The 49ers and tight end George Kittle aren’t close on a new deal because Kittle and his agent want the player to be paid as something more than a tight end. There’s a good reason for that position, because he is.
Kittle is a football player. He does everything he’s expected to do at the highest possible level, and his energy and passion for the game raises the level of those around him.
For example, if games happen without fans this year, every team will need players who get guys who otherwise need the adrenaline of a crowd to get them going. On the 49ers, that guy is George Kittle.
He loves football. He loves everything about it. He loves it so much that would play for free.
But since the game generates billions for the owners and since the best players get the biggest pieces of salary-cap pie, his passion for the game isn’t going to become a willingness to play for less than he’s due. That’s his absolute right. It’s the right of every player to try to get every penny he can, while he can.
Unlike a quarterback or a receiver, Kittle is in the fray. Blocking and getting tackled and getting hit and getting hurt. While he has the will and/or the DNA to play through many injuries, he’s constantly at risk of suffering the kind of injury through which he can’t play — and from which he possibly won’t ever be able to return.
Kittle’s pay for 2020 will be based on the last year of his rookie deal; he’s due to make $2.133 million. Absent a long-term deal, he’ll likely get the franchise tag in 2021. This year, that’s $10.6 million — the lowest of all positions other than running back ($10.2 million) and kicker/punter ($5 million). Next year, it’s unclear what the franchise tags will be, given that they are tied to the salary cap and given that the salary cap may drop this year.
Whatever it is, Kittle absent a long-term deal would be eligible for the franchise tag in 2021, a 20-percent raise in 2022, and then he’d be eligible for the quarterback tender in 2023 under the franchise tag, another 20-percent raise under the transition tag, or a shot at the open market.
Kittle, 26, has the right to refuse any offers the 49ers make and push his way through a pair of franchise tags and to the open market. If he’s still healthy at 29, there would surely be a team that embraces his skills, abilities, mindset, and heart. And even if he doesn’t ever get top receiver or left tackle money, the only way any player can maximize his value is to get to the open market.
The other way to get close to top dollar, of course, is to hold out and agitate for a trade, like former Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack did. The 49ers probably won’t want to trade Kittle, but if they also don’t want to pay him what he wants, they’ll have to ask whether they prefer three more years of Kittle with a compensatory draft pick a season after he exits as a free agent or whether they are willing to sell high in the next year or so, sending him to a team that would value what he brings to the table significantly enough to both give the 49ers what they want in trade compensation and to give Kittle what he wants in salary.
However it plays out, Kittle already has transcended the position he plays. He’s not wrong to want a contract that does the same. And even though it will take three seasons to get there, he has a way to eventually make himself available to anyone else who would see his value the same way.