San Francisco 49ers: Why George Kittle extension isn’t so simple

Extension talks between the 49ers and George Kittle have moved at a snail’s pace, and the details are likely getting in the way of a new deal.

The San Francisco 49ers would be foolish to let All-Pro tight end George Kittle walk, yet they are preparing for the possibility of it happening.

The Niners are already looking to potentially replace Kittle’s elite-level blocking, having selected Georgia tight end Charlie Woerner, one of college football’s best blockers, in the NFL Draft this year. And head coach Kyle Shanahan is likely thinking about spreading Kittle’s pass-catching impact around to other players on the field, perhaps to someone like second-year pro Jalen Hurd or rookie wideout Brandon Aiyuk.

As things stand now, Kittle will play 2020 on the final year of his rookie contract. Talks about an extension have reached an impasse, although general manager John Lynch told reporters, “We’re really hopeful. We’re going to work extremely hard. George is such a great fit for what we do. He’s a tremendous player.”

But that was before NFL Network’s Mike Silver explained the large disconnect on Monday, having spoken with Kittle’s agent, Jack Bechta:

I talked to Kittle’s agent, Jack Bechta, yesterday. He said progress has been minimal, and later reinforced that by texting me an inchworm emoji to underscore that fact. It’s not just money. There is structure, and how much money a player like George Kittle could get upfront, how much would actually be guaranteed.

And at the heart of all this has been somewhat of a philosophical divide between the 49ers, who say, “Listen, we want to pay you more than any tight end ever because you’re the greatest tight end,” and Kittle’s camp, which is saying, “Don’t view me as a tight end. I was just voted the seventh-best player in football at any position.”

Kittle was named as the No. 7 overall player on the recently published NFL 100 list entering 2020.

So it makes sense Kittle would want to earn more than just tight end money. Former Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper signed a free-agent deal with the Cleveland Browns for an average annual value of $10.5 million. But considering Kittle’s all-around value, extending just beyond his already record-setting statistics, why not just give Kittle a contract worth $15 million per year and call it a deal?

Well, it’s not that simple.

 

All the complications 49ers face with a George Kittle extension

Not overlooked in the conversation is the fact the 2021 salary cap is potentially going to drop from nearly $200 million this season to as low as $175 million a year from now. That’ll force more than a handful of teams to make some serious cap casualties, and the Niners are no different.

On top of that, Lynch and Shanahan are facing a harsh reality they won’t be able to retain some key players set to become free agents next season. This list includes cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Jaquiski Tartt, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, cornerback K’Waun Williams and left tackle Trent Williams, to name a few. Committing $15 million to Kittle would seriously endanger the 49ers’ ability to re-sign any of those players.

Yet the tough decisions are only part of San Francisco’s problems when it comes to negotiating a new deal with the tight end.

The Niners enjoy and are particularly good at working incentives into their player contracts. Some, like Sherman, capitalized on these as of late. Yet if a player with an incentive-laden deal winds up underperforming, the 49ers aren’t overly bit from a financial standpoint.

From what Silver reported, it seems the lack of real progress has less to do with money and more to do with guarantees and what Kittle could get up front.

Previously, San Francisco wouldn’t shy away from front-loading deals when it was laden with cap space. That’s no longer the case, as the 49ers have just under $173 million in player obligations in 2021, currently. So it would have made sense to back-load Kittle’s contract, banking on the hope the NFL salary cap would increase in years 2022 or 2023.

That in of itself is a gamble, too, as the current pandemic could easily have long-lasting ramifications while preventing any major cap increase in the coming years.

As for Kittle’s camp, it makes perfect sense for him to want to command as much as possible as quickly as possible, given he’s already at the prime of his career and exceeding so many of the expectations placed upon him.

Yet it’s not simple for the 49ers to either trade or let Kittle walk either. Kittle is a fan favorite, someone worth watching on game days. He sells tickets, when that happens again, and he is surely a top-getter in merchandise sales, too. Parting ways with fan favorites is rarely a good idea, even under the best of circumstances, and it could also send a damaging message to the locker room, one which has grown tremendously close under Shanahan the past few years.

So it’s not as clear a situation as anyone would like. And it might be some time before real progress is made on these talks, too.