George Kittle broke records on Thursday when the 49ers tight end inked a whopping 5 years, $75 million — destroying the next-largest contract almost $5M a year. Now the question remains: Is George Kittle worth it?
Coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, Kittle is unquestionably the most important offensive weapon on the Niners. More importantly from a league-wide perspective he represents a further movement to a new NFL, de-emphasizing traditional notions of positional importance, and replacing them with a simpler, more effective concept: Players who make plays.
We saw this in the 2020 offseason when the Panthers made Christian McCaffery the highest paid running back in the NFL. Predisposed notions tells us that running backs aren’t worth that kind of money in the modern NFL, that their impact is limited as football has moved towards an emphasis to the passing game — but McCaffery makes plays in both phases.
So does George Kittle, and that’s precisely why this contract makes sense for the 49ers, and why it was incredibly smart. Looking at the stats might lead you to believe he’s a traditional tight end, but it’s how Kittle plays that makes him a generationally-defining player. A YAC-king (yards after catch), Kittle is the kind of offensive player who has to be schemed against by defenses — but the problem is how you scheme against someone capable of things like this?
— Coach Yac (@Coach_Yac) August 9, 2020
Too athletic for most linebackers, too powerful for a majority of secondaries, Kittle makes life easy for Jimmy Garappolo simply by existing. Kittle is the best safety net in the NFL, and having a player you just need to get the ball in his hands makes it infinitely easier to play quarterback with confidence. The best players make those around them better, and it’s rare to have a tight end so good that pressure is taken off a quarterback.
This is where the NFL is moving in general. Away from intricate schematics and perfectly executed plays, and more to thriving in chaos and causing it in the process. If the NFL of the last 30 years was executing plays like a perfectly written symphony, now the game is freeform jazz — and players capable of improvising on the fly are proving to be more valuable than ever.
These sound like justifications for someone who doesn’t have the numbers to back it up — but Kittle very much does. In 2018 he broke the NFL record for yards by a tight end with 1,377, and even when it seemed like this 2019 was a bit of a letdown, he still finished with the 33rd best season of all time.
Perhaps more importantly than Kittle’s yards, is his peerless reliability at the position. In 2018 and 2019 he ranked 4th and 7th all-time in yards-per-target. This might sound like a pointless stat, but it’s incredibly telling. It’s a mark showing that whenever a quarterback puts trust in him the outcome is going to be overwhelmingly positive.
Kittle’s 10.13 YPT in 2018 is so monumental that it stands with Michael Irvin’s 1994 year (10.26), Torry Holt’s 2004 season (10.16), and Julio Jones’ 2011 season (10.09). When you have a tight end display the same impact as some of the greatest receivers to play the game you immediately have a very special player.
People will argue whether Kittle is worth the money without really looking into how good he is in context. In totality we see a player who makes the rest of his offense better, transforms the fortunes of those around him, and can be an offensive cornerstone because of how he plays the games. Position be damned, when you can get all that for $15M a season you’re not just getting a good deal, you’re getting one of the best steals in the NFL.
Give it a year or two and Kittle will prove his biggest doubters wrong.