George Kittle's value to the 49ers has been immeasurable over his three seasons in the Bay Area.
Originally coming in as a fifth-round draft pick, Kittle broke the NFL's single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end in 2018, and the advanced metrics bear out that the Iowa product not only is one of the best receiving tight ends in the league but also one of the best blockers at the position.
Former 49ers quarterback and Hall of Fame inductee Steve Young joined KNBR on Wednesday, and explained why Kittle's annual salary likely will be much closer to a typical wide receiver contract than any other player at the position before him.
"No matter how you cut the data, it's proven. George Kittle is one of the most talented players in the league, and most productive," Young said on the "Tolbert, Krueger and Brooks" show. "They're gonna have to pay him as a wide receiver, they're gonna have to, and George knows that. The problem is, there might be a hybrid, I agree that he's not going to necessarily make every dollar that a wide receiver makes, but he's not going to get trapped into the tight end spot."
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Kittle has been the 49ers' most prolific pass-catcher for the past two seasons, being the only player to surpass 1,000 yards receiving in that span. 2019 second-round pick Deebo Samuel looks to have the potential of being a No. 1 receiver, and 2020 first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk's speed continues to tantalize fans, but there's no question who quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's No. 1 option will be in 2020.
The current highest annual salary for a tight end belongs to Austin Hooper, who signed a four-year, $42 million deal with the Cleveland Browns back in March. It was reported earlier this offseason that Kittle could fetch as much as $20 million annually, but the number likely will fall somewhere between that and Hooper's $10.5M average annual value. The Athletic's Matt Barrows reported several weeks ago that someone "in the know" told him Kittle's deal likely will land at around $13M a year.
Even though Kittle's 2019 campaign wasn't quite as prolific as his previous, record-breaking season, the tight end earned Pro Football Focus' Dwight Stephenson Award, awarded annually to the league's most valuable player regardless of position. Kittle posted the highest PFF grade of any tight end since the service began tracking data back in 2006.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the NFL's future amid the coronavirus pandemic, the 49ers' front office likely wants to take time in negotiating Kittle's contract and see what the financial ramifications will be if the 2020 season gets impacted. But the Kansas City Chiefs did just reach a half-billion-dollar extension with Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, so other teams aren't afraid to shell out massive deals in these unique times.
Kittle isn't quite Mahomes in terms of his ability to win games for his team, but the tight end is about as valuable an NFL player as there is in the league outside of Mahomes. A player like Kittle could try wielding leverage over the 49ers by holding out, but he told NBC Sports Bay Area in early July he values his leadership role with the team, and wouldn't want to do anything to compromise that.
“Being a captain, I want to be there for my team and I need to show the right leadership skills,” Kittle said.
Kittle's agent, Jack Bechta, joined the 49ers Insider Podcast in June, and said that Kittle's one-of-a-kind skillset necessitates a one-of-a-kind contract.
“George is a very special player. He needs a special contract,” Bechta said. “And those things take time for both sides. It’s a nice problem for everybody to have.
“At the end of the day, I trust the Niners will do the right thing and take good care of George, as they should. But I trust the process. I won’t comment where we’re at, or numbers or anything like that. But hopefully it gets done.”
For 49ers fans, that day can't come soon enough.