The San Francisco 49ers' first-team All-Pro tight end reset the market at that position Thursday by inking a five-year, $75 million contract extension, more than half of which is guaranteed, according to Ian Rapoport and Mike Silver of NFL Network.
However, Kittle is a victim of his position.
The 26-year-old is one of only eight qualified pass-catchers who averaged at least six receptions and 75 receiving yards per game in 2019, and he was even more productive in 2018 when he was slightly healthier. Yet according to Spotrac, his $15 million average annual salary ranks below 11 wide receivers.
In the last two seasons, Kittle has caught 19 more passes and generated 236 more receiving yards than Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper. The two are neck-and-neck in terms of catch rate and yards per reception, and Cooper has scored five more touchdowns. They're the same age, although Cooper stands out less at a position that is more crowded with game-changing players.
This offseason, the Cowboys handed Cooper a five-year, $100 million deal with $60 million in practical guarantees.
There's no way Cooper is worth $5 million more per season than Kittle, just as there's no way Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks and Jarvis Landry should have higher salaries than Kittle.
Kittle has outproduced those three wideouts in practically every metric the over last two seasons, but their deals—all of which were signed in 2018, when the salary cap was significantly lower—are substantially more lucrative.
It's nice that Kittle is making "receiver money." But only 10 receivers made more than tight end market-setter Jason Witten in 2011, only seven made more than Rob Gronkowski in 2012, and only six made more than Jimmy Graham in 2014.
The tight end high-water mark has not kept pace with the premium being placed on elite wide receivers. That's curious considering how the position has become as popular and critical as ever in an era that will be remembered partly for super-athletes like Antonio Gates, Graham, Kittle and Travis Kelce as well as ultra-producers like Tony Gonzalez, Witten and Greg Olsen.
A broad shift in favor of paying top-end receivers compared to top-end tight ends probably has to do with speed and home run ability taking priority in the most pass-happy era in NFL history, while run blocking has become less of an emphasis. That second part might suggest the bottom should be a lot lower at tight end (and safety, for that matter) than at wide receiver (and cornerback, for that matter).
If anything, there should be less of a middle class at tight end. Either you're a game-changer like Kittle, Kelce or Zach Ertz (in which case you deserve "receiver money"), or you're a safety valve/run-blocker like Vance McDonald of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who makes just shy of $6.6 million per year. It's easy to understand why players with obvious limitations in the downfield passing game are likely to have low financial ceilings in this day and age.
But since the start of the 2018 season, Kittle is one of only six NFL players with more than 35 20-plus-yard receptions. He has produced more of those plays than Beckham, Cooper, Davante Adams and Keenan Allen.
His moderate touchdown numbers (he's scored 10 times over the last two years) might limit his value a tad, and an inability to line up as an X or Z target and outrun coverage consistently might prevent him from hitting Cooper's range alongside receiver market-setter Julio Jones or reigning receiving king Michael Thomas.
But if Beckham was worth $18 million per season two years ago, when the salary cap was about 10 percent lower than it is now, Kittle should be earning at least $17 million a year.
Instead, because the league has essentially agreed that tight ends aren't as valuable, and because the group as a whole limits Kittle's market, a $15 million average annual salary is viewed as jaw-dropping.
That's because no other tight end currently makes even $11 million per year, and because the 49ers held a trump card with the tight end franchise-tag value set at $10.6 million (compared to $17.9 million at wide receiver).
Kittle might have hit the jackpot, but lingering old standards and a lack of highly paid players at his position still prevented him from getting what he truly deserves.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.