Agent’s Take: Why George Kittle could break the bank in what could be a banner offseason for tight ends

NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported prior to Super Bowl LIV that a George Kittle contract extension would be an early offseason priority for the 49ers. San Francisco is usually proactive in trying to lock up core players long term before free agency becomes a consideration.

The All-Pro tight end is entering the final year of his four-year rookie contract. Kittle’s 2020 salary is scheduled to be the same as the lowest restricted free agent tender, which should be right around $2.15 million, because of qualifying for the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement’s proven performance escalator available to third through seventh round picks in the final year of their rookie deals.

Any new contract Kittle signs will undoubtedly make him the NFL’s highest-paid tight end. Jimmy Graham currently has that distinction with the three-year, $30 million deal (worth up to $30.75 million with incentives) averaging $10 million per year he received from the Packers in 2018 during free agency.

TE market stagnation

The tight end market has been stagnant for several years. Graham became the NFL’s first $10 million per year tight end in 2014 on the four-year, $40 million contract he signed with the Saints after being given a franchise tag worth $7.053 million. He remains the only $10 million per year tight end on his current deal.

The franchise tag, which is an accepted measure for high end salaries positionally, had grown by slightly more than 47% from 2014 through 2019 to $10.387 million. The NFL’s preliminary projections have the 2020 salary cap between $196.8 million and $201.2 million. The 2020 tight end franchise tag is expected to be 5.35% of the salary cap, which would make the range for this number $10.532 million to $10.767 million.

Graham got a deal that was 41.8 percent more than his franchise tag when he reset the tight end market in 2014. A comparable deal for Kittle relative to the projected 2020 tight end franchise tag would be approximately $15 million per year.

There is one big difference in Graham and Kittle’s status though. Graham’s rookie contract had expired, and he had been restricted through the franchise tag while Kittle will be in a contract year.

Kittle’s importance to 49ers

Kittle is easily San Francisco’s primary weapon in the passing game. In both 2018 and 2019, Kittle led the 49ers in receptions and receiving yards. He also tied for the team lead in touchdown catches. Kittle set the NFL single season receiving yards record by a tight end in 2018 with 1,377 yards In fact, Kittle’s production rivals the combined production of the 49ers players who were second and third in each of the three categories, which is illustrated in the chart below.

George Kittle 2018 88 1377 5
Next two options 2018 72 954 9
George Kittle 2019 85 1053 5
Next two options 2019 93 1304 8
George Kittle 2018-19 173 2430 10
Next two options 2018-19 165 2258 17

Kittle’s fit among NFL’s top receiving threats

Kittle can make a legitimate case that he should be compared to the game’s best pass catchers instead of just tight ends because of his production over the last two years. Since the beginning of the 2018 regular season, he ranks 11th in the NFL with 173 receptions, and his 2,430 receiving yards are fifth most in the league.

Kittle is one of nine players with at least 170 receptions and at least 2,000 receiving yards during this span. Wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins (Texans), Julio Jones (Falcons) and Michael Thomas (Saints) are among those in this rather select group.

The following chart summarizes the contracts of the NFL’s 15 highest paid pass catchers, all wide receivers, by average yearly salary in 2019 broken down into three different salary tiers: the average of the five highest paid, the average of the 10 highest paid and the average of the 15 highest paid.

Top 5 Average $56,451,509 $33,218,530 $18,511,905 4.2 Years
Top 10 Average $49,131,254 $29,665,665 $17,187,209 4.3 Years
Top 15 Average $41,901,303 $25,037,577 $16,188,282 4.27 Years

The chart below summarizes the production of the players over the last two years utilizing the same three different salary tiers.

Top 5  Average 29.6 187 2661.6 15.4
Top 10 Average 29.1 176.9 2296.5 13.3
Top 15 Average 27.3 156.5 2124.3 12.9
George Kittle 30 173 2430 10

Kittle’s performance most closely aligns with the average production of players making up the 10 highest-paid pass catchers. Consequently, Kittle would be justified in insisting that he should be paid accordingly as one of the NFL’s top receiving threats. Such an extension would be four years in length (new years) averaging approximately $17 million per year with close to $50 million in overall guarantees, where right around $30 million would be fully guaranteed at signing.

The 49ers will likely have sticker shock if Kittle’s thinking about his contract is along these lines. Unfortunately for Kittle, NFL player salaries are constrained by position. The big exception is highly productive pass rushers. Those who can consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks are paid a premium whether listed as a defensive end, defensive tackle or 3-4 outside linebacker.

Other tight ends set to cash in

A new Kittle deal may not come as quickly as the 49ers originally planned. That doesn’t mean some other tight end won’t surpass Graham’s deal.

It could have happened already. The Eagles were working on an extension for Eagles Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz, who is under contract through the 2021 season, around the same time they signed Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks and Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson to new deals last November. One of the sticking points with Ertz was a contract structure too team-friendly for his liking.

Some of the same points Kittle can raise about his role in San Francisco’s passing game can apply to Ertz with Philadelphia. Ertz, who set the NFL single-season reception record for a tight end in 2018 with 116 catches, has led the Eagles in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches in each of the last two seasons. He just missed the trifecta in 2017 by finishing in a tie for second in touchdown catches.

Ertz is one of six players who have at least 200 receptions and at least 2,000 receiving yards over the last two regular seasons. The others in this highly exclusive group are wide receivers Keenan Allen (Chargers), Hopkins, Jones and Thomas, as well as Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

Philadelphia’s highest-paid pass catcher is wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. He signed a four-year, $52 million extension with a little less than $27.3 million of guarantees in 2017. Ertz has been outperforming Jeffery ever since he joined the Eagles three seasons ago. He has 113 more catches and 790 more receiving yards than Jeffery during this span.

Jeffery has missed nine games with the Eagles because of a variety of injuries (ankle, calf, foot, shoulder). Ertz has been more durable in only missing three games over the last three seasons. A lacerated kidney and broken ribs didn’t stop Ertz from playing in Philadelphia’s wild-card playoff game against the Seahawks last season.

The expectation is the Eagles will make another attempt this offseason at extending Ertz’s contract. All things considered, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Ertz to want to make more than Jeffery even though he is a wide receiver. Jeffery’s deal adjusted to a 2020 salary cap environment averages in the $15.5 million per year neighborhood.

If signability becomes an issue, it wouldn’t be too surprising for the Eagles to consider trading Ertz at some point since 2018 second round pick Dallas Goedert is a great tight end in his own right. Goedert will be eligible to sign an extension at the conclusion of the 2020 regular season.

Two tight ends with expiring contracts, Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper, could potentially become the new salary standard, albeit for a brief period of time, provided they hit the open market. Henry is more likely to be given either a franchise or transition tag because the Chargers’ cap situation is much better than that of the Falcons. The Chargers are projected to have upwards to $50 million of cap space depending upon where the 2020 salary cap is ultimately set.

The Falcons’ top 51 players currently account for $208.891 million of 2020 cap commitments with just under $4.1 million of unused 2019 cap room carrying over to the upcoming league year, according to NFLPA data. Having a franchise tender of approximately $10.7 million on the books for Hooper seems impractical since the Falcons are going to need to create cap room, not add commitments, just to be cap compliant when the new league year starts on March 18.

The Chargers might want Henry to put a full healthy season together before making a substantial long-term commitment to him anyway. Henry was expected to have a breakout season in 2018 before suffering a torn right ACL in offseason workouts. He was bit by the injury bug again in the first game of the 2019 season. Henry missed the next four games with a tibia plateau fracture to his left knee. Henry set career highs in 2019 with 55 catches for 652 yards.

Hooper was arguably the NFL’s most productive tight end before spraining the MCL in his left knee during a Week 10 contest against the Saints. Through each team’s first nine games, Hooper was leading NFL tight ends in receptions (56), was second in receiving yards (608) and tied for the league lead in touchdown catches (6). He missed three games because of his knee injury. Hooper finished the season with career highs of 75 receptions, 787 receiving yards and six touchdown catches. He was a Pro Bowl participant for a second straight season.

Hooper became only the third tight end in NFL history to have at least 50 receptions, 500 receiving yards and five touchdown catches in the first half of a season. This feat was previously accomplished by Ben Coates (Patriots) and Shannon Sharpe (Broncos) in 1994 and 1996, respectively. Ertz, future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez (Chiefs) and Kelce have done it over the second half of season. Gonzalez is the only one to reach these marks on two different occasions.

It wouldn’t be a stretch for Henry and Hooper to target a contract topping the tight end market after adjusting all existing deals to a 2020 salary cap environment. The five-year extension Jordan Reed signed with the Redskins in 2016 when the salary cap was $155.27 million averaged $9.35 million per year and contained $22 million of guarantees. Reed’s deal equates to essentially $12 million per year with $28.5 million in guarantees if adjusted.

Final thoughts

It’s inevitable that the tight end position will undergo a major reset financially this offseason. Whether the reset is similar to what happened at inside linebacker last offseason remains to be seen.

The extension the recently retired Luke Kuechly signed with the Panthers in 2015 averaging $12,359,059 per year was still the benchmark when free agency began. Kwon Alexander briefly became the highest-paid player at the position with the four-year, $54 million deal containing $27.5 million in guarantees he received from the 49ers at the start of free agency. C.J. Mosley quickly took inside linebacker compensation to a different level by signing a five-year, $85 million contract with the Jets. Mosley’s deal has $51 million in guarantees, of which $43 million was fully guaranteed at signing. Another shift in the inside linebacker market took place when six-time All-Pro Bobby Wagner, who represented himself, signed a four-year extension with the Seahawks averaging $18 million per year and containing $40.25 million in guarantees shortly after training camp opened.

The inside linebacker market has moved just over 45 percent since the end of the 2018 season. A similar phenomenon with tight ends would put the new standard once the dust finally settles on this market at approximately $14.5 million per year.

Any type of significant movement in the tight end market might prompt Kelce to try to get his contract adjusted if the Chiefs don’t approach him first. A new Ertz deal might really strike a chord with Kelce since both were 2013 draft picks who signed five-year extensions in 2016 less than a week apart. Kelce has been the NFL’s most consistent tight end in recent years. He is the only tight end in NFL history to have four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (2016 through 2019).

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