They were on the field together for only 49 plays last season, but they supplied a season’s worth of excitement going head-to-head.
And while 49ers tight end George Kittle and Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker battle with fiery intensity, it is clear they also have deep admiration for each other.
“Budda was one of the first guys who congratulated me on the contract,” Kittle said. “I did the same for him when he got his. We have mutual respect for each other. We respect each other’s game.”
Kittle and Baker became the highest-paid players at their positions a week apart last month. Kittle is set to make $15 million a year, while Baker checks in at $14.75 million annually.
One thing is for certain: They are going to be seeing a lot of each other in the coming season, including in an NFC West showdown Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in the season opener.
Last season, when the 49ers and Cardinals met on a Thursday night game in Week 9, Kittle sustained injuries to his left knee and ankle on the 49ers’ first offensive play of the game.
He returned to the game, and Baker made a couple of pass-breakups on throws Jimmy Garoppolo directed toward Kittle.
A TV camera caught Kittle yelling, “I’m still here, Budda," while sitting on the 49ers' bench.
Despite playing with injuries that would keep him sidelined for the rematch two weeks later, Kittle caught six passes for 79 yards. Kittle provided a 30-yard touchdown, a play on which he tossed Baker aside en route to the end zone.
“Me saying, ‘I’m still here, Budda,’ was because he had two great knockdowns on me and I just reminded him that, hey, football is a long game,” Kittle said. “There are 60 to 70 plays and I’m going to be here all night.”
And that is one thing Kittle does not need to remind himself about Baker.
“He’s a guy that, honestly, does not get enough recognition,” Kittle said. “He’s an incredible football player. We’re going to have a great matchup. We compete at a very high level. We have a lot of intensity and we both love the game of football. I mean, what more do you want in a matchup?”
Baker, who like Kittle, enters his fourth NFL season, led the league with 104 solo tackles last season.
Kittle marveled at Baker’s approach to the game as he watched the Cardinals' finale last season against the Los Angeles Rams.
It was a game that had no playoff implications – certainly not for Arizona, which was heading for a 5-10-1 season. Kittle noticed Baker played as if the Super Bowl were on the line. He was all over the field with 13 tackles and a half-sack.
“If that’s what you get Week 17 when there’s no chance to go to the playoffs, what do you expect Week 1 of a new season in front of no fans?” Kittle said. “He’s going to come after it every single play. So if I do not bring the intensity, I’m going to look like a fool out there.”