George Kittle is the best tight end in the NFL. He just doesn't want to be paid like it.
Kittle arguably is the 49ers' best overall player, and an indispensable part of their operation. He is a leader in the locker room, their top receiving threat and his blocking ability is closer to that of an above-average offensive lineman. Perhaps that's why his agent is looking to get him paid -- not as a tight end, receiver or linemen -- but rather, some combination of those positions.
"I've been talking a lot to [Kittle's] agent, Jack Bechta, over the last couple of months and he has consistently said, 'I don't care about the tight end market; I'm being paid to do a George Kittle deal,'" NFL Network's Michael Silver said Friday on "NFL Total Access." "And I tend to agree with him here. He is their No. 1 target, so important in that locker room, and clearly, he is doing something that transcends what a typical tight end does."
Last season, Kittle led San Francisco with 85 receptions (on 107 targets) for 1,053 yards despite missing two games due to injury. His 3,106 receiving yards (including the playoffs) are the most ever in NFL history by a tight end in his first three seasons. And, as Silver noted, with Kittle in the lineup last season, the 49ers -- heading into Super Bowl LIV -- averaged 5.6 yards on rushes outside of the tackles; when he was out of the lineup, that number dropped to 3.3 yards.
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He is a dynamic offensive weapon, which adds to the complexity of his contract negotiations. Back in 2014, Bears tight end Jimmy Graham signed a four-year, $40 million contract that reset the market at that position, and in the time since, there has been minimal growth. According to Over the Cap, Chargers tight end Hunter Henry currently averages the highest annual salary at the position at $10.607 million.
It isn't expected to be a quick or simple negotiation, and it's easy to see why. San Francisco, of course, would love to secure Kittle on as low of an agreeable salary as possible, but it's assumed both sides have differing opinions -- at least initially -- on exactly what that would be.
And, as Silver reported, it doesn't sound like Kittle and the 49ers are closing in on a deal anytime soon.
"They're not close at all," Silver said. "There were some preliminary talks back in February; nothing for the last couple months. ... This is a difficult situation because during a pandemic, owners are not super eager to shell out massive deals. There's a lot of uncertainty. And so I'm not sure how much of this situation can be attributed to the unique COVID-19 situation, and how much of it is just a gap in how each side views this. I know there's a lot of good intention. You talk to the 49ers, they say, 'We want him. We will get this done.' I know George Kittle wants to be there, but they have a ways to go in terms of figuring out his value."
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Ultimately, if San Francisco and Kittle can't come to an agreement, the 49ers always have the option of applying the franchise tag on him next offseason when he is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. That would pay him the average of the top-five players at his position in 2021.
Of course, first, they must come to an agreement on what his position is.