The 49ers know they will need to spend a lot of gold to lock up All-Pro tight end George Kittle. He wants to be the highest-paid player at the position — and then some — and San Francisco is willing to sign its core offensive player for the long term.
The real question is, how ready are the 49ers in being able to do so?
Kittle, 26, has far exceeded expectations as a fifth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He’s set to earn $2.1 million in base salary in 2020, which represents the height of his bargain rookie contract.
The floor of his new deal will begin at an average of $11 million per year. The Chargers’ Hunter Henry is getting $10.6 million with the franchise tag, while the Browns’ Austin Hooper just got $23 million guaranteed as part of a 4-year, $42 million free-agent signing.
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Kittle is better than Hooper all-around. His elite blocking and receiving skills make him the best tight end in the game, period, over the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, who turns 31 in October.
So Kittle will reset the market for tight ends. As is the norm with the early stage of negotiations, it makes sense for his representation to shoot for the moon with the new contract’s ceiling. Here’s a breakdown of how the 49ers can pay Kittle and how much he can expect in the end.
What is the 49ers’ salary-cap situation?
According to OverTheCap.com, the 49ers have around $16 million left under the cap for 2020. They got into that solid situation after moving pricey defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Colts before his contract season. That number jumps to near $50 million in 2021 as they’re facing a lot of expiring contracts.
They declined the fifth-year option on defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Trent Williams, their quick replacement left tackle for retiring Joe Staley, is set to earn more than $12.5 million this year. There’s another $11-million plus available assuming the team doesn’t bring back running back Tevin Coleman and safety Jaquiski Tartt.
San Francisco’s other notable veteran free agent in 2021 is cornerback Richard Sherman, who is still playing at a high level as a defensive leader at 32. There’s a good chance the 49ers can bring him back on a reasonable, mutually friendly deal.
The 49ers have a ton invested in defensive end behind 2019 Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa along with Arik Armstead and Dee Ford. If Ford doesn’t come through as a healthier contributor in 2020, they could save another $17.6 million against the cap in 2021 by cutting him at a cost of only $4.8 million in dead money.
With Kittle being a priority re-sign, there’s nothing prohibiting the 49ers from pleasing him and also bringing back Sherman.
How much it would cost the 49ers to franchise-tag George Kittle?
Based on what Henry got under the non-exclusive tag for 2020, the projected increase for 2021 would be right around that $11 million floor. Unlike QB, where the top five average annual salaries are well above the franchise tag values, there’s not a significant increase available via the exclusive franchise tag for tight ends.
Giving Kittle slightly more than Henry and Hooper with only one year of guaranteed money will be perceived as a low-ball move instead of a logical place-holder to extend the long-term deadline until next summer. It’s in the 49ers’ best interest to do the deal earlier and not make Kittle go through a contract year.
How much can George Kittle expect to be paid in his new contract?
So what is the money worthy of a “George Kittle deal”? For starters, it needs to be significantly more than Hooper got, both in terms of annual salary and guaranteed money. As for years, that depends.
At the same age, Travis Kelce got a raise from a third-round pick’s salary, a deserved reward for rising to the top of the position. For his 2016 extension, Kelce got $46.5 million over five years, with $20 million guaranteed.
Kittle is a more complete player than Kelce was at 26, and to the 49ers’ run-heavy offense, he also serves as their most seasoned downfield receiver. Kittle is right to command a unique contract.
Getting $15 million per season would put Kittle on the brink of also being paid like a top-10 wide receiver. For four years, something between $60 and $64 million isn’t too much, as long as it comes with more than $30 million guaranteed. At five years, Kittle should be looking at $75 million with $34 million guaranteed, or right in line with what the Browns recently gave wide receiver Jarvis Landry.
Part of the reason the tight end salaries haven’t escalated the way they should have has been a lack of dominant forces at the position for several recent seasons. Consider Rob Gronkowski got a six-year, $54 million deal with the Patriots to then make him the NFL’s highest-paid tight end in 2012 at $9 million per season.
Kittle is worthy of being a Gronk-like trendsetter, because he’s the type of player a younger Gronk was and means that much to the 49ers’ offense. The 49ers and Kittle might seem far apart now, but everything points to everyone being happy in the end.
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