It’s not often NFL players run up to media in the locker room. But George Kittle had a joke to tell.
Reading off a bubblegum wrapper, the 49ers tight end approached a group of reporters and asked, “Why was the cat scared of the tree?”
The answer: because of the bark.
“He’s like a little kid, which is good,” left tackle Joe Staley said of Kittle. “He’s got that enjoyment. I always feel like when he goes out to practice, it’s like when you’re in Pop Warner and just kind of like running around and having fun with your buddies. He’s got a ton of friends on the team. He’s always really happy.”
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Kittle might be happy these days because he’s coming off one of the most productive games of his young career. He was the 49ers’ leading receiver with 90 yards during the Week 1 loss to the Vikings. And he was targeted more times by Jimmy Garoppolo than anyone else.
“Nine targets, I think that was the most I’ve ever had. That was pretty fun,” Kittle said.
Not fun: failing to score touchdowns.
Kittle dropped one potential 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The next play, Garoppolo threw a pick-six to rookie cornerback Mike Hughes. Those two snaps turned out to be a pivotal 14-point swing during the 24-16 defeat.
Later, Kittle put a move on Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith, breaking free down the left seam. Kittle was in the clear for another possible score, but pressure forced Garoppolo to make a long, errant throw. There was also the third down from the 4-yard line, when Kittle shook free in the back of the end zone on a post route, only for Garoppolo to sail the pass high and wide.
Suffice to say, Kittle was San Francisco’s most impressive pass catcher.
“Who we target the most has a lot to do with (where) we feel the best matchups are,” coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday. That’s quite the vote of confidence for Kittle, who was going against one of the league’s premier safety duos in Smith and Andrew Sendejo.
That could be because Kittle, a 2017 fifth-round pick, is moving better than any point during his impressive rookie campaign. He was one of nine first-year tight ends in the last decade to log 500 receiving yards, according to Pro Football Focus. That came despite getting the majority of playing time with quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard — and dealing with a slew of injuries dating to his first training camp.
“We had to put a lot of pressure on him early in the season because he was one of our better players right away,” Shanahan said. “He got banged up right away. Credit to him that I think a lot of guys wouldn’t have made it through the year and played in all those games. He played through a lot of injuries last year.”
Kittle dealt with a hamstring injury during camp as a rookie. Throughout the regular season, he was listed with calf, hip, chest, back, elbow and ankle injuries. The ankle was the only one that prevented him from playing. He appeared in 15 games and was the team’s second-leading receiver, finishing with 43 receptions, 515 yards and two touchdowns.
Kittle said a few different factors have led to him playing faster early in his second campaign.
“I’m just feeling really healthy,” he said. “I definitely feel like I’m in better shape than I was last year. I spent a lot of time this offseason working on it. I spent a lot of time working with wide receivers and (defensive backs), just work on routes and stuff.”
Kittle went from a physical, run-first offense at Iowa where he worked primarily as a blocker, to Shanahan’s complex scheme that relies heavily on tight ends to catch passes and be versatile at all levels of the field.
Kittle’s college statistics hardly jumped off the page, which might have been why he lasted all the way to the fifth round of the NFL draft. He averaged 21 receptions for 302 yards during his final two seasons with the Hawkeyes.
“I really just learned the offense (this year),” Kittle said. “When you know what’s going on in the offense, you’re playing fast. You’re not having to think about, ‘Okay, I have this route on this play.’ Now it’s just click, click, and you know how to run your route. It’s a lot easier.“
Added Staley: “I think it’s just coming in with confidence. ... First year as a rookie, you don’t really know exactly what you’re doing. (Kittle’s) not just trying to figure it out on the fly.”
After his promising debut and the heavy workload in the passing game, Kittle is receiving recognition from fantasy owners on social media. After all, he was seventh-highest scoring tight end in fantasy during Week 1. Direct messages included encouraging words, like: “Good luck this week. You’re starting. Don’t disappoint me.”
“It’s really fun,” Kittle said, grinning. ”A lot of pressure from them.”