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Why George Kittle’s contract negotiation with the 49ers is trickier than it might seem

George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers is the best tight end in the Milky Way galaxy. I suppose one could argue Travis Kelce and a couple others are in his ballpark as a receiver, but when you also factor blocking and the ability to take a linebacker and clobber him all the way back to second grade, it’s really not much of a discussion.

He was also, at worst, the third-most valuable player on the defending NFC championship team and is now, at worst, the second-most valuable, following the kick-you-in-the-crotch-spit-on-your-neck-fantastic trade of unblockable wrecking ball DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis.

As someone who loves the Niners with every fiber of my being, with a particular affinity for throwback playing styles, I’d be heartbroken if Kittle — who relishes moving 300-pound D-linemen against their will and knocking ‘em on their ass far more than scoring long touchdowns — doesn’t spend the next decade with the club.

By all accounts he feels the same way, appearing with no desire to leave coach Kyle Shanahan or his handsome quarterback. Without a doubt, the organization wants to get his signature on the dotted line of a lucrative new extension as well. And now, with the expiration of his rookie deal nigh as only one year remains, the galactically underpaid Kittle is allowed to sign a second contract. But there is the pesky little issue of working out the finances of said extension, and it’ll be quite tricky.

For example, Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper agreed to terms on a new five-year deal worth $100 million, with a fully guaranteed $40 million payout in the first two years and another $20 million guaranteed for injury. Other than, like, his mom, I doubt many folks would rather have Cooper on their football team than Kittle. But a Kittle extension in 2020 would not net as sexy of a financial package. Because the difference in leverage is incredibly vast.

Whereas Cooper had hit the open market, the 49ers have Kittle under team control for the next three years. The total owed is something in the range of $25 million thanks to the aforementioned final year of his contract (at a measly $2.1 million), plus two years of the relatively low tight end franchise tag number. Which is an absurd bargain for the team.

Additionally, in the absence of a new long-term deal, Kittle carries the year-to-year financial risk of injury. So while he should justifiably shatter Austin Hooper’s current TE high-water mark (an annual average of $10.5 million), any new contract has to be juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Niners having dibs on him for the next three years and a total payout of just around $25 million.

San Francisco’s contract negotiator, a man by the name of Paraag Marathe, knows this. If the 49ers were to rip up the final year of Kittle’s deal and replace it with Cooper’s (in other words, $98 million in new money over four years), that would almost be tantamount to giving him $75 million for an additional two seasons beyond what they currently have control of him for and absorbing the financial risk of injury and full guarantees. While Kittle’s perhaps as valuable as any non-quarterback in the NFL, that’s not happening.

So Kittle’s agent Jack Bechta isn’t gonna walk away from the negotiating table with the kind of contract he would if this were 2023 and Kittle were a free agent. In order to lock in large guarantees now, shed three years of carrying the financial injury risk, and make it worth Marathe’s while to eschew the $8 million-plus Kittle is otherwise due to average across the next three seasons, some financial concessions by Bechta will be necessary.

None of those dynamics are unique to this situation as opposed to other extension negotiations for stars that happen all the time across the league — though the degree may be. And that’s because thanks to the cheap franchise tag number for tight ends ($10.6 million in 2020), it’s hard to have a bigger gap between actual value and franchise tag number than the one that Kittle currently finds himself in.

With, say, a wide receiver or pass rusher, the fallback option of playing under the tag isn’t quite as daunting when it comes with a price tag of nearly double what Kittle’s would be. Meaning Kittle would be much more inclined than players at other positions to want to avoid the tag.

Striking the right balance to satisfy both parties may be complex, but here’s hoping Marathe and Bechta manage to find a way to engage in a six-feet-apart kiss on the financial Venn diagram of a new long-term deal that keeps Kittle with the Niners for many, many years.

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