Why 49ers could trade tight end George Kittle in 2021
By Peter Panacy
The 49ers wouldn’t actually trade All-Pro tight end George Kittle, would they?
Full disclaimer: The San Francisco 49ers should do whatever they can in their power to keep All-Pro tight end George Kittle around for a very long, long time.
So this isn’t a suggestion the Niners should or will trade Kittle at some point in the not-so-distant future. Rather it’s an examination on why it could happen and what the context would be if it did.
To catch you up to speed, Kittle is entering a contract year on a rookie deal worth $674,574 annually. For a player who owns the single-season receiving-yard record for a tight end and the most yards by a tight end over his first three years in the league, that contract has been an absolute one-sided steal for San Francisco since taking Kittle in Round 5 of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Now, it’s Kittle’s turn to get paid.
Kittle’s camp and the 49ers aren’t close to a new extension, and it’s not looking like there will be any deal finalized anytime soon. Both sides remain hopeful, of course. Yet there are recent speculative reports Kittle’s new contract would be in the range of $20 million annually.
That would nearly double the current high of $10.6 million annually the Los Angeles Chargers are paying tight end Hunter Henry.
There isn’t much need to dive into what Kittle means to San Francisco. He’s the team’s best offensive weapon and a linchpin for what head coach Kyle Shanahan does, both in the passing and running games. Kittle has star power, too, gaining nationwide attention thanks to his outgoing personality.
So why on earth would the 49ers trade him?
It’s not entirely without precedent. Earlier this year, the Niners traded away their best defender, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, following a contract-extension standoff, to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Buckner, while not as nationally known as Kittle, was well-respected in the locker room and with the media. San Francisco, either unable or unwilling to match what became Buckner’s $21 million annual asking price, elected to part ways with one of the team’s best players.
This shows the 49ers are willing to make such a tough decision when the financial ramifications of an extension are seemingly too great to meet.
Why the 49ers could trade George Kittle
There are a lot of X-factors and scenarios yet to play out here. It’s important to remember that.
Kittle could force the Niners’ hand, electing to sit out until a new deal is reached. Perhaps he should, especially considering the value he’s provided to the team over the last three years. For a San Francisco squad still armed for another Super Bowl run, any elongated holdout would be disastrous.
Let’s assume, however, Kittle ends up playing the final year of his contract. Letting Kittle go in free agency for nothing in return is absurd, and the idea of applying a one-year franchise tag in 2021 would make a lot of sense, at least in theory. While unpopular with most players, the tag would at least extend the negotiating window for a new contract into July of 2021.
But what if there continues to be at an impasse?
A big factor at play here is the 49ers’ salary cap situation. Currently, according to Over the Cap, the Niners have just under $50 million in projected cap space for 2021. This doesn’t include, however, rookie contracts for the team’s first-year players, which haven’t been finalized yet, and it doesn’t take into account some of San Francisco’s notable pending free agents: safety Jaquiski Tartt, offensive tackle Trent Williams, cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams.
On top of those names, the 49ers have to think about possible extensions for right tackle Mike McGlinchey, linebacker Fred Warner and others, too. Second-year EDGE Nick Bosa could end up being the highest-paid defensive player in the league within a few years.
See how things get more complicated?
Additionally, the 2021 cap situation is far from certain. Initially, the thought was it could increase to $240 million. But the worldwide pandemic and subsequent ramifications could significantly cut into that number. Over the Cap’s prediction is now $215 million, hindering the 49ers’ ability to extend or re-sign Kittle.
In short, Kittle’s new deal could seriously jeopardize the team’s ability to re-sign and extend a number of their other extremely important players elsewhere on the roster.
This opens up the door for a possible tag-and-trade situation, contingent on another team willing to shell out what would be an exceptionally lucrative trade package for the All-Pro while giving Kittle the kind of money he wants and deserves. While no single draft pick comes close to accounting for Kittle’s value now, it’s possible the Niners would be looking at multiple first-round draft picks, a number of day-two picks and perhaps more.
And it’s hard not to imagine a multitude of teams across the league trying to outbid each other for Kittle’s services.
Again, the 49ers’ priority should be to keep Kittle in uniform for as long as possible. Even if that’s at the expense of losing some key players in the coming years, so be it. Kittle is that important.
But if the impasse continues, one shouldn’t be completely shocked about a would-be move if it happens.