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49ers should not trade tight end George Kittle

Don’t trade George Kittle, San Francisco.

Don’t trade George Kittle, San Francisco.
Image: Getty Images

San Francisco 49ers’ Twitter woke up this past Saturday and chose violence.

On the heels of an NFC Championship Game appearance and with a seemingly bright future ahead, 49ers’ Sports Illustrated writer Grant Cohn decided to serve up the spiciest of takes and declare that the 49ers should trade former All-Pro tight end George Kittle away ASAP.

Cohn is a fantastic writer and has some very good material, but this is a massive L. Kittle is an absolutely pivotal piece in the 49ers offense and trading him away in the middle of the team’s Super Bowl window would be a monumental mistake.

Cohn offers 10 reasons why trading Kittle would be a good decision. I’m going to detail whether each is a good reason to trade Kittle.

1) “He’s missed 11 games the past two seasons”

This is true, but Kittle’s injuries have only weakened his trade value. Remember just a few years ago when Jimmy Garoppolo’s trade value was at an all-time low because of his inability to stay healthy. Prior to 2019, fans were hoping that maybe the Niners could get a third-round pick for him. Just a few years later, and several would be shocked if they don’t get a first. He hasn’t played a full season since 2019, mind you, but people still expect a decent return for him. Why are people so concerned with Kittle’s health yet refuse to acknowledge the same concerns for other players? “Oh, because when healthy, Garoppolo wins games.” When healthy, George Kittle wins games, too!

His blocking prowess alone is enough to make him a hot commodity for any team in the NFL, but the fact that he can not only block you into oblivion, but also rack up 100 yards through the air is what makes him a game-changer. Sure, he might not play in a few games, but if you’re going to look at the possible negatives of him missing a quarter of the season, you need to look at the opposite side as well. What if he plays every game? He’s still got a lot left in the tank and pairing him up with Deebo Samuel is never a bad idea.

2) “Even when he played, he mostly was injured the past two seasons”

Yeah, and look at what he did. 910 yards in 14 games. “Oh, but he only scored six touchdowns.” That’s the most he’s ever recorded in a season, but that was never a complaint until now, huh? Plus, this was the most spread-out offense Kittle has experienced since entering the league. Kittle had to finally share targets with an elite receiver and he still put up 910 yards and six touchdowns. If he did that while injured, I’d look at that and say “Wow! Imagine what he could do if we got him healthy.” Show some faith in the 49ers’ medical staff to get Kittle to 100% before the season starts.

Oh, and by the way, Kittle has played more snaps than Deebo Samuel each of the last three seasons.

3) “His past two injuries — broken foot, strained calf — occurred simply from running. The calf injury affected Kittle for all of the 2021 season”

This is a decent argument. The way Kittle sustained these injuries is difficult to defend. Some people are just born with glass bones and paper skin, and with Kittle pushing 30, it’s not difficult to imagine him suffering a similar injury next season. However, those injuries don’t diminish Kittle’s importance to the team. In the 11 games Kittle has missed the past two seasons, the 49ers have gone 4-7 and three of those wins are against the Jets, Giants, and Bears. I wouldn’t exactly call those difficult games.

Kittle is one of those guys, when healthy, that takes the 49ers’ offense from subpar to solid. Yes, he’s being paid a lot of money, but he still looked great when he played, and if he’s been playing hurt like Cohn says, then that only raises his ceiling. He could be even better, and as long as the 49ers’ Super Bowl window is open, which it will be for a few more years, taking the risk that Kittle will be healthy for most of the season is not a bad idea.

4) “The 49ers gave Kittle $16 million per season because they thought he’d be the No. 1 option in their passing game, but now Deebo Samuel is the No. 1 option, Brandon Aiyuk is the second option and Kittle is the third option when healthy”

The first part is understandable. The second part…just no. Kittle missed three games and saw just twelve targets during the final three weeks of the regular season. He still saw ten more targets than Aiyuk did. Yes, Aiyuk became more prevalent in the 49ers’ passing attack as the season progressed, but that was likely a symptom of Deebo Samuel’s usage. As Samuel started lining up in the backfield more and more often, the number one wide receiver duties were placed on Aiyuk’s shoulders more often. Should Samuel’s role in the backfield be more limited next year — very possible as long as the 49ers re-sign Raheem Mostert and actually start giving Trey Sermon touches — Aiyuk will revert back to his lesser role in the offense.

Of course, if Kittle also gets healthy, who knows what kind of production we could see from him. Defenses are going to key in on Samuel next year, so a healthy Kittle could blow everyone’s expectations away. You need a reliable number two option to have an effective passing attack, and while Aiyuk is talented, he hasn’t shown the consistency necessary to carry that load. Kittle is still the most reliable passing option outside of Samuel.

5) “Everything Kittle does as a receiver, Samuel and Aiyuk do better, including running after the catch. This past season, Samuel averaged 10.4 YAC per catch, Aiyuk averaged 6.6 YAC per catch and Kittle averaged 6.5 YAC per catch”

YAC is a good stat, but it’s not the end all-be all that determines the greatness of one player over another. You know, Chargers’ halfback Austin Ekeler (625 YAC) had more YAC than Justin Jefferson (485). Does that mean that Ekeler is the superior receiver? No. Jefferson is clearly a better receiver in every facet of the word, but the two operated differently within their own systems. They had different roles. Where Jefferson worked in a more intermediate area, Ekeler usually caught passes behind the line of scrimmage, and was racking up YAC before getting back to the down marker.

The same argument applies to Kittle here. Where Aiyuk and Samuel have plays specifically designed for them to get into the open field and swerve around defenders for YAC, Kittle doesn’t have those types of plays drawn up for him. He gets hitches and 10-yard ins. The types of plays where linebackers come up and hit you immediately afterwards. Yes, Aiyuk might face better coverage than Kittle since Aiyuk is lining up against corners, but more often than not, Aiyuk is going to have an easier time avoiding defenders in his vicinity than Kittle will. Plus, both Samuel and Aiyuk are much faster than Kittle, so I’d expect them to be able to rack up yardage after the catch easier.

Kittle is not the same type of receiver as Aiyuk and Samuel, and thus shouldn’t be judged as such. You wouldn’t judge Samuel on his ability to run block, would you?

6) “The 49ers don’t give Kittle the ball frequently enough to justify paying him like a No. 1 wide receiver.”

No. They don’t. He’s right here, but this is the football equivalent of a first-world problem. Finally, the 49ers have an elite receiver on their team…so they don’t throw Kittle the ball as much as they used to. Wow, poor Niners! Let me play a sad song for you on the world’s smallest violin.

Let’s say for a moment that the Baltimore Ravens sign Chris Godwin this offseason. I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m just pretending here.

Chris Godwin would be far and away the best receiver on that Baltimore team. Thus, he’d get a good amount of targets. All of a sudden, Mark Andrews’ target share goes down…oh no! Terrible! Clearly, the Ravens aren’t throwing to him enough to warrant top-five tight end money. Just relax, there aren’t enough targets to feed everyone all the time.

What? You expected Kyle Shanahan to suddenly force Jimmy G to drop back 45 times a game just so Kittle would receive more targets? Hell no! They are a run-heavy team with an emphasis on YAC. Most of the time in 2021, Kittle served as an extremely valuable security blanket for Garoppolo to fall back on should the defense target Samuel. Keep in mind that in the four games Samuel either missed or received less than five targets in, Kittle recorded 27 receptions for 379 yards and four touchdowns. If Deebo gets hurt, who is Trey Lance going to start looking at? Aiyuk? Please.

Kittle isn’t just a great security blanket for a young quarterback, but he’s the only person on the 49ers who has proven he is capable of handling the workload of a No. 1 option in a passing attack.

7) “Kittle isn’t as good as he was when they gave him his contract extension”

Yeah, this tends to be how contract extensions work and why so many players want to see lengthy contracts instead of one-year deals. They want job security even if they fall off slightly. You think DeAndre Hopkins is as good as he was when the Houston Texans traded him to Arizona? No. Well, I guess it’s time for Arizona to move on, huh? You don’t trade away your star players in the middle of your Super Bowl window. You just don’t.

And guess what, if you’re noticing Kittle’s drop in production, so is every other team in the league. But I’ll bet they’re willing to pay Kittle a ton of money for the potential he brings to the table. If the 49ers are unwilling to match those prices for the same potential, by all means, trade him away, but you have to recognize that the potential for Kittle to go absolutely ballistic is still there and that’s why he’s held in such high regard. It’s not my fault you just don’t expect him to do so.

8) “The 49ers probably could get a late first-round pick or a Pro Bowl cornerback such as Xavien Howard for Kittle if they trade him now”

Yes, the 49ers need help in their secondary. Yes, Xavien Howard is a really good cornerback. However, the 49ers also need money. If the 49ers trade Kittle, they’ll incur a dead cap hit of $28.9 million. If they trade for Xavien Howard, they will take on Howard’s $16.3 million cap hit, and will have to pay him $28 million over the next two years as well. This is a monetary wombo combo that would hit harder than a MAC truck. It just doesn’t work.

Holding on to Kittle for one extra year gives the 49ers a potential out that would only cost the 49ers $4.5 million in dead cap, so even if Kittle plays like absolute trash this year and the 49ers need to get rid of him, doing so after the 2022 season would make the most sense.

9) “If Kittle has one more injury-filled season, the 49ers probably won’t be able to trade him and his $16-million-per-season contract, because everyone will see him as damaged goods who’s on the downside of his career”

I mean, it seems like Cohn already thinks this of Kittle, am I wrong? We can play the “if” game all day long though. What if Kittle returns to his 2019 form? All of a sudden, keeping him was a fantastic choice. “Yeah, but what if he doesn’t?” It’s an endless cycle.

It’s not Kittle’s fault Cohn continues to look at him like a glass half-empty. Kittle has remarkable talent and as high a ceiling as anyone at the tight end position not named Travis Kelce. Yes, his floor is low, but only because of injuries and like I said in the previous section, should that become an issue in 2022, there’s already an out built into his contract.

“But why not just do it now to avoid the risk?” Because the 49ers are in the middle of their Super Bowl window! They’re upgrading at quarterback, while opening up a ton of cap space by ditching Garoppolo and are retaining all of their core pieces from their NFC Championship run last year. That’s not a team that should be trading away one of the premier tight end talents in the NFL, no matter how injury-prone.

10) “Kittle will turn 29 this year”

Travis Kelce turns 33 this year. Darren Waller turns 30. Rob Gronkowski turns 33, and yes, he was very productive when healthy this past year even in a loaded offense. The window for tight ends doesn’t close at 30 like it does for running backs or wide receivers. Tight ends don’t have to retain their speed or elusiveness in order to remain effective. As long as they can block well and catch the ball, they usually stay at the top of their game.

After all, 49ers’ left tackle Trent Williams will turn 34 this year and he hasn’t lost a step. Even if all Kittle can do is block, he’s remarkably gifted in that department. Should he be making $16 million a year if that’s all he can do? No, but as I’ve said, the 49ers have an out in his contract following next season. That would be the time to drop him if he looks slower.

Having a litany of great blockers is never a bad thing in a zone-run scheme. At the very least, Kittle can provide a massive boost in that department, which shouldn’t be overlooked in an offense that is set to feature a second-year running back and a second-year quarterback in 2022. Shanahan and John Lynch spent three first-round picks to get Trey Lance, and thus, should want to protect him at all costs. Kittle provides great protection and a great set of hands for Lance to fall back on if need be. Trading Kittle is an atrocious move with so many years of elite football left to be played.

As the saying goes, “It’s better to make a trade one year too early, than one year too late,” but when your team is as talented as San Francisco’s, keeping the players that put you over the edge should be your No. 1 priority.

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