Quarterback Nick Mullens has, momentarily at least, provided the 49ers a jolt during their otherwise lost season at 2-7.
But perhaps the most promising development for San Francisco throughout 2018 has been the play of tight end George Kittle, who has quickly asserted himself as the team’s most dynamic player on offense.
And he looks like the club’s top candidate for All-Pro and Pro Bowl consideration through the first nine weeks.
Kittle leads the 49ers with 41 receptions (receiver Pierre Garçon is second with 24), 692 receiving yards (Garçon is second with 286) and yards from scrimmage (running back Matt Breida is second with 624). Kittle is third among all tight ends by averaging 76.9 yards per game and is also one of the league’s premier blockers for his position.
It’s fair to say Kittle is San Francisco’s unofficial MVP heading into Week 10, which is particularly notable given he’s in just his second season. And he lasted until the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft, which seems shocking given his production and physical skills.
Coach Kyle Shanahan on Friday was asked why he thinks Kittle dropped, a day after his one-handed, 71-yard catch and run highlighted a blowout of the Raiders.
“That’s a good question because we didn’t know either,” Shanahan said. “We thought he was going to go somewhere in the third, or something like that, was our guess.”
Fortunately for San Francisco, Kittle lasted to pick No. 146, giving the 49ers long-term building block after they were devoid of playmakers on offense in recent seasons.
A look at Kittle’s college career might provide some answers. His best season at Iowa came as a senior, when he logged just 22 catches for 314 yards. He was utilized primarily as a run blocker in the Hawkeyes’ physical run-first system that didn’t utilize tight ends in the passing game nearly as often as Shanahan does.
“(He) looks like first-round talent, but we had a feeling he was going to fall just in the fact that he didn’t do a lot in the passing game,” Shanahan said. “All we hear about is people talking about him as a run blocker and things like that, which is one of the reasons we really liked him. But, the main reason was the pass game. He didn’t get to show that a ton which (led to) him, we thought, not get noticed in the first couple of rounds. But, we were very surprised he fell to the fifth.”
Kittle became a cult figure among scouting gurus leading up the 2017 draft. He posted a 4.52 in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, which was third-best at the position. His 11-foot broad jump ranked third and 35-inch vertical jump was sixth.
His SPARQ rating, a metric created by Three Sigma Athlete that measures athleticism using testing numbers relative to NFL players, was the best among all tight ends in his draft class.
However you feel about using metrics to grade athleticism, Kittle’s production proves his SPARQ score was an accurate assessment. He leads all tight ends this season with 490 yards after the catch. Next is Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce with 300. Kittle’s speed has been particularly evident during his long catch against the Raiders and 82-yard score against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 4, when he ran away from the entire secondary.
“His explosive measurables at the NFL combine were better than O.J. Howard’s,” ESPN analyst Greg Cosell said Friday on KNBR. “When was the last time in a season, and we’re already halfway done, a tight end had two 70-yard receptions?”
The answer: Rich Caster of the New York Jets in 1972.
Further, Kittle is on pace for 1,230 yards over a full 16-game slate. No 49ers tight end has ever eclipsed 1,000. Vernon Davis set the franchise mark with 965 yards in 2009.
Said Cosell: “I love George Kittle and think he could be a great, great player. And I think if Jimmy Garoppolo can come back next year, stay healthy and they can grow together, I think you could be looking at George Kittle in the next year or two being talked about as a top two (or) three tight end in this league for sure.”
Kittle was named one of San Francisco’s five team captains last month. At 25, he’s the second youngest behind 24-year-old defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
He was asked after the win over the Raiders about what’s allowed him to have a standout season.
“That’s on the whole team,” Kittle said. “Coach Shanahan puts me in positions to get open and he tells the quarterback to throw me the ball. He has the offensive line blocking for him the whole time which gives me time to run my route. Coach Shanahan gave me the opportunities and I just have to make the most of them.”