Kyle Shanahan and pass-game coordinator Bobby Slowik must collaborate to make George Kittle the 49ers’ top receiver in 2022.
No matter how you slice it, the San Francisco 49ers’ 2017 fifth-round pick, George Kittle, is one of the premier tight ends in all of the NFL.
Since he arrived in the Bay Area, he has been an invaluable piece to the puzzle and all the success the Niners have had of late, earning two trips to the NFC Championship game within the last three years.
Kittle’s workload and production for San Francisco accelerated from year one to year two. To illustrate, as a rookie, he started seven games and mustered up 43 receiving targets for 515 yards, which set an NFL record for rookie tight ends drafted in Round 5 or later. In his second season with the 49ers, he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, started 16 games, and recorded 136 targets for a then NFL-best 1,377 receiving yards at the position.
Various injuries have played a role in somewhat of a reduction in his production over the last two seasons, at least in terms of targets and catches. However, despite injuries causing him to play fewer games than in previous seasons, he still had a solid year. In 2021, on far fewer targets than previous seasons, Kittle recorded his career-high in regular-season receiving touchdowns with six.
Nevertheless, 49ers passing game specialist, Bobby Slowik, must enter his second season at the helm blueprinting for the philosophy to center around Kittle.
George Kittle and 49ers offensive sustainability
As highlighted earlier, in 2017 when Kittle initially arrived in San Francisco, he and quarterback Jimmy Garaoppolo thrived. By 2018, Kittle was San Francisco’s No. 1 option even after Garoppolo suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 3.
However, Kittle’s nagging injuries led the Niners to pass that baton recently.
In 2021, the 49ers’ offensive philosophy revolved around their 2019 second-round pick, rising star wide receiver Deebo Samuel. While Samuel had an excellent season receiving the ball as a wideout, Samuel’s impact in the backfield taking handoffs was paramount.
Now, yes, Samuel in the backfield taking handoffs as a “wide back” has been effective and electric.
However, it isn’t sustainable for the future of the offense nor his health, as he was also the Niners’ leading receiver in targets, receptions, and yards for the 2022 season.
The point is if San Francisco wants to keep its ascending star, Samuel, healthy and a focal point of the offense for the future, it needs to ensure it’s not putting too many miles on him so early in his career.
It would be wise for the 49ers to consider re-emphasizing Kittle. Once again, placing the responsibility of being the “alpha receiving target” on Kittle will bring a unique type of balance to the Niners offense with this fearsome duo.
The bottom line for George Kittle and the 49ers
For San Francisco to reach its full potential in 2022, Kittle must revert to being the alpha receiver once again. Although he recorded a career-high in touchdowns this past season, his presence was hardly felt during the Niners’ run to the NFC Championship game.
Kittle garnered just nine targets for the entire 2021 playoff run and scored no touchdowns. At times, it felt like Kittle was lost in the shuffle during the postseason.
There’s no doubt Kittle and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce sit atop the hierarchy of their position, but San Francisco must find more ways to take advantage of having such an impact player at a critical position. Kittle’s athleticism and speed pose him as a considerable mismatch against most defenses in the NFL.
In spite of that, though, Kittle only had nine targets in the red zone for the entire 2021 season, earning an 88 reception percentage and scoring four touchdowns on those opportunities.
With Trey Lance poised to start at quarterback in 2022, Kittle’s skill set and impact, in particular, will become tremendously more valuable. Not only a security blanket for Lance but also a catalyst to completely renovate and open up the passing game to complement the rushing attack.
Centering the offensive philosophy around Kittle would also create additional opportunities for stud route-runner, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who was impressive last season.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan, of course, will intend to implement a heavy dosage of the running game to alleviate things for the youthful Lance, which is smart. In terms of the passing game, centering it around Kittle would have that same effect.
The bottom line is it’s critical for the 49ers’ offensive coaching staff to shift its primary offensive focus onto Kittle and make him the alpha receiving target for the foreseeable future.
Kittle has yet to have a double-digit receiving touchdown season, and it’s safe to say it is well overdue.