George Kittle has been a constant since the tight end came to the 49ers as a fifth-round draft pick in 2017.
But, because of the uncertainty of these times, there are unforeseen complications that come with working out a long-term contract agreement, according to league sources.
Agent Jack Bechta declined to get into any specifics of the contract negotiations for his client recently when he spoke with NBC Sports Bay Area. But it is clear he expects Kittle’s next contract to set a high bar for the tight end market.
“George is a very special player. He needs a special contract,” Bechta said.
One prominent NFL agent who has a good grasp of the NFL’s tight end market believes the 49ers can save a lot of money now with a long-term contract that greatly exceeds the current deal for Austin Hooper, who signed a four-year, $42 million deal with the Cleveland Browns this offseason.
“Every day they wait, he gets more expensive,” said an agent of the 49ers on Kittle. “They would be smart to just bite the bullet and give him, say, $14 million per season and $30 million guaranteed now. In two or three years, it will look like they got off easy.”
But the 49ers likely are reluctant about doling out a ceiling-shattering contract in the middle of a pandemic. NFL salary caps are determined by NFL net revenues. There are some estimates the cap could topple by tens of millions of dollars per team next season.
The NFL Players Association on Monday estimated games played in empty stadiums this season would likely amount to a loss in revenue in the range of $3 billion. Those projected losses would be passed onto the players in the form of a shrinking salary cap, beginning in 2021.
Perhaps, the NFL and the players union could come up with some solution to mitigate the pain of lost revenues. But if there is a significant drop in the NFL salary cap, most long-term deals could suddenly become too pricey for the salary structures of teams around the league.
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One agent told NBC Sports Bay Area he does not envision such a significant loss in NFL revenue that would impact long-term contracts.
He believes the season will open with half-full stadiums and “ridiculous TV ratings.” There could also be new opportunities for in-stadium, in-game advertising tailored to the TV audience. The agent believes record media deals can make up for a lot of the lost gate revenue.
But that is not likely a complication that Bechta, working on behalf of Kittle, considers when negotiating a contract for the best player at his position in the league. After all, the agent’s job is to make sure his client receives a fair contract.
But what is fair for a player with such unique skills?
Kittle was the winner of the Bill Walsh Award in 2018, when he set the NFL record for tight ends with 1,377 receiving yards. Last season, Kittle was voted as the winner of the Len Eshmont Award, the team’s most prestigious honor, for courageous and inspirational play.
Kittle is the 49ers’ top pass-catcher, as well as being a dominant force in the running game as a blocker.
He enters this season in the final year of his contract. After making less than $2 million total over his first three seasons, Kittle is scheduled to make $2.133 million this season through the proven performance escalator.
Where does Kittle rank in importance on the team? Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo earns an average of $27.5 million per season, while both Arik Armstead and Dee Ford are scheduled to make $17 million annually through the life of their contracts.
After three seasons in the NFL, this is the first offseason in which Kittle’s rep and the 49ers are allowed to negotiate a multi-year contract extension.
Kittle is under contract for this season, but he could force the 49ers’ hand by holding out until he gets an acceptable long-term deal. If Kittle does not play hardball, the 49ers could. The organization holds Kittle’s rights this season and could keep him another season or two with franchise tag designations.
Neither side would want it to come to that. Both sides should be motivated to get a deal done before the opening of training camp this summer.
But, at this point, it does not appear a deal is anywhere close to coming together.