George Kittle has been the best 49ers receiver the last two seasons and it’s not even close. He has 2,430 yards in that span, a sum better than everyone on the planet except Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans and Travis Kelce.
The first four make an average of $16.2 million or more per season.
Kelce makes just over half that on an extension signed in 2016. It’s not because he’s less valuable or those stats are a fluke. He was limited by the position he plays.
Tight ends make far less than their receiving brethren despite playing a versatile and vital position in the modern NFL.
Kittle will fight the same stigma trying as he tries to work out a seemingly inevitable contract extension with the 49ers this offseason. He does everything asked of a receiver and more, yet somehow his work is worth less.
The Iowa product surely will shatter the record $54 million in total dollars given to Rob Gronkowski way back when, and the average $10.5 million per year Austin Hooper got from the Cleveland Browns on a four-year deal this offseason.
Kittle should sign a record-setting deal in every metric even if the market’s depressed a bit due to possible adjustments made over the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that might lead to flat salary cap or smaller-than-usual increase. Any discussion of difficulties maximizing his earning power ignore the greater point.
Kittle shouldn’t be boxed in by the position he plays. Elite is elite no matter where you are in the formation, be it in-line or out wide. Kittle isn’t just one of the NFL’s best tight ends, for all that job entails. He’s one of the NFL’s best receivers regardless of position.
His yardage total the last two years bears that out. His 3.12 yards per route run was the NFL’s best in 2019. His 2.82 Y/RR in 2018 was second only to Jones.
His 7.3 yards after the catch per reception also led all receivers and tight ends. His 9.9 YAC/reception in 2018 was the NFL’s best among those positions by nearly four yards, per Pro Football Focus.
All that proves he shouldn’t just set the market for tight ends. He should get paid comparable to those who produce like him in the passing game. Evans is in that production range, and the Tampa Bay wideout is working under a five-year, $82 million contract extension signed in 2018 with $55 million in guarantees and $38.2 million fully guaranteed.
It’s hard to fathom Kittle getting that sum, even during a normal offseason, due to the “T” and “E” next to his name on a lineup card.
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Jimmy Graham tried to break through the tight-end ceiling back in 2014, after he recorded 1,215 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns for New Orleans the previous season. The Saints placed a franchise tag on him at the tight end rate, which was roughly $5 million lower that the receiver amount.
Graham didn’t like that one bit. He eventually filed a grievance demanding to be viewed as a receiver. He lost. Then he appealed the arbiter’s decision, but agreed to a four-year, $42 million deal with New Orleans before that case was heard.
Graham was almost exclusively a receiving tight end trying to be re-categorized. Kittle’s an elite receiver and a tenacious run blocker, something clear during the NFC playoffs when he helped the 49ers dominate on the ground. PFF graded him as an elite run blocker ranked fifth in that category last year over 472 snaps working in the run game.
The 49ers understand Kittle’s value well and seem ready to pay him. General manager John Lynch has expressed that point earlier this month on the 49ers Insider Podcast.
“George is certainly a priority,” Lynch told NBC Sports Bay Area in early May. “I don’t anticipate -- you never say never -- but George is going to be Niner. We think too highly of him. I think he loves the (environment).
“We got to find the right deal and we’ll continue working towards that. We’re not going to put any timetable on that. But George is certainly is a priority for us. We love everything about him. We love everything he brings to the Niners.”
Finding a proper deal, given everything he does and the market surrounding the position he plays, isn’t straight forward.
“Those are some of the challenges, I think,” Lynch said. “We understand that. And he understands that.
“These things aren’t easy. Oftentimes, they’re complex, but they’re doable. I know there’s motivation on both sides. And so I’m very confident in due time, we’ll get that done.”