Breaking the Bank: Will the 49ers break organizational values to extend George Kittle?
NFL organizations work tirelessly in order to keep Super Bowl windows open for as long as possible, from acquiring a franchise quarterback to assembling a complementary roster around him within the confines of a salary cap.
Unlike the other professional sports leagues, where free agents are truly free to switch teams, in the NFL, the teams hold the ultimate trump card -- the franchise tag. While it may create dissension between the player and the front office, it ultimately gives leverage to the team because they can retain a player's rights, even when there's no long-term agreement in place.
The franchise tag value changes from year-to-year and it's calculated by averaging out the yearly salaries of the five highest-paid players at the position. As you'd imagine, for quarterbacks, pass rushers and tackles, the franchise tag value is immense. The team would actually prefer to lock those players down long term, rather than paying them such a high salary for one season and then doing the same dance the following season.
In the case of tight ends, it's a position that still isn't paid a premium, despite having some big-time stars like Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz receiving extensions, who impact the game in multiple ways.
In terms of negotiations in the NFL, timing is the magic ingredient that players can't really control. The starting point for most contract discussions -- especially in the case of the NFL's best tight end -- is with the current highest-paid player at said position. Which in Kittle's case, happens to be Austin Hooper and his $10.5M average annual value and $23.5M guaranteed.
The 49ers' front office likely have no problem exceeding Hooper's yearly salary and guaranteed money, but how far above Hooper's value do they go to extend Kittle?
Kittle and his agent, Jack Bechta, have stated that they believe Kittle requires a "special" contract for a player of his caliber, which most have presumed to be approaching wide receiver salaries (i.e.: north of $15-16M annually).
NFL Network's Mike Silver provided an update on Monday, adding that "there's a philosophical divide between the two sides. The 49ers are saying 'We want to pay you as the highest TE ever' and Kittle's camp is saying 'I was just voted the 7th-best player in football at any position.'"
Yet, as I have stated in the past, the 49ers front office knows that they can slap the franchise tag on their best player two years in a row and pay him roughly $24M over the next two seasons (his age-27 and age-28 seasons, by the way).
EVP of Football Operations Paraag Marathe and Salary Cap Analyst Jeffrey Diamond are the two men responsible for making sure the 49ers are operating within the confines of the salary cap, consistently striking under-market and team-friendly deals with players to allow for financial flexibility.
In the NFL, with larger roster sizes and relatively short peaks for non-quarterbacks, teams have to be wise not to commit a large chunk of their salary cap to a single player. If a team signs one or two bad contracts, then all of a sudden their Super Bowl window closes faster than Fred Warner on an opposing running back (think Los Angeles Rams 2019).
With economic uncertainty due to a pandemic, potentially causing league revenues to dip and a salary cap that was supposed to rise to $215M to actually drop to $175M, front offices have to be even more careful about the contracts they sign.
Especially in the case of the 49ers, who have drafted well over the last two seasons, have numerous homegrown players who are coming for extensions, from Mike McGlinchey to Fred Warner. Their list of free agents in 2021 is bigger than Kyle Shanahan's play-sheet, including big names like Richard Sherman, Kyle Juszczyk and Kendrick Bourne.
San Francisco's front office has proven to be risk-takers, moving star lineman DeForest Buckner for a first-round pick earlier this year. They've also consistently shown that they do not pay players over market value -- I mean name a bad contract that they've signed?
The largest contract they've handed out in the John Lynch era was to Jimmy Garoppolo, who earned $48.7M in guarantees and $27.5M in average annual value. Both figures look particularly miniscule after latest quarterback deals.
The front office was criticized for the deals handed out to Dee Ford (5-years, $85M, $19.8M guaranteed) or Kwon Alexander (4-years, $54M, $14.3M guaranteed). But both of those deals didn't sniff high-end positional pay and are contracts that can easily come off the books next season.
For the first time, the 49ers are facing a dilemma where they have a player who deserves to be paid well above market value, after being voted as the seventh-best player in the NFL. But their organizational philosophy has been to maintain salary cap flexibility via team-friendly and under-market contracts. Unfortunately, that's a luxury they do not have with George Kittle, who seems dead set on breaking the tight end market wide open.
At the end of the day, this feels like a game of Chicken between the 49ers and Kittle's camp. The side to blink first will likely have to make more concessions to give into a deal. With padded practices looming in the next week, I'd say that a quasi-deadline for an extension would be August 15, when San Francisco moves into their next phase of training camp.
Like the marine fog setting over the Marina in San Francisco, there will be this uncomfortable cloud hovering over the 49ers until they strike a long-term extension with the face of their franchise. But who will blink first?