer to 20 (million) than he’s gonna be closer to 15 (million),” Jeremiah said. “Because there’s hybrids, guys that can do a lot of different things and that’s the word we’ve used here with George Kittle, but then there’s another level, I just call him a unicorn.
“There’s nobody else like him in the NFL, he is one of one, that can do everything he does at the level at which he does it. That to me makes him, in my opinion, the most valuable 49er on that team. He’s 26 years old, he’s got high character, he’s a leader, these are the guys you are ok with maybe paying a little bit more than you’d want to.”
There’s that word again, “unicorn.” It’s clear that Kittle and his representation aren’t expecting the All-Pro’s salary to be close to the highest among the league’s tight ends.
“I think of George Kittle as part offensive tackle, part wide receiver,” said NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks. “Because of his dominance in the run game.”
Brooks then pointed to a graphic that showed the sizable disparity in several key rushing categories when Kittle was on the field and when he was on the sideline. The Niners averaged five yards per carry when Kittle was in the game, and just 3.5 yards for the carries when he wasn’t in. Not only that, but Kittle had the most prolific season in NFL history for a tight end in terms of receiving yards back in 2018, and that primarily came with Nick Mullens at quarterback.
So let’s instead stack Kittle’s potential salary against the highest-end offensive linemen and wide receiver annual salaries.
The five highest-paid lineman per year range between $16 million and $22 million, as Houston Texans tackle Laremy Tunsil tops the list. For wide receivers, the range is $18 million and $22 million, with Atlanta’s Julio Jones leading the pack.
We’ve seen tight ends try to earn wide receiver money before. Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints famously beefed over whether Graham would be designated as a receiver or as a tight end, given that he lined up primarily as a wideout in the Saints’ offense. Ultimately, Graham was deemed a tight end by an arbitrator and was paid accordingly.
If Kittle ends up receiving a long-term extension with an AAV in the neighborhood or even north of $20 million, it could force San Francisco to move or release a player in order to stay within the salary cap.
Graham was a dynamic receiver given his size, but he isn’t half the blocker Kittle is in the run game. The 49ers publicly have given every indication that they intend to take care of Kittle, and it’s very plausible the two sides will come to an agreement before the 2020 season begins.
Just don’t be surprised if the annual salary starts with a two instead of a one.