George Kittle will eventually be paid more than any other tight end in the NFL. The reason his next contract still isn't done? Because he plays tight end in the NFL.
Kittle is like a pocket knife for the San Francisco 49ers. He's a masterful blocker. He catches passes in great volume. He's difficult to bring down. All that versatility, which features prominently in the structure of head coach Kyle Shanahan's unique offense, undoubtedly enhances Kittle's value for a team that reached the Super Bowl last year.
But the NFL's salary system places artificial limits on how much Kittle can earn, all because of the position he plays. As an excellent tight end, Kittle is too good for his own good.
Kittle is a complete player, which is to say he functions as both a receiver and an extra offensive lineman. His 85 catches and 107 targets in 2019 far and away led all Niners pass-catchers. His 1,377 receiving yards in 2018 set a league record for tight ends. He's also one of just nine players with at least 170 receptions and 2,000 receiving yards combined in the last two seasons.
And once Kittle gets the ball in his hands, he's extremely difficult to bring down: His 1,406 combined yards after the catch in 2018 and 2019 led all receivers and tight ends, and he has a particular knack for barreling over would-be tacklers, as this remarkable stat demonstrates:
Then there's Kittle's ability to block, both in the run and pass games. Kittle caught just 43 passes during his three seasons at the University of Iowa, which was the biggest reason he slipped to the fifth round of the 2017 draft. There, he was primarily used as a blocker, and he excelled at it. He's since brought that blocking ability to the NFL. Analyst Brandon Thorn has put together a running Twitter thread of Kittle's blocking exploits, but here's just one example:
All of this makes Kittle the perfect multi-dimensional weapon for Shanahan's offense, which powered the Niners to last season's Super Bowl. Shanahan likes to rely on a lot of bigger personnel groups to counter the league's increased tendency to use smaller, faster defenders - itself a reaction to most offenses' heavy use of extra receivers. The problem for Kittle, at least when it comes to getting paid, is that while the NFL values multi-dimensional players, it doesn't pay them accordingly. This is especially true for tight ends.
The league's pay structure creates markets for specific positions. The system is built around the franchise tag, which sets values according to a rolling average of what the top five earners at a particular position made across the previous five seasons before weighing that against the salary cap (it's a bit more complicated, but that's the basic idea). Versatile players such as Jimmy Graham and Le'Veon Bell have challenged this system of soft collusion in recent years, with little success.
The top of the wide receiver market, for example, pays between $18 million and $22 million per season. Kittle's production would seem to put him at or near that level. But by definition, he's a tight end, and the top of the tight end market currently maxes out at $10.6 million, which is what the Chargers' Hunter Henry will make this year on the franchise tag.
The tight end market has not kept pace with the salary cap's enormous growth, in large part because it's been a while since a truly transformative tight end has signed a market-setting deal. Austin Hooper's free-agent deal with the Browns this offseason was worth $10.5 million in average annual value. As ex-agent Joel Corry recently noted on his podcast, that means the tight end market has moved by just $500,000 since Graham set the standard with a deal that averaged $10 million annually - way back in 2014. The cap has increased by 49% since then.
Both Travis Kelce of the Chiefs and Zach Ertz of the Eagles - two tight ends whose pass-catching production is on par with Kittle's - signed their deals in 2016. Graham signed another deal averaging $10 million a year in 2018, when he was about to turn 32. And Rob Gronkowski, who set the standard for multi-dimensional tight ends in this pass-happy era, signed what had been a market-setting deal back in 2012, but it yoked him to the Patriots right up until his 2019 retirement. Gronk is scheduled to play the final year of that contract this season with the Bucs, who traded for him after he decided in April to play again.
So where does this leave Kittle? Because of his rookie contract, for which he had no bargaining power, he's already grossly underpaid: According to Over The Cap's database, Kittle earned a total of $1.96 million across his first three seasons, and he's slated to collect a mere $2.12 million this year, in the final year of his deal. The 49ers also have the ability to franchise tag him after that; Corry said the Niners conceivably could even tag Kittle in 2021 and 2022 before using the transition tag on him in 2023, at an estimated total cost of just $33.5 million, or a little more than $11 million per season. An anticipated decline in the salary cap because of the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on revenues means the tight end tag could be as low as $9.2 million in 2021, according to Corry. That likely won't make Kittle happy, though.
On his podcast, Corry suggested a deal that uses Graham's 2014 contract and Gronkowski's 2012 deal as comparisons. According to Over The Cap, those pacts both averaged 7.5% of the salary cap at the time of signing. Tying Kittle's deal to the cap's growth since those deals would equal a range of about $14.9 million.
Joe Banner, a former executive for both the Eagles and Browns, agrees with this assessment:
Kittle reported to the Niners because he more or less had to; the new collective bargaining agreement takes an accrued season toward free agency away from any player who doesn't show up for the first day of training camp.
Niners general manager John Lynch said it would be "silly" not to get a deal done with a player of Kittle's ability, but as of last week, the two sides are reportedly still not close. Corry's suggestion would indeed be a great deal for Kittle, but it's still far below what he might get if his compensation wasn't defined by the position he plays.
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.