The 49ers are inevitably going to need George Kittle to help rookie Trey Lance go from a raw prospect to a franchise signal-caller, maybe sooner than later.
Easily one of the NFL’s top three tight ends, Kittle has been noticeably quiet over the first four weeks of the season, having just 19 receptions for 229 yards and zero touchdowns. In many ways, the Niners offense has been noticeably quiet, too, aside from an explosive outburst in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions and a few drives here and there in the weeks since.
Whatever the causes behind head coach Kyle Shanahan’s slowish start this season, there could easily be a massive transition in the upcoming weeks.
One which San Francisco knew was inevitable but probably wasn’t anticipating until much later.
49ers may be starting Trey Lance sooner than later
A calf injury to veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 4 could ultimately mean the No. 3 overall-drafted player from this year, Trey Lance, could get the start under center for the 49ers in Week 4 against the undefeated Arizona Cardinals.
Shanahan told reporters there was a good chance Garoppolo could go. But with the offense often stalling with Jimmy G under center anyway, and the Niners having invested so much in Lance anyway, Shanahan might be left with little choice than to finally let Lance develop as a starter and not as a high-profile backup waiting for his chance.
And that’s where Kittle can make a massive dent in the rookie’s development.
49ers must call upon George Kittle to help Trey Lance’s maturation
Kittle has been one of Garoppolo’s staunchest advocates, even after San Francisco made the blockbuster offseason move to get up to No. 3 overall in last April’s draft.
But even Kittle isn’t naive enough to think the 49ers will avoid doing whatever is best for the organization over the long run, even if that ultimately means transitioning from Garoppolo to Lance.
And if Lance is regularly looking to Kittle as a go-to option, that’ll make things so much better.
A Football 101 adage suggests tight ends are frequently a young quarterback’s best friend. The big-bodied target, especially one who can create mismatches against opposing defenses, can give a developing signal-caller the confidence needed to operate under center. With the knowledge the Niners have one of the best in the NFL, any relationship between Lance and Kittle will be vital.
George Kittle is already mentoring Trey Lance even if the rookie hasn’t started yet
Garoppolo exited San Francisco’s Week 4 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at halftime, giving way to Lance getting snaps for the final two quarters of the game.
Lance was 0-of-3 targeting Kittle during the second half. But even those missed efforts prompted a learning experience for the rookie, which he pointed out during his postgame presser:
"I don’t want to say nerves or adrenaline or anything like that because I’ve been in games before and I’m thankful for that, and I was prepared for the situation I felt. So for me, they’re easy throws, like maybe thinking too much on the one to George, and the one to Deebo [Samuel] was probably a throw-away more than anything, trying to save Deebo."
Hopefully, the expectation is the added reps as a needed starter in between Weeks 4 and 5 will help spark that chemistry.
Even Kittle understood Lance might be dealing with some nerves, too, telling reporters the following:
"[Kittle said to Lance] “Just play your game.” He’s a good quarterback. So, he’s going to figure it out. I’m not really worried about that. Like I said, he makes plays all the time in practice and stuff. He looks great. So, when he was out there, he got his feet underneath him, and I thought he started playing at a higher level, and we’re going to need that next week."
One half of football isn’t going to be the end-all, be-all of Lance’s development and eventual relationship with Kittle. That’s going to be a long, sometimes difficult process that’ll involve months of repetition.
And while Garoppolo feasibly could return as the 49ers starter, potentially as soon as this weekend, it’ll be Lance who needs the time to work out his chemistry with his receiving targets.
Highest among them, Kittle.