George Kittle prefers to wear a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt before games to summon the swagger of the Texas Rattlesnake himself. It must have worked because Kittle currently holds the tight end championship belt.
He ended the season with the most receiving yards of any tight end in NFL history. A record held by Travis Kelce for about a half hour. In only his second season, Kittle has established himself as an elite playmaker and is quickly rising in popularity around the league, being voted into the 2019 Pro Bowl.
Kittle is described as mild-mannered, amiable and charming off the field. He apparently taps into his pro wrestler alter ego once on the field. He plays hard, not allowing any defender an easy tackle.
Despite this, he plays the game like a kid in a sandlot, often seen grinning and goofing around. In his own words on The 49ers Insider Podcast, “I play the game angry, and I love playing the game, so it’s kind of half and half. I’m angry, and I’m having the best time of my life at the same time.”
Kittle’s 2018 high water mark came against the Denver Broncos in Week 14. Kittle led the team with seven receptions, 210 yards, five first downs, and a touchdown. His touchdown came when he took a 15-yard pass from Nick Mullens 85 yards to the end zone.
While impressive, his most impressive single play came at the end of the first quarter. Kittle caught a short pass from Mullens and went 52 yards. He outran Broncos defender Darian Stewart, broke two tackles and was finally tripped up at the Denver 12-yard line by a Justin Simmons shoestring tackle. In this game, Kittle came up five yards short of breaking Shannon Sharpe’s 16-year-old single-game receiving yards record.
Kittle was drafted out of Iowa in the fifth round, 146th overall in 2017. He flew under the radar at the draft, eight tight ends were selected before him. At Iowa, he was primarily used as a blocker in their run-first offense, churning out an unspectacular statistical output. He only caught 10 TDs and had 737 receiving yards in four years at Iowa.
Every team could see his raw athletic ability and dominant blocking, but Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers recognized his potential as a receiving threat. Shanahan pegged him as a first-round talent, but the Niners assumed he wouldn’t go until the third round.
Perhaps the 49ers were thinking that Kittle would benefit from being in Shanahan’s potent offense. If that was the case, they were right. After this season, 49ers fans are feeling like they struck gold in Kittle.
Next season expectations in San Francisco will be much higher than they were in 2018. Kittle will be central to the 49ers success next season. The ceiling of his success is largely dependent on external factors.
In Kittle’s first two seasons, he has caught passes from four different quarterbacks, yet he has proven to be a consistent performer. Kittle will become even more dominant with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm.
In Garoppolo’s injury-shortened season, he favored Kittle in the passing game. Garoppolo targeted him on 22% of passes he threw in 2018.
Where Kittle hasn’t excelled is in the red zone. Kittle needs become the go-to option in the red zone. When the 49ers were inside the 20, he was targeted 19 times resulting in only 2 touchdowns. The 49ers were dead last in red zone efficiency in 2018 and their focus should be on how to incorporate Kittle into those plays.
Things are only looking up for the 49ers with returning stars, the number two overall draft pick and the prospect of big offseason moves. In a year which 49ers fans didn’t have much to cheer for, Kittle far exceeded expectations and has given promise of a bright future in red and gold.