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George Kittle mega deal could hurt 49ers’ salary cap flexibility

George Kittle is about to make record-setting money with the San Francisco 49ers.

It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of how much George Kittle will get paid on his new contract.

The San Francisco 49ers‘ star tight end is entering his fourth year in the league. Despite being a former fifth-round pick out of Iowa, Kittle has emerged as an unquestioned top-three tight end in football alongside Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs and Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles. Kittle is a two-time Pro Bowler and a First-Team All-Pro last year for the reigning NFC champions.

What Kittle does on the football cannot be overstated. Not only is he one of the better receiving tight ends in the league, he’s also considered the best blocking tight end in the NFL. With Kittle, the 49ers are getting the best of both worlds. For the last three years, it’s been at bargain basement prices.

49ers general manager John Lynch knows he needs to pay Kittle handsomely here soon, but he can’t be overly thrilled about what Kittle’s representation had to say about the matter.

On Friday, NFL Media’s Mike Silver relayed a bit of information on how Kittle’s agent Jack Bechta feels about the negotiations. “I don’t care about the tight end market, I’m being paid to do a George Kittle deal,” Bechta told Silver. So if you thought the 49ers and Kittle’s representation were close to working out a deal, think again. It seems both parties are very far apart here.

The San Francisco 49ers want George Kittle long-term, but at what price?

The highest-paid tight end in football is Austin Hooper, who recently signed a four-year deal worth $42 million with the Cleveland Browns. While the Atlanta Falcons probably wanted to keep their former third-round pick out of Stanford, they weren’t in a situation financially to give a top-six tight end in the league a record-breaking deal. What about the 49ers?

Silver added on Friday that Kittle is putting off eerily similar vibes to what Jimmy Graham’s pending free agency was like with the New Orleans Saints back in 2014. This was Graham at the peak of his powers, threatening to break the mold of tight end pay in favor of that of a No. 1 receiver. Though Graham was briefly the best tight end in football, he was never the all-around player of Kittle.

Will Kittle get something far beyond what Hooper did this offseason with the Browns? Is he going to garner something in the vein of top offensive tackle money or that of an elite wide receiver? Is Lynch prepared to pay closer to the $22 million annually that the Houston Texans pay left tackle Laremy Tunsil or what the Falcons pay Julio Jones? Kittle is worth well more than $10.5 million a year.

Essentially, the 49ers have a younger and healthier version of Rob Gronkowski in his prime. At his peak, Gronkowski was the best all-around tight end in football for the New England Patriots. When he was healthy enough to play, he could do anything required of him in the New England offense, just like Kittle does in San Francisco.

Lynch said on 95.7 The Game in late April, “George isn’t going anywhere. We’re going to work hard to try to get it done. I think they’ve got motivation just to really reset the tight end market, as do we, for him. It’s just finding that sweet spot, where that is.” He knows he must pay Kittle handsomely soon, but what will the annual mark be, and how does that affect the Niners down the line?

San Francisco will enter 2021 NFL free agency with 15th-best cap space situation at a projected $44.6 million. While that should be plenty of money to compensate a top-tier tight end over a three-year window, San Francisco’s cap flexibility goes to 22nd in the league in 2022 and improves ever so slightly in 2023 to 21st. It’s certainly manageable, but not really all that great.

Slapping Kittle with the franchise tag after year four would be doing nobody any good, as Kittle is well worth more than the average of the top-five tight end salaries in the league. Frankly, anything short of $12 million for a guy who is on a four-year deal worth $2.7 million would be insulting. His annual number will be much higher than Hooper’s mark, but how high are the 49ers willing to go?

If Kittle were to get something in the $15-16 million annual range, that could make sense for a player of his caliber. It would be well ahead of what Hooper makes, going towards the single-most important offensive player on the 49ers roster. Asking for Tunsil or Jones money will be shot down by Lynch and the 49ers brass, but they’d have to consider something closer to $16 million, right?

Next: The Chiefs need to accept Chris Jones is going to be expensive

Paying good receiver money to a top-tier tight end in football can be justified, but it will be at the expense of some other part of the roster. Thankfully, the 49ers have a young defense and have already paid quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, so they can afford to pay top dollar to keep Kittle long-term. Admittedly, it’s a huge number, but if any tight end in football is worth it, it’s him.

The 49ers will pay Kittle lavishly, but it will have a major financial impact in the years to follow.

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