George Kittle reported to 49ers training camp on time and without complaint, despite a desire to sign a massive contract extension. His reasoning was simple: Leaders put the team first.
Holding out doesn’t do that. It’s inherently selfish, even if it’s the rare way a player can gain a little leverage in an NFL ecosystem where teams hold all the trump cards.
It also preserves health in a violent game, where even a practice injury can end a career. If a player incurs something catastrophic before signing an extension, he gets nothing. That’s a big risk, one it’s unclear whether Kittle would’ve taken when the 49ers practice fully for the first time on Saturday.
That’s a moot point now that Kittle has agreed on terms of a contract extension, except to illustrate that even soft deadlines spurn deals. While the negotiation may have been complicated by the pandemic and his position, all’s well that ends well.
That’s where we are now, with smiles all around. That’s why there’s no need to declare a victor in this deal.
The 49ers rewarded an invaluable player who is as important as any non-quarterback to what they do. Kittle surely is happy and comfortable and feeling valued and completely focused on football. His teammates saw firsthand that hard work and talent gets rewarded.
Kittle got rewarded in a big way. NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco reported, per Kittle's agent, that the five-year pact is worth up to $75 million, with an $18 million signing bonus, $30 million guaranteed at signing and $40 million in overall guarantees.
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That deal gives the tight end market the hard reset it deserved, pushing current into waters stagnant since Jimmy Graham signed a big contract in 2014.
While it’s elite tight end money, 11 receivers still get more than Kittle’s $15 million average per season. That’s Jarvis Landry money. It’s less than the cost of Adam Theilen.
Wrap your brain around that.
Through that lens, it’s an absolute steal for the 49ers and exposes a key fact about NFL player valuation: Positional markets are stupid.
Kittle's monetary worth was hurt because there’s a “TE” next to his name on the flip card. Elite centers and safeties and linebackers suffer from the same malady. They are boxed in by position, putting a ceiling on their value.
That’s, in a word, dumb.
There should be exceptions to every rule, especially the illogical, and Kittle’s certainly one.
He’s not a tight end or a receiver. He’s a unicorn, an ideal player and locker-room presence and easily the most impactful non-quarterback on the 49ers roster.
The tight end’s financial constraints don’t apply to defensive tackles, which made the difficult choice to trade DeForest Buckner a bit easier. They got a first-round pick to use on a cheaper replacement, taking Javon Kinlaw on a rookie deal over having to pay Buckner the $21 million average annual salary Indianapolis gave him.
That also provided some flexibility to get this Kittle deal done, knowing full-well the 49ers have some tough decisions coming up with young talent deserving big raises in the near future.
Kittle had to get done, and the 49ers were smart to avoid the awkwardness that comes with playing hardball. They didn’t skimp on guarantees. There were no threats of a franchise tag in the future. No missed practices came into play.
They did right by a player essential to the 49ers pulling a Lombardi Trophy through this currently open championship window. The market-resetting deal also gave tight ends a little more respect – it’s no coincidence Travis Kelce also got extended Thursday – after years being underpaid.
That’s why there’s no need to declare a winner in this deal. It’s a rare win-win.