Kittle Showed 49ers He Can be a Big Part of Offense

Niners rookie tight end George Kittle (No. 85) had a big day in the season finale against the Rams. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) Getty Images

Things were not always smooth for George Kittle in his first NFL season.

The tight end from Iowa, a fifth-round 49ers draft pick this past spring, injured his hamstring in training camp, then hurt a hip and an ankle in separate games during the regular season.

But as the 49ers begin their offseason after a 6-10 2017 season, Kittle is one of several young players on the roster whose performance gives the Niners plenty of optimism for the future.

Kittle played 15 games, caught 43 of 63 passes thrown to him for 515 yards and scored two touchdowns. His catch rate of 68.3 percent was solid. And, he had some notable big games, including the year-ending 34-13 win over the Rams in which he caught four balls for 100 yards.

The analytic website Pro Football Focus graded Kittle as one of the best 49ers in that game.

“Kittle was a run-after-the-catch monster for the 49ers, especially in the first half,” wrote PFF. “He forced four missed tackles against the Rams, matching his season total entering the game, and racked up 78 yards after the catch, more than his last eight games combined. The 49ers are riding a lot of momentum into the offseason and a big game from Kittle, even against backups, will only add to the sense of anticipation in San Francisco.”

The 49ers immediately liked what they saw from Kittle in post-draft workouts, and their admiration of his skills only increased as the season progressed.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan said the 49ers had to be patient with Kittle once the season started, because everything was new to him and learning how to block NFL defensive players was far different from blocking Big Ten opponents.

“We expected George to come in early and start for us in the beginning of the year,” Shanahan told Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “As a coach you want (rookies) to play great right away, but you’ve got to realize you put them in roles they weren’t fully ready for. All of them have been battling injuries. For rookies, when you battle injuries, how long the year lasts, they usually don’t last all year. It’s just too long and they’re not used to it.”

Kittle, however, grew stronger as the season progressed. In tandem with veteran Garrett Celek (21 catches, 336 yards, four TDs), the 49ers fielded a duo of strong pass-catching tight ends who should prosper in 2018 with more familiarity with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Kittle told Cohn he’s confident in the skills he has to be successful in the NFL.

“I’m a pretty good route runner,” said Kittle. “I have a pretty good sense of space when I’m on the field running routes. I feel like I’ve got pretty good speed. And I’ve always prided myself (at blocking) in the run game, which is something you can always get better at and one thing I’m trying to get better at. It’s something I really enjoy and I take a lot of pride in.”