George Kittle caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns as the leading receiver for the NFC champions last season. Amari Cooper caught 79 passes for 1,189 yards and eight touchdowns for a team that couldn't reach the playoffs in the weakest division in the NFL.
Their production was similar. They are roughly the same age. Kittle was a hero down the playoff stretch for the 49ers. Cooper was mysteriously on the sideline for the most important plays of the Cowboys' season. But Cooper signed a five-year deal with a reported $100 million value in March, while Kittle, in the final year of his rookie contract, runs the risk of settling for roughly half as much money as he angles for a new deal. That's because Kittle is a tight end, and tight ends earn a fraction of the amount wide receivers make.
It doesn't make a lick of sense. And Kittle's agent is ready to buck the system. "I don't care about the tight end market, I'm being paid to do a George Kittle deal," Jack Bechta told NFL Network's Mike Silver last week.
Rhetoric aside, Bechta certainly does care about the tight end market. He and Kittle hope to blow the lid off it.
Top wide receivers currently earn about twice as much as top tight ends. Per Over the Cap (the source for all the salary figures in this article), Julio Jones and Cooper each earn $20 million or more per year. No tight end in the league earns more than $10.6 million. After five Pro Bowl berths and four 1,000-yard seasons, Travis Kelce earns $9.4 million per year, just over half of what teammate Tyreek Hill earns ($18 million per year) and less than the annual income of rank-and-file wide receivers like the Jets' Jamison Crowder ($9.5 million) and the Raiders' Tyrell Williams ($11.1 million). Twenty wide receivers make more per year than the highest-paid tight end.
Yes, receivers like Hill and Julio possess uncommon speed and other rare, precious skills that command top dollar. But that doesn't explain why Jarvis Landry ($15.1 million) earns 50 percent more than the top tight ends to do precisely what tight ends traditionally do: catch short passes over the middle.
Also, tight ends like Kittle have some rare, precious skills of their own.
Per Football Outsiders, Kittle broke 25 tackles after receptions last season. The three players who ranked ahead of him in that category (Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook) were all running backs. All of that tackle-breaking allowed Kittle to average 7.5 yards after catch per reception, according to Next Gen Stats, the highest figure in the NFL for a player who was targeted 100 or more times. He also caught 79 percent of the passes targeted to him last season, the highest rate of any tight end with more than 50 targets, and a higher rate than any wide receiver in the NFL except Michael Thomas. And Kittle is among the league's best blockers at his position.
Statistically, Kittle combines some of the best traits of a go-to receiver, a running back and an offensive tackle. Is there any better definition of an elite tight end than that?
Players like Kelce and Zach Ertz have unique stats and splits of their own. That's the point: Top tight ends are as vital to their teams' success as top receivers. When Kelce commands Richard Sherman instead of a linebacker in coverage during the Super Bowl, when Ertz catches 88 passes for a playoff team with practice-squad wide receivers, or when Kittle consistently shrugs off tackles to turn five-yard throws into 13-yard gains, each is showing off skills that are nearly as rare and important to their teams as Hill's speed or Jones' all-around awesomeness. Kittle is as irreplaceable to the 49ers as any non-quarterback is to any offense in the league. His earning power shouldn't be restricted because of a positional label.
Tight ends have battled an image problem for a long time. They have served as offensive Swiss Army knives since Kellen Winslow helped Don Coryell rewrite NFL playbooks in the early 1980s. Yet tight ends like Kittle are still talked about as a "new breed" as if we have collective amnesia about Winslow, Shannon Sharpe, Ozzie Newsome, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski and dozens of other all-purpose tight ends over the last 40 years.
Tight ends line up all over the formation, run deep routes, block for running plays, catch screens, run end-arounds and perform many other tasks. But when it comes to roster building, they are still thought of as role players who line up next to the right tackle and crash into the defensive end 60 times per game. Elite wide receivers are considered necessities; elite tight ends are luxuries or novelties.
Perceptions evolve slowly in the NFL, and so do pay scales, which are built one contract at a time across decades. Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper fetched just $10.5 million per year over four years from the Browns as a free agent after catching 146 passes for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns in the last two seasons. Aging slot receiver Randall Cobb received $9 million per year over three seasons after 93 catches for 1,211 yards and five touchdowns over the past two years. There's no way they should be in the same financial ballpark. But Cobb benefited from a market that rewards third-tier receivers with hefty salaries. Hooper was swimming upstream against a market that pays top tight ends less than average guards.
Kittle currently has a little bit of leverage. The 49ers are incapable of returning to the Super Bowl without him, and they are unlikely to risk a holdout by one of their most important and popular players once real football activities resume. Amari Cooper money is well out of reach—a market can only lurch so far—but Kittle should stand firm and insist on a contract similar to that of Brandin Cooks ($16.2 million) or Landry.
If Kittle plays out the final year of his rookie contract, he risks getting slapped with the franchise tag next year. And guess what? The franchise-tag value for a tight end (around $10.7 million) is a little more than half the franchise-tag value for a wide receiver ($17.9 million). It's one more way the system works to keep the tight end pay scale out of whack. That's why Kittle should apply as much pressure as he can to the 49ers now.
Top tight ends deserve far more money. Kittle is the perfect candidate to be the one who blasts through the salary ceiling and gets it for them.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.