Are 49ers preparing to move on from George Kittle sooner than later?

A Niners team without George Kittle seems unfathomable, but the reality of that happening is bigger than you think.
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle / Michael Owens/GettyImages

The 49ers have continued to take multiple swings at tight end behind George Kittle, who might be nearing the end of his Niners tenure.

It's hard to think about All-Pro tight end George Kittle suiting up for anyone other than the San Francisco 49ers.

But a very real possibility is certainly on the table.

The Niners have spent years trying to find a suitable No. 2 to support Kittle at the position, perhaps coming the closest in 2020 when they added one-time Pro Bowler Jordan Reed amid a season when both he and Kittle dealt with significant injuries.

While it's been a goal of head coach Kyle Shanahan to have two legitimate threats at tight end, the hard reality is that San Francisco could be looking at life after Kittle in the near future.

As NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco pointed out, the 49ers are faced with some tough financial decisions over the next few years, including offering quarterback Brock Purdy an extension that could make him one of the highest-paid players in the league.

In order to generate some cost savings, the Niners have been coerced into making some challenging decisions with some of their other top-paid players:

"The team proposed significant paycuts for their two longest-tenured players: Defensive tackle Arik Armstead and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Armstead declined and the 49ers released him. He made the right decision, as he quickly signed a three-year, $43.5 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars that pays him more than twice what the 49ers had offered.

Juszczyk opted to remain with the 49ers on a new deal that created $4 million in salary cap savings but keeps him atop the NFL's pay scale at his position.

Guess who is the next longest-tenured 49ers player? That’s Kittle."

Maiocco has an excellent feeling on San Francisco's pulse, and his foreshadowing is telling.

What does George Kittle's contract look like?

Kittle is a free agent in 2026 but will count for $12.2 million against the cap this season and $22.1 million in 2025 before hitting the open market, per Over the Cap.

The 49ers have already created void years to spread out Kittle's cap hit after 2026, but a post-June 1 release in 2025 could free up $15 million in much-needed cap space against $7 million in dead money.

The Niners could continue restructuring Kittle's contract to keep him around, and both sides would assuredly love to stay in a mutual agreement.

But it's possible that San Francisco is pushed into the tough-but-understandable decision of moving on from Kittle within the next couple of years, either by making him a cap casualty or letting his existing contract expire after the next two seasons.

49ers have actively sought a long-term replacement for George Kittle

There's another nugget in Maiocco's piece about Kittle's future.

While the 49ers have sought a backup to support Kittle and guard against his injury risk, the other element is they also may be seeking someone who can eventually supplant Kittle as the No. 1 option on the depth chart in the not-so-distant future.

A year ago, the Niners drafted two tight ends, Cameron Latu and Brayden Willis, but neither offered much of anything to the 2023 squad. Latu struggled in training camp before landing on season-ending injured reserve prior to Week 1, and Willis was an ancillary player at best, appearing in just seven games and not recording a single catch.

That's arguably a reason why San Francisco targeted Detroit Lions tight end Brock Wright, a restricted free agent whom Detroit ultimately kept after matching the three-year, $12 million offer the 49ers gave him.

Here's what Maiocco had to say about that development:

"The Detroit Lions’ decision to match the 49ers’ offer sheet for Wright is a major setback because he was clearly penciled in as the team’s primary backup to Kittle.

The 49ers have received precious little production from any tight end not named Kittle in recent seasons. And while Wright is primarily a blocker, he proved to be a better threat in the passing game than any of the 49ers' other reserves."

The Niners' other two backups to Kittle from last season, Charlie Woerner and Ross Dwelley, are no longer with the team.

For now, Kittle shouldn't feel as if his position with San Francisco is under threat.

However, if the 49ers opt to go after a promising tight end early in the 2024 NFL Draft, it might signify that they're willing to move on from the fan-favorite not too far down the road from now.

Even if it's an extremely tough choice to make.

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