49ers’ 2018 ‘Who Is?’ series: Tight end George Kittle

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 24: George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers dives into the end zone for a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 24, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 24: George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers dives into the end zone for a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 24, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images) /

Niner Noise’s 2018 “Who Is?” series looks at second-year San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle and the kind of projected role he’ll have for the upcoming season.

The San Francisco 49ers sure struck gold with tight end George Kittle last season.

It’s easy to see why. The Niners’ fifth-round pick of the 2017 NFL Draft ended up having a historic rookie year, as Niner Noise’s Chris Wilson explained:

"Kittle finished the 2017 season with 43 receptions and 515 receiving yards — more than any tight end, drafted in the fifth round or later, in the history of the league.Many proclaimed the 2017 NFL Draft to have the best tight end class in the history of the NFL, with three tight ends selected in the first round, and two more in the second. A total of eight tight ends were selected before Kittle, yet Kittle ended the season with more receptions and receiving yards than all but one of them."

Kittle’s lack of big-time collegiate numbers at Iowa was likely a reason he slipped so far in the draft last year. But late-round selections aren’t always the kind of prospects to throw up gaudy numbers:

George Kittle Receiving & Rushing Table
*2013IowaBig TenFRUT3510821.60
*2014IowaBig TenSOTE312525.00
*2015IowaBig TenJRTE102029014.56
*2016IowaBig TenSRTE92231414.34

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 6/8/2018.

The Niners took a flier and it worked.

Heading into year two of his pro career, Kittle will be asked to do more within San Francisco’s budding offense. He’ll benefit from having a full season’s worth of work with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who automatically improved head coach Kyle Shanahan’s otherwise inept offense with sub-par quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard a year ago.

So, should we expect big things from Kittle in 2018.

Why George Kittle Improves in 2018

At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Kittle isn’t exactly the biggest tight end. But his 4.52 40-yard time at the NFL Scouting Combine just over a year ago suggests he can move well.

That revealed itself quite a bit this season. And the one area in which Kittle had to adjust was understanding how contested catches would be compared to his time at Iowa.

49ers tight ends coach Jon Embree pointed this out, via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee:

"One of the things he’s had to learn on our level is, in college football “open” is wide open. 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."

Kittle’s rookie numbers suggest he mastered this well enough. Out of 61 targets last year, he dropped just four passes, per Pro Football Focus.

But when factoring in the split before and after Garoppolo, the impact looks even better, per PFF’s Jeff Deeney:

Those numbers suggest Kittle could easily emerge as a top-tier tight end in the league this season.

Why He Regresses

Kittle dealt with a high-ankle sprain a bit last year, and those can be tricky things to completely go away. Fortunately, he’s nothing near an injury concern. While it’s possible the same injury resurfaces, let’s not bank on it.

What’s more possible, though, is Kittle loses some attention to fellow tight end Garrett Celek. Beyond that, other Niners receivers could also take away targets, especially if opponents lock down their best linebackers and safeties in an attempt to cover Kittle.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

Perhaps the best measure of Kittle’s 2018 success will be how he fares in the red zone. This is an area in which the 49ers finished 27th last season in touchdown efficiency.

Both of his touchdowns have come within the red zone, so that’s a good thing. Yet if he’s unable to duplicate these efforts this season, one can see how his second year could be something of a disappointment.

Especially considering the Niners have some woes here.

What to Expect with the 49ers in 2018

One of the knocks against Kittle early on his rookie season was the lack of polished route running. It makes sense, considering Iowa’s offense in 2016 was pretty generic, while head coach Kyle Shanahan’s is complex. Very complex.

A year’s worth of development surely helps. And if we consider the splits Deeney made before and after Garoppolo took over starting duties, it’s not hard to get excited here.

Sure, some of the other offensive weapons could take away targets. Yet that doesn’t mean Kittle’s overall presence on the field means nothing. It was nice to see him hone his blocking skills too last season, which carried over from Iowa’s run-heavy offense.

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Those will help him emerge as a No. 1 tight end on the roster this season. Perhaps he solidifies himself as one of the better young options at the position across the entire NFL too.