George Kittle jumped into the NFL spotlight in 2018 by setting a single-season record for tight ends.
The second-year man from Iowa had a league-record 1,377 receiving yards in 2018 on 88 catches, scored five touchdowns and averaged 15.6 yards per reception.
Suddenly, Kittle blossomed into a Pro Bowler and gave the 49ers a playmaker who could be a focal part of the Kyle Shanahan-guided offense for many years.
Kittle’s hands, speed and ability to pick up big yardage after pulling in passes consistently put him on highlight shows in 2018.
But the former Hawkeye also was elite as a blocker as well, and that also could be a big part of the offensive success for San Francisco in 2019, too.
Recently, the analytic website Pro Football Focus graded Kittle as No. 4 among the NFL’s top-blocking tight ends this past season (for players with at least 100 run-blocking snaps).
Wrote Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus: “Kittle rewrote the PFF record books with his yards-after-the-catch totals in 2018, burying what was an outstanding run-blocking season for the former Iowa tight end. He earned an impressive 73.3 run-blocking grade on the year, which was an 11.6-point jump from his rookie season.”
Shanahan and other members of the 49ers loved Kittle when he was a player at Iowa and believed he was much better than a fifth-round selection. But, the Niners were happy to get him when he dropped to that round.
Kittle had been graded as a fine blocker at Iowa, but his pass-catching ability was doubted. As a senior, he had just 22 catches for 314 yards. Now that run-blocking talent is overshadowed by his gaudy reception totals and big plays downfield.
Shanahan said Kittle was getting rave reviews as a blocker in college – so his success in the NFL in that area isn’t a surprise. But he and the 49ers also believed Kittle could be a fine receiver, too.
“The main reason was the pass game,” Shanahan said in November, when asked what he liked most about Kittle at Iowa. “He didn’t get to show that a ton, which helped him, we thought, not get noticed in the first couple of rounds. But we were very surprised he fell to fifth.”