Ex-NFL agent Joel Corry is skeptical that 49ers' George Kittle's extension will exceed $17M annually
Former NFL agent Joel Corry details his thoughts on why George Kittle will not transcend positional pay in his new extension and the ceiling for his annual salary will be $17M.
As soon as the 49ers put the finishing touches on the DeForest Buckner trade and Arik Armstead contract, the focus shifted to George Kittle's extension.
The 49ers' star tight end is heading into the final year of his rookie deal, but is involved in a complex negotiation with San Francisco's front office as he looks to transcend positional pay in his subsequent contract.
In order to delve into the intricacies of the Kittle's forthcoming agreement, I spoke with former NFL agent Joel Corry, who founded Premier Sports and Entertainment, and is currently a writer for CBS Sports specializing in player contracts.
George Kittle's current juxtaposition involves trying to secure a deal that would make him the highest-paid tight end in league history by a significant margin. His agent, Jack Bechta, went on a media tour a few weeks ago, trying to raise his client's value.
Bechta described his client's contract situation, "right now, there is not a comp for George [Kittle], he’s unique, he’s a unicorn, he’s one of a kind...he needs a special contract."
George Kittle's agent is stuck between a rock and a hard place, representing a premium player at a non-premium position, while attempting to reset the market. Here's a look at the current highest paid tight ends.
Hunter Henry, who's set to play on the franchise tag and Austin Hooper, who just got a hefty pay raise from the Cleveland Browns are the current market-toppers at the position, but are no match to Kittle on the field.
The problem for Bechta is that Kittle can be a true threat as a receiver, setting the receiving record for tight ends in 2018 and also a dominant run-blocker, a role that he predominantly played in 2019. Given that, Kittle's camp would like to be paid in the realm of the other top wide receivers in the league -- not tight ends. Here are the current highest-paid receivers.
Not only are the yearly salaries vastly different, the up-front guarantees in receiver contracts are drastically higher than their tight end counterparts. Chiefs' Tyreek Hill's guarantee is $35M puts Hooper's record-setting contract right out of the water. The differences are staggering and Kittle will look to bridge the gap this offseason with the 49ers.
CBS Sports' Joel Corry agreed that it will be difficult to bridge the gap when I asked him about Kittle's market. Corry added that he's "skeptical that Kittle will earn receiver money."
The number that continues to be the threshold for Corry is $17M annually. While many fans believe that Kittle's yearly salary will easily exceed this number, the former agent believes that he won't sniff this number -- even if he holds out.
After representing former NFL players, Corry describes how difficult it is for players to transcend positional pay. He explains that pass rushers, tackles and quarterbacks will always get paid a premium, no matter how their valued within their position.
Many point to running back Christian McCaffrey as a player that was able to earn receiver money, despite being a running back. Corry dismisses that notion, adding that McCaffrey's contract was just built off of Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell's deals.
The Panthers' running back's new deal exceeded Elliott's contract by about $1M in annual salary and $2M in guaranteed money.
Corry does admit that if he were Kittle's agent, he would be attempting to shatter the tight end market for Kittle's extension, but it's going to be extremely difficult to do so, given Kittle's limited leverage in this position.
The former fifth-round pick is slated to make $2.21M this upcoming season and will be a free agent heading into 2021.
After this season, the 49ers could place the franchise tag on Kittle, which would only cost them $10.6M against the salary cap. If they were still unable to come to a long-term extension, the 49ers could place a franchise tag on Kittle for a price tag of $12.7M (120 percent of the previous year's salary) before the 2022 season.
Essentially, the 49ers can employ Kittle at a cost of $23.3M over the next two seasons. Corry adds that this leverage will force the 49ers' tight end to do more of the concessions. The former agent adds that unless ownership intervenes in the deal, it could certainly drag out longer than anyone would like.
He adds that the 49ers' front office, led by John Lynch and Paraag Marathe are one of the five-most intelligent front offices in terms of structuring contracts and continually have players sign under-valued contracts.
Given this, what happens next? Corry believes that the clues are in Trent Williams' restructure. A few weeks ago, the 49ers quietly restructured Williams' contract, guaranteeing a portion of his salary. More importantly, the restructure does not allow the 49ers to place a franchise tag on Williams when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.
Corry thinks that this was a witty move, because the front office likely believes that they will need to franchise tag Kittle after 2020, so they're buying goodwill with Williams' camp at the same time.
"They're on Venus and Mars in negotiations right now," Corry believes, as he thinks a deal would be done already if either side was willing to concede on the overall salary or true guarantees.
He believes that a realistic contract would involve a significant chunk of guaranteed money through a signing bonus and the use of per-game roster bonuses in order to lower the potential cap hit.
The number that Corry believes that Kittle's camp should be focusing on his somewhere between $14.5M and 15M annually would be mutually beneficial for both sides.
Corry also adds that Kittle will not be able to hold out during training camp this season. As Kittle's a late-round draft pick, he's on the fourth and final year of his rookie deal. Per the latest collective-bargaining agreement, if Kittle were to even miss a single day of training camp, he could lose out on an accrued season. This would mean that he would go from being an unrestricted free agent to a restricted free agent.
At the same time, every day that Kittle misses also means a fine of $40,000 -- which is significant when Kittle's career earnings are only $1.9M till date. Given those things, the likelihood that Kittle holds out of camp is fairly low, lessening his contract leverage even more.
I believe that the 49ers and George Kittle will not come to an agreement on a long-term extension this offseason. Given Bechta's public demands and the 49ers' history of signing players to team-friendly deals, the likelihood that a Kittle extension happens this season is low.
But what would be a realistic contract look like for the league's best tight end? If I were in Paraag Marathe's shoes, this would be a deal that I think benefits both the 49ers and Kittle, while maintaining cap flexibility while a lot of unknown exists in terms of the league's revenue.
Corry does add that he believes the salary cap will not fall after the end of this season, despite anticipated revenue losses. The former agent adds that it would not be fair to lower the salary cap, instead he foresees a flat cap over the next few seasons.
I would propose the following to George Kittle's camp:
Four-year extension, that has Kittle with the team through 2024 (his age 31 season).
$58M total value, coming to an average salary of $14.5M per season
$32M in total guarantees, with a $22M signing bonus.
This would easily exceed Hooper's $10.5M annual salary, while also trumping his $23M in total guarantees. It also keeps the salary cap hits fairly low and gives the 49ers an option to release Kittle before the 2024 season. Here's the full breakdown below:
The $22M signing bonus is prorated over the next five seasons at $4.4M each season. The base salaries are heavily weighted at the front of the contract, while not guaranteeing any of the $12M salary in the final season -- which would allow the 49ers to release him if need be.
Given their current situation, I don't think the 49ers and Kittle come to an agreement and I believe that the franchise tag in 2021 is a strong possibility.
For the first time, a player is threatening the 49ers' front office with his financial demands -- but will Marathe and Co. cater to Kittle or continue with their organizational philosophy?
Akash Anavarathan covers the 49ers for Fourth and Nine. Follow him at Twitter @akashanav.
Graphic via Dillon Hiser.