When C.J. Beathard, Trent Taylor and George Kittle decided to train together in Nashville this offseason, they figured they could do so in anonymity given that they were about 2,200 miles from the Bay Area.
"We'd have people come over and just watch us and ask for autographs and stuff like that," Beathard said. "There was actually a surprising amount. We were so far away that you wouldn't expect it. But people were coming out of the woodwork who were actually 49ers fans."
The most astute observers would have recognized the trio as a group of mid-round draft picks in 2017 who contributed heavily as rookies and, in Kittle's case, one who is in position to make another big leap this season.
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That's because the tight end was slowed by an array of injuries – an anatomy lesson's worth that included hamstring, calf, hip, chest, back and elbow – during his first year. The most restrictive was a high-ankle sprain suffered midseason that prevented Kittle from planting his foot in the ground and making the kind of cuts required of a pass catcher.
Still, Kittle appeared in all but one game and ended up with 43 catches and 515 receiving yards, both of which are franchise records for a rookie tight end. He ranked second in the NFL in both categories among rookie tight ends, not bad considering the fifth-round pick was the ninth player at his position selected last year.
Kittle was the healthiest in the finale against the Rams and perhaps hinted at what's to come that afternoon in Los Angeles. He finished that game with four catches for 100 yards, the first time a 49ers rookie tight end hit the 100-yard mark since Monty Stickles had 123 yards in a game in 1960.
"His thing is staying healthy, as it is with a lot of players," 49ers tight ends coach Jon Embree said. "I think if he's able to do that, everyone's going to be pleased what he brings to the table for us."
Beathard and Taylor have family in Nashville. Kittle rented a place there with his girlfriend over the winter. The group trained – honing the routes the two pass catchers tend to run the most – a few times a week at the indoor facility at Beathard's former high school in Franklin, Tenn., or if the weather was nice, at a high school field in Nashville.
No one considered Kittle a prolific pass catcher when he was at Iowa. In his busiest season there he had 22 catches. But that was mainly because the Hawkeyes preferred to slug it out on the ground.
"We probably threw the ball 15 times a game at Iowa," said Beathard, who also was Kittle's quarterback in college.
Still, he knew Kittle would flourish in the NFL. He described his friend as a "freakish athlete" who dunked easily when they played pickup basketball and who is fast – and unusually quick – for his size.
His Iowa teammates figured that Kittle might be able to run a 40-yard dash in the high 4.5-second range at the scouting combine in 2017. He went a little faster than that, finishing his sprint in 4.52 seconds, the third fastest by a tight end that season.
"He's definitely a tough matchup situation for linebackers and even safeties," Beathard said. "Just because the speed element he poses."
Embree said Kittle's biggest hurdle this offseason involves consistently catching passes away from his body and thus away from the defenders that inevitably will be clinging to him when the ball arrives.
"One of the things he's had to learn on our level is, in college football 'open' is wide open," Embree said. "In the NFL at our position I would say that 85 percent of the passes you catch are going to be contested balls with people around you. So he's had to learn, and is still learning, how to play outside of his frame. In other words, playing with his hands away from his body, using his length."
The field becomes especially crowded in the red zone, an area in which the 49ers struggled last season even after Jimmy Garoppolo took over at quarterback. It wasn't that San Francisco didn't have a lot of opportunities to score. Kicker Robbie Gould, for example, had a career-high 145 points last season. But the 49ers got into the end zone only 31 times; just four other teams scored fewer touchdowns in 2017.
Embree thinks each of his top three tight ends – Kittle, Garrett Celek and Cole Hikutini will be bigger red-zone threats this year, especially if Kittle, who had two touchdowns a year ago, masters the art of catching away from his body.
Embree said he harps on that point in practice and, just so it sinks in even further, he makes his pupils contribute a few bucks to the tight end kitty when they don't do it. How much has Kittle put in so far this offseason?
Embree wouldn't divulge a figure. "He's contributed a decent amount," he said with a smile.