Comparing 49ers’ George Kittle to tight ends and offensive linemen
While George Kittle’s targets are a bit low for a player of his ilk regardless of position, a lot of the difference between him and the top wide receivers of the league can be explained by the additional responsibilities Kittle has, as well as the offensive onus of the 49ers.
The Niners, despite having a solid pass game, also have an elite rushing attack. And when something works, there’s no reason to not use it as much as possible. Using the rushing attack, though, takes away passing snaps and targets for Kittle.
This would be a major problem if Kittle was a wide receiver whose impact solely came from the passing game. But another reason why Kittle’s impact is hard to completely understand is because of how he impacts the rushing game.
Kittle, during the season, had a run-blocking grade around 76.8 per Pro Football Focus, which would have ranked him higher than several offensive linemen. According to PFF, run-blocking grades are not position-curved but absolute. So Kittle’s grade would mean the same if he was a center or a tight end.
To reiterate, Kittle has the receiving production and efficiency of some of the best receivers in the NFL coupled with the blocking chops of offensive linemen considered above average. That combination, especially to a team like the 49ers who use both aspects of his game to the max, is incredibly valuable.
The final way to truly understand Kittle’s value is to compare him to players at his own position. Though it has been clear Kittle transcends the positional limitations of a tight end, especially with his combination, comparisons with his own position help understand exactly what is expected of a player like Kittle and how he goes above and beyond.
The first comparison is with Tony Gonzales, a Hall of Famer at the position. Gonzales was the peak representation of consistency as a tight end, which is impossible to compare to, but his production was very old-school, with low yards per target and a relatively low yards per reception. In that way, Kittle has gone beyond what Gonzales did.
However, that comparison is not very fair because the tight end position has changed so rapidly. More current players who would be a better comparison are the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Rob Gronkowski.
Kelce is considered the primary contender for the title of best tight end along with Kittle. Kelce has had more targets than Kittle each of the last three years, along with more touchdowns, but his efficiency has been far below Kittle. His yards per target from the past two years are around a yard less than Kittle, and that doesn’t begin to include the large gap between the two players in terms of blocking. Kelce’s new contract, which came after Kittle’s was announced, puts him at a slightly lower AAV, but Kelce is older, so the contract comparisons are not completely fair.
The best comparison for Kittle, though this may seem a bit hyperbolic, is Gronkowski, the former New England Patriots tight end with a ticket marked for Canton whenever he chooses to retire for good. Gronk over his career has had roughly the same number of targets on a 16-game basis, he was the alpha receiver on his team, and his run blocking was exceptional. The main differences between Gronk and Kittle are touchdowns of which Gronk, especially in his prime, thoroughly outperformed Kittle, and availability where Kittle outshines Gronk.
So, Kittle is the best tight end in the league with the receiving abilities of a top receiver, run blocking of an above-average offensive linemen whose best comparison is to a Hall of Fame-caliber player many consider to be one of the best tight ends of all time.
What could that possibly mean for a Kittle contract?