How George Kittle got paid: The high-stakes, high-strain story behind a record-setting deal

On the evening of Feb. 14, 2020, Jack Bechta was hanging out at his home in San Diego's lovely La Jolla neighborhood when he received a text message that went right to the heart of his most pressing professional endeavor. It was from Paraag Marathe, the San Francisco 49ers' executive vice president of football operations, telling the veteran agent to check his email. "Let's talk Monday," Marathe's text concluded. "Enjoy the weekend."

A contract proposal for Bechta's client, star tight end George Kittle, was on its way. It was the opening offer Bechta had been waiting for -- and his instincts told him to wait a little longer.

"The first thing that hit me was, if you ever want to put out some bad news, you do it late on a Friday -- like a Friday news dump," Bechta recalled. "I was going to a little gathering with some friends in the neighborhood, and I decided not to open it till the next afternoon. When I did, the first thing I noticed was how long it was. Usually, the more paragraphs that come with a proposal, the worse the deal is. This one had a lot of paragraphs."

The offer would have made Kittle, 26, the NFL's highest-paid tight end -- by a very small margin. The structure, including the amount of guaranteed money and the timing of those payments, was predictably team-friendly. Even the charts and arguments rationalizing the 49ers' position bothered Bechta, who was adamant that Kittle's deal not be governed by the long-depressed tight end market.

"After I took a good look at the offer," Bechta said, "I started calling it 'The Valentine's Day Massacre.' "

Six months later, on a scorching Friday afternoon nearly 500 miles to the north, Kittle signed a five-year, $75 million contract extension, completing an arduous and challenging -- but ultimately gratifying -- negotiation that cemented the former fifth-round draft pick's ascent to the top of his profession. The previous night, Bechta had joined Kittle and family members for a modest celebration at the player's apartment that included wine, hard cider and Panda Express takeout.

Kittle, who'd earned just under $2 million total during his first three seasons, had achieved a payday beyond his wildest dreams -- something he certainly could never have envisioned five years earlier, when he was a hard-partying afterthought buried on the Iowa depth chart.

And Bechta, a former tight end at Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) who has represented a small but steady collection of NFL players over the past three decades, had managed to persuade the 49ers to cave on a crucial deal point. For the first time in recent memory, the team completed a major contract without the "exercisable option bonuses" -- devices giving management until April 1 to decide whether to fully guarantee that season's salary (or a portion thereof) for skill, injury and cap -- which have become notorious in league circles.

In the past decade, players such as quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Jimmy Garoppolo and defensive linemen Arik Armstead and Dee Ford have signed lucrative deals with San Francisco that included the April 1 trigger date, essentially allowing the team to peruse the free-agent market each spring for potential replacements before deciding whether to commit to the player in question for that season -- thus creating a scenario where the Niners can ultimately release the player into free agency after most teams have used up the bulk of their budgets. For example, had San Francisco decided to make a run at Tom Brady in free agency this past March, Garoppolo likely would have been in limbo until the outcome, and could have been cut loose after other teams had addressed their plans at quarterback.

Kittle, a physical player who prides himself on his relentless blocking style and ability to withstand contact after the catch, had approached the negotiations with a premium on protecting himself financially in the event of injury. As he told reporters on a Zoom call following Saturday's training camp practice, in reference to the contract he'd signed the previous day: "Now I can go onto the football field and not have any worries about anything. ... I can just go out there and play football and run through someone's face and I'm really excited about that."

Getting to that point wasn't easy, and the journey wasn't particularly smooth. There were times when Bechta, whose penchant for blue-collar clientele matches his professional mentality, had to contend with the collective might of Marathe (who earned his undergraduate business degree from UC Berkeley and an MBA from Stanford) and 49ers general manager John Lynch (a former Stanford standout who became a hard-hitting, All-Pro safety while starring for two NFL teams). Bechta educated Kittle about numerous "nuclear" options that could be implemented if talks hit an impasse, including requesting a trade and choosing to opt out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, while Lynch reminded the agent that the franchise tag could bind Kittle to the team through the end of the 2022 season.

In the end, a happy compromise was reached, one that reflected the organization's affinity for a homegrown star who is a forceful and revered presence in the Niners' locker room.

When Bechta began recruiting Kittle during his junior season, continuing a trend of targeting Iowa players that dated back a quarter-century, the agent believed he might be mining an untapped gem. Bechta had heard good things from two former Hawkeyes tight ends he represented who'd been ahead of Kittle on the Iowa depth chart: C.J. Fiedorowicz, who spent four seasons (2014-17) with the Houston Texans, and Henry Krieger-Coble, who spent time with the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams (and is Kittle's first cousin). By the time the 2017 draft neared, Bechta thought Kittle's athleticism might allow him to become an NFL starter. That turned out to be a vast underestimation.

After an uneven rookie campaign with the Niners, Kittle emerged as a force of nature in 2018, setting an NFL single-season record for tight ends with 1,377 receiving yards. In December of that breakout year, when Kittle caught a short pass from Nick Mullens and turned it into an 85-yard touchdown reception (en route to a 210-yard performance in a win over the Denver Broncos), Bechta knew he had a special player.

Before attending an engagement party for Kittle and his fiancée, Claire Till, in January of 2019, Bechta put together a goal package that projected the tight end's earning potential on a second contract -- with total numbers which were, in retrospect, hauntingly close to the five-year, $75 million deal he'd ultimately sign. At that point, however, there was nothing to do but wait: As per CBA rules, the Niners wouldn't be allowed to redo Kittle's contract until after his third season. Over the next year, Bechta persistently educated George, Claire and their family members (including George's parents, Bruce and Jan) about the potentially stressful staredown that was to come and the likely points of contention, all while fending off rivals from bigger agencies who had people reach out to Kittle in the hope of poaching the tight end. Kittle, however, remained unerringly loyal.

On the field, Kittle did his part, fueling the 49ers' hugely successful campaign with another productive season (85 catches for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns) and earning first-team All-Pro honors. In the process, he made one of the most impactful plays of 2019 -- the fourth-down, 39-yard catch-and-run (with a 15-yard facemask penalty tacked on) that propelled the Niners to a 48-46 victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome in early December.

He was equally prolific as a blocker, particularly in San Francisco's playoff victories over the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. Heading into Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers, according to Next Gen Stats, were averaging 5.1 yards per carry with Kittle in the lineup, as opposed to 3.4 when he wasn't. The disparity was even more glaring when measuring runs outside the tackles: 5.6 yards per carry with Kittle; 3.3 without.

Lynch and Marathe had initially forged an informal agreement with Bechta that they'd begin discussions on a new deal after the 2019 regular season. With Kittle due to make $2.133 million in the final year of his rookie deal, there was an urgency on his end to get an extension done, and the Niners expressed a willingness to explore one. Yet as the season played out, with San Francisco racing to a 8-0 start, Lynch called Bechta and essentially asked for an extension, telling him, "There's so much positivity and momentum with this team, we really don't want to do anything to create any distractions."

"Sure," Bechta said. "But as soon as the season's over, we've gotta get on to this."

Twelve days after the Niners' heartbreaking Super Bowl LIV defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs, Marathe emailed Bechta the first offer, aka The Valentine's Day Massacre.

On the night of Feb. 15, Bechta sent Lynch and Marathe a salty response via text, then followed up with a call on the morning of Monday the 17th. "I'm not even entertaining [the offer]," Bechta told Marathe. "It's a non-starter. I'm not even showing this to George, to help protect you guys. Get back to me when you get serious."

Soon, things got very serious -- but not on the contract front. As the reality of a global pandemic set in, and shelter-in-place restrictions and other COVID-19-related protocols torpedoed OTAs and minicamps (and, eventually, basically the entire offseason), a shroud of uncertainty complicated that situation, and many others.

At the start of free agency, the 49ers made a somewhat-surprising decision motivated by salary-cap concerns, re-signing Armstead to a five-year, $85 million deal while trading his more accomplished counterpart, DeForest Buckner, to the Indianapolis Colts for the 13th overall pick (which they would use to draft Buckner's replacement, former South Carolina defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw).

Meanwhile, tight end Austin Hooper signed a four-year, $42 million deal with the Cleveland Browns, making him the league's highest-paid player at the position. Bechta, however, had no desire to measure Kittle's deal against the league's other tight ends, especially given the depressed nature of the market at that position since the four-year, $40 million deal Jimmy Graham signed with the Saints in 2014. Bechta believed that Kittle's bloated receiving numbers made a case that he should be paid like an elite wideout, while his blocking metrics suggested he should command offensive tackle money. Obviously, this was not a perfect science, but the agent held firm to the notion that Kittle was a special player who transcended the tight end position.

As Bechta told me in late May, "I don't care about the tight end market. I'm being paid to do a George Kittle deal."

In the second week of June, Bechta reiterated that sentiment to Lynch, in person, while the GM was visiting San Diego. A native of nearby Torrey Pines, Lynch met Bechta at the Brigantine, a seafood restaurant in Del Mar, with the agent dropping the GM's name to help circumvent an hour-long wait for a table. After telling Lynch he refused to tie the deal to the antiquated economics of the tight end market, Bechta pushed back against the Niners' typical contract structure containing same-year guarantee triggers (with the odious April 1 date), saying, "I'm not adhering to the team's ability to rent players for two years." Finally, he insisted, "George isn't playing for anyone in 2020 for $2.1 million."

Lynch responded with some team-centric proclamations of his own. Then, over margaritas, Bechta prepared to present his opening proposal, a counter to the one Marathe had sent him on Valentine's Day.

"I'd like you to wait," Lynch said. "It's not a good time. Just trust me on that."

Bechta did, quickly instructing his office, via text, not to send the proposal to Marathe. The agent assumed that Lynch's advice stemmed from the angst being experienced by 49ers owner Jed York and his family as they confronted uncertainties such as lost revenues, a lower salary cap (in 2021 and beyond) and the possibility of a shortened or canceled season.

About a week later, the 49ers announced a contract extension through 2025 for coach Kyle Shanahan. Bechta waited another couple of weeks, until July 1, before sending his proposal -- and heard crickets upon its receipt.

Meanwhile, other deals were getting done around the league. The Chiefs signed quarterback Patrick Mahomes to a record, $10-year, $503 million extension in early July. A week later, Kansas City locked down defensive lineman Chris Jones with a four-year, $85 extension, while the Cleveland Browns and defensive end Myles Garrett came to a five-year, $125 million agreement.

Around that time, Lynch told Bechta to expect a counterproposal soon. It arrived on July 24, with an annual average salary of $14 million per year, and a backloaded structure that the agent immediately rejected. The two sides then went back and forth for the next two weeks, battling on just about every front. Kittle, who'd just been voted by his peers as the league's seventh-best player at any position (in the NFL Network's annual Top 100 countdown), began to get frustrated by the process. Expressing his frustration was trickier than usual. In a normal offseason, Kittle might well have registered his displeasure with his contract situation by skipping some or all of OTAs, or perhaps a voluntary minicamp. Since all activities were virtual, however, boycotting them from afar wasn't as effective of a protest as it otherwise might be, and Kittle chose to participate.

"[Staying away] would have been a very hard decision for him," Bechta said. "He loves the offseason -- he loves every aspect of football -- and he takes his role as a captain very seriously."

Conversely, when players reported for training camp on July 28, Kittle didn't have the usual concern about putting his body in harm's way on the practice field, because activities were limited to testing, meetings and walkthroughs for the first two-and-a-half weeks. That made Aug. 17, the first day the team would be allowed to have legitimate practices, a more realistic deadline.

As their frustrations mounted, Bechta and Kittle discussed which "nuclear options" they might consider. Skipping a training-camp walkthrough or meeting was a possibility. With an Aug. 6 deadline looming, they also discussed whether opting out -- one of the devices provided by the deal struck between the league and NFL Players Association, allowing any player concerned about the pandemic to sit out the year (with no credit for accrued service) for a $150,000 salary advance -- was a viable scenario.

"We definitely talked about it, but it was never a real option, because of the principle, the spirit of what it was there for," Bechta said. "It's for people who potentially are in danger and are protecting their family, and we didn't think it was fair to use it as a tool. In the end we decided, it's not who we are."

There was also the possibility that Kittle could request a trade, something Bechta had previously hinted at with Lynch, who quickly replied, "That will never happen."

On the other hand, Lynch had diplomatically brought up to Bechta that the 49ers, via the franchise tag (and its relatively low number for tight ends), could theoretically keep Kittle from free agency for at least three seasons if an agreement weren't reached -- the final year of his rookie deal (2020), followed by consecutive years on the tag.

By late July, the tension had reached a breaking point. After the team announced that Lynch had been signed to a contract extension tying him to the 49ers through the 2024 season, Bechta -- during a particularly combative period -- sent a congratulatory text that the GM viewed as mean-spirited.

In response, Bechta suggested a "timeout" of several days so that all parties, including Kittle, could settle down. Kittle's father, Bruce, an experienced labor attorney and former assistant coach at Oklahoma, flew out to the Bay Area to serve as a calming force for his son.

The situation thawed on Monday, Aug. 3, when Lynch and Kittle met at the 49ers' facility. The player told the GM that what mattered most to him was a deal structured to ensure maximum protection in the event of injury.

"He told him, 'I don't want to be a rented player, and I'm not signing a contract with those triggers (exercisable option bonuses),' " Bechta said. "Throughout the process, George was very clear with me about what he wanted. His attitude was, 'I want to play like an angry bull and go to bed at night without worrying about anything. I want to play unbridled.' He told me, 'I don't care about the vanity of the [average per year]. I'm not trying to win a vanity contest.' "

The next morning, Marathe and Lynch called Bechta and gave in on the exercisable option bonus structure, agreeing to decide by April 1 of the previous year whether to activate the guarantee for a given season.

Recalled Bechta: "They told me, 'We identify that George is a very special player. He's an outlier. So we're gonna do something special and acquiesce to your requests and give in to your clause triggering those guarantees the year before. But the tradeoff is we're gonna go hard line on our numbers and (the amount of our) guarantees.' "

That was fine with Bechta, and though the ensuing negotiations took awhile -- witness the infamous inchworm emoji text -- they were on the road to an agreement.

On Wednesday, Aug. 12, Bechta and Marathe were closing in on an agreement when each of their phones started blowing up with texts and calls from GMs, agents and others around the league: SI.com's "All 49ers" website had reported that the 49ers and Kittle on Friday would announce a six-year, $94.8 million extension, with $47.4 million guaranteed and a $25 million signing bonus. Both Bechta and Marathe were stunned by the report.

"We both said, 'What the f--- is this?' " Bechta said.

While a deal was relatively close -- an agreement in principle would come the following morning -- and the announcement did indeed come on Friday, the report was inaccurate. For one thing, a six-year extension had never been seriously discussed; Bechta, who'd wanted a four-year deal, ultimately agreed to accept the Niners' five-year proposal because it included more cash on the front end and more money guaranteed. The numbers in the SI.com report were also wrong: $30 million was guaranteed at signing (including an $18 million signing bonus), with $40 million guaranteed for injury.

By Thursday afternoon, after the NFLPA had offered guidance on some contract language that Bechta's associate at JB Sports Inc., Ryan Hayes, had flagged, the haggling was done -- and the only thing left to do was celebrate.

Bechta flew from San Diego to San Jose, and soon he was at Kittle's apartment eating forkfuls of honey sesame chicken breast and reflecting back on a process that -- because of these surreal times -- was more harrowing than the typical high-stakes negotiation.

"It was like playing the game Jenga while on a motorboat in a stormy sea," Bechta said. "But we got it done, and now George can put it out of his mind and do what he does best."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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