It must officially be that dead part of the offseason when no one has anything to talk about because 49ers fans got into a heated discussion about the pros and cons of trading away George Kittle over the weekend.
Obviously, everyone is entitled to fill up the time before free agency and the draft any which way they like, but it felt worth reiterating why the Niners should NOT trade away their All-Pro tight end as soon as possible.
Here are 11 reasons why.
1. HIS INJURY HISTORY ISN’T THAT BAD
First things first, Kittle’s injuries have never been a chronic issue that reoccurs or degenerates over time, like Todd Gurley’s knee, for example. Obviously, he plays with an unrivaled physicality, which is one of his most valuable qualities, but that same physicality tends to lead to his injuries: a double-edged sword, no doubt.
However, consider that his time sidelined in 2020 resulted from two poorly thrown passes that forced Kittle off his feet and high into the air. The first from Jimmy Garoppolo exposed him to a Budda Baker hit, and the other from Nick Mullens resulted in him landing awkwardly.
All of his injuries, dating back even further, are flukey price-of-doing-business dings or bumps, like when his knee collided with Chandler Jones’ helmet, resulting in a patella sprain. Yet, he managed to play through it and record a truly iconic highlight-reel touchdown before missing the next two weeks. Remember?
Meanwhile, in 2021, Kittle gutted out a tweaked calf all season after missing only three games. Given the expanded schedule and three playoff matchups, Kittle appeared in 17 matchups, providing massive value as the Niners battled their way back into the playoff picture. It is not a simple coincidence that the offense looked best when he, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Elijah Mitchell were all mostly healthy and well deployed.
Just how good was Kittle when he played through the pain this season? He only ripped off one of the most statistically impressive stretches in his career during some of the highest leverage games in his career.
From his first game back against the Cardinals in Week 8 to Week 13 against the Falcons, he notched six touchdowns and 622 yards in seven games. This included two monster outings in Seattle and Cincinnati that made history as he became the first tight end ever to rack up 150+ yards and a touchdown in consecutive weeks. Most importantly, the Niners went 5-2 over that time.
2. HIS CONTRACT NUMBER IS DESERVED AND REASONABLE
Kittle signed his extension right before training camp in 2020, inking a five-year deal that would make him the highest-paid player at his position in league history by a wide margin.
However, consider the timing of this move. The NFL was approaching a pandemic season in which the salary cap would drop for the first time in a decade. The initial two years of Kittle’s contract, the two seasons that COVID most disrupted the cap, carried hits of only five million and change, which, on top of being a steal, freed up room for the Niners to return their biggest free agents in 2021.
Now that the NFL played a season with fans in the stands and new TV deals are on the horizon, the cap has rightfully begun to climb again. In 2022, it will jump up 26 million dollars from 182 to 208 million, and most experts expect a similar increase in 2023 to somewhere around 230 million.
As Kittle’s contract number goes up, so does the salary cap. Besides, if the Niners really are dissatisfied with the tight end’s services by 2024, they can pretty painlessly release him and face only 4.5 million in dead money.
With the broader financials sorted, let’s zoom into Kittle and why this contract specifically is appropriate for his value. For two years (2018-2019), he represented the most trustworthy and explosive offensive weapon on the team, simultaneously asserting himself as a safety valve, YAC God, and deep threat. He did all that as a tight end, which led to production the likes of which the NFL had never seen.
Frankly, out of necessity, the 49ers force-fed Kittle the ball too much in those years. I think it’s safe to say that 136 targets in 2018 pushed the boundary of just how much one player can be the focal point on offense, and that year’s output was never going to be replicable. Even in 2019, when that number came down to 107, the Niners had drafted Deebo Samuel and acquired Emmanuel Sanders to help carry the load. Essentially, just because your tight end can be your number one receiving threat and handle the lion’s share of touches doesn’t mean he should.
This past season feels like a more accurate picture of what the Niners should expect from Kittle going forward. Nine hundred ten yards, 71 receptions, and six touchdowns are top-tier numbers that most teams would kill to have as a floor for production from their entire tight end room. Not to mention, he caught all seven red-zone targets for four scores, converted 42 first downs, and had 13 plays over 20 yards. That’s the complete package as a receiving threat.
Speaking of complete packages, the fact that he got off to the most productive start for a tight end in NFL history with 2,945 yards in his first three seasons and still established himself as the nastiest run blocker in football, outside of actual lineman, is jaw-droppingly impressive. It nearly goes without saying, but that’s where his true value lies because George Kittle’s effectiveness as a blocker is what makes the Niners’ offense go.
Any way you want to cut it, the offense relies on George Kittle to make blocks, and he’s really good at making blocks. From 2018 through 2020, PFF graded him at 78.0 as a run blocker, which was the third-highest for a tight end.
In 2020, the difference between Kittle on or off the field proved a massive difference on a per-play basis. Over 100 plays, runs with Kittle’s presence accounted for an expected 4 points added (EPA), and runs without Kittle resulted in a negative 20 points for the offense. That’s what I would call quantifiable gains.
There’s also the angle of how Kittle’s blocking actually makes him a more dangerous receiving threat. Before this season, the tight end led the entire world in yards collected when positioned inline to start a play, compiling 1,811 since 2018.
His ability to fire out from a three-point stance, break off a route at top speed, locate the ball, secure a catch, and rumble for extra gains is unparalleled and feels like something a play-caller would dream up. Kyle Shanahan consistently uses this special skill set to his advantage.
Overall, there’s simply no shortage of things that George Kittle can’t do at a high level. He catches, he runs, he blocks, he consistently faces double coverage, and he operates on such a high level that he transcended the label “tight end” to become a “pass catcher.”
Yet, quantifying him only as one of the game’s elite pass catchers still sells short what he does on a regular basis. Before Deebo Samuel, Kittle was the 49ers’ original Swiss Army Knife, and the fact he can do everything asked of him is what makes him so important. That’s why he got paid.
3. VALUE PLAYERS BASED ON POSITION
Like I stated above, George Kittle proved to be such a dangerous receiving threat at the tight end position that it became easy, if not necessary, to compare him to wide receivers. It should be made clear that that’s really, really impressive. There are only a handful of tight ends who’ve ever reached that stratosphere of production.
When this happens, and that becomes their standard output level, it can be tempting to only judge them this way. But that isn’t how to practically maximize the talent on your football team.
Can Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiuck outperform George Kittle in some areas? Absolutely, and if they couldn’t, we should all be very concerned for the state of the team. Think of it like a baseball lineup. You’d never expect similar levels of offense from a middle infielder and a catcher, but imagine how excited you’d be if, for a few years, you could.
Now, of course, over time, a player might not continue to provide at the same anomaly-esqe numbers as in their early days. Regression is inevitable, but as long as they outpace other players at their same position, the team still benefits on the whole. So, how has George Kittle fared compared to the league’s other tight ends?
Well, he remained within spitting distance of, at least, the top five in every major statistical category for tight ends, and, let’s be clear, the drop off from that perch to the next echelon is steep. When you, once again, consider everything that he brings to the field, he’s easily top three for his position. That’s not even considering the energy and leadership that he provides, which can be severely underestimated.
4. HOW DO YOU REPLACE HIM?
When you part with a player of Kittle’s caliber, you have to find ways to replace not just their production but also their influence. Suddenly, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk don’t benefit from the space created by having a Mac Truck with pillow-soft hands in the middle of the field. The game isn’t played in a vacuum in which a player’s presence doesn’t impact other players and their outcomes. It’s all intertwined.
If the Niners were to deal Kittle for a corner or picks or some combination of the two, tight end would immediately become a massive position of need. Let’s not pretend Charlie Woerner or Ross Dwelley could simply step in and fill this void either individually or together. Taking one of your biggest strengths and turning it into a weakness isn’t how to sustain success.
Furthermore, if you consider Kittle the team’s second option behind Deebo Samuel, you’d have to move Brandon Aiyuk into that role. Do the Niners have a reliable option to slide into that third spot? Jauan Jennings surged late in the season, but I wouldn’t pencil him in just yet, as he feels more like Kendrick Bourne type who thrives in very specific situations.
So, making the top of your roster less talented will ripple all the way to the bottom. It’s always better to have advantages further and further down because Aiyuk being that much better than an opposing team’s third target is where you separate from the average. Plus, you still need someone to take Aiyuk’s place to fill his production. Why create problems for yourself when you already have the solution?
If there’s any lesson this front office should have learned going against the Rams three times this year, it’s that the only thing that matters when you want to win a Super Bowl is the collection of players on your roster at this very moment. The Rams understood that they collected a core of players who could put them in contention year in and year out, so they decided to build around it at all costs. You’re supposed to supplement your core, not subtract from it.
It took Kittle a year to adjust and break through in the NFL. You want a first-round pick to replace Kittle or plug some other hole? Maybe let’s see how Javon Kinlaw does in Year 3 first. How does it help you today to try to find a possible replacement in the draft who may not even come close to what Kittle does in the next couple of seasons? Or acquiring cheaper, less accomplished players via free agency? It doesn’t. It kicks the can of a championship down the road. It slides the Super Bowl window that much more shut.
Simply, giving away good players is always a bad idea, and giving away great players is even worse. The Niners would be engaging in a time-honored tradition for franchises with bad team-building ethos: Trading a dollar for four quarters.
5. AGE IS OVERRATED
As Kittle reaches the ripe old age of 29 before this season, it can be easy to imagine that his time as such a physical and overpowering player might be winding down. However, as we’ve just gotten on the other side of the Tom Brady Era (or have we?), it’s easy to see how players who take better care of themselves last longer in the league than before. “Over 30” isn’t the same death sentence that it was in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s.
Besides, there’s plenty of precedent for tight ends playing into their third decade. Looking to the past, Tony Gonzalez retired at 37 and maintained a relatively high level until his very last season. Antonio Gates started with the Chargers in 2003 and played for the team so long That he made the move to Los Angeles. More recently, Travis Kelce just put together another Pro Bowl season at 32, right on the heels of his third All-Pro season at age 31.
Now, you might be thinking, “Those players didn’t face the kind of physical toll that George Kittle does on a weekly basis,” and you’d be right. Kelce, specifically, has been utilized like a wide receiver, which spares him from a lot of the grind associated with blocking or living over the intermediate middle of the field.
But what about Rob Gronkowski? Few players have absorbed the punishment that Gronk did over his time in the NFL, and, at one point, he began to look more machine than man. Yet, after one season away from the game, he provided two respectable seasons for the Buccaneers in his age 31 and 32 seasons. He improved in 2021, upping his catches and yards from the prior year.
Obviously, so much of Kittle’s upside comes from how he plays, but it’s not hard to see how the weight put on him could be eased as he ages. The emergence of Charlie Woerner as a run blocker could allow more opportunities for rest, and if the Niners find a suitable running mate, he might not have to face collisions over the middle with such regularity. There’s a path to Kittle playing into his 30s, and given the ways the Niners have tried to conserve him before, it seems likely that they see it, too.