When the 49ers drafted tight end George Kittle in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, he became an immediate fan favorite. Kittle is an athletic freak who was described as “the best all-around tight end in college football” by Pro Football Focus prior to the 2016 season.
Once fans saw the highlight reel of his one-handed catch against the Maryland Terrapins, many deemed Kittle the new 49ers starting tight end, and McDonald was instantly expendable.
Kittle may be the 49ers’ future, but history tells us it’s unlikely he’s their present.
Similar to quarterbacks, most tight ends have difficult transitions from college to the NFL; even future Hall of Famers usually take a year or two before they excel at the next level. Understandably, tight ends selected late in the draft take even longer to produce against their new NFL opponents.
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Over his 11 games played in 2016, McDonald had 391 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Those who believe the 49ers should release McDonald based on these meager statistics likely expect Kittle to double or triple McDonald’s 2016 production.
What’s the likelihood Kittle will merely equal McDonald’s 2016 production, if given a full 16-game rookie season? We can’t predict the future, but we can analyze the past.
In the last 25 years, how many tight ends drafted in the fifth, sixth or seventh rounds had at least 391 receiving yards in their rookie season?
Just one — in 2013, rookie Mychal Rivera accumulated 407 receiving yards over 16 games.
Hopefully Kittle will be able to equal Rivera’s “record-breaking” rookie season, but if he doesn’t, all is not lost.
49ers fans would love for Kittle to become the next Greg Olsen — the first round draft pick, and two-time All-Pro. How many receiving yards did Olsen have in his rookie season? Exactly 391.