As John Lynch and his staff were scouting for the 2017 draft, they kept coming back to Iowa tight end George Kittle.
“Kittle was a player we grew to really like and particularly where he was, he was a guy that we wanted to get,” Lynch told reporters soon after that draft. “We thought it was tremendous value."
The Niners loved both his blocking skills and his receiving ability and selected him in the fifth round. Kittle proved Lynch right by having a strong rookie season, catching 43 passes for 515 yards and two touchdowns.
Now, one game into the 2018 season, it appears Kittle could be on his way to becoming one of the NFL’s best young tight ends. In the opening-season loss to the Vikings Sunday, Kittle caught five passes for 90 yards and averaged 18 yards per reception. Though he dropped a long pass that looked like a possible TD from Jimmy Garoppolo, he rebounded later in the game for another big catch.
The analytic website Pro Football Focus gave Kittle an outstanding grade for his game, with PFF’s Cam Mellor writing: “Despite a drop, Kittle was heavily targeted against Minnesota, hauling in 5-of-9 passes thrown his way. He led the league’s tight ends with 66 yards after the catch and while he was held out of the end zone, accounted for four first downs on his receptions.”
After the game, however, Kittle was still thinking about the pass he couldn’t pull in from Garoppolo, deep down the sideline. One play later, Garoppolo then threw an interception that was returned for a score. The back-to-back plays proved to be the turning point of the game.
Said Kittle: “Misjudged it. Thought it was a little closer to me. Probably ran a bit too far with my arms out. Just a bad play. That leads to a pick six, that’s on my shoulders. It’s a play we hit all the time (in practice), so I am pretty disappointed in myself for that.”
The 49ers obviously are disappointed with losing the season opener, but Kittle says he was encouraged by what he saw from San Francisco against the Vikings, a team some pick to win the NFC championship. Minnesota’s defense is one of the best in the NFL, and the 49ers collected 327 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per play.
“It (Minnesota) is a good defense, but we have a good offense,” Kittle told the media. “We have a great coach calling the plays. He is putting us in position to make those plays and I think those are plays we need to make. If we make them it is a totally different outcome. Yes, they are a good defense, but I also think we’re a good offense.”
Kittle and the 49ers will try to get their first victory this Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Levi’s Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1:05 p.m.