49ers tight end George Kittle in a class by himself

George Kittle entered the spring of 2017 rated the fifth- or sixth-best tight end in his draft class by prominent football analysts. NFL executives were apparently even less optimistic about his pro prospects, letting Kittle fall to the fifth round. Eight other tight ends, including Adam Shaheen, Michael Roberts and Jake Butt, were selected in front of him.

His talents, it would seem, were severely misjudged. Kittle already has 2,945 career receiving yards, the most of any NFL tight end in the first three years of his career. He has the ?third-most receiving yards of any 49ers player through three seasons, trailing only Jerry Rice (3,575) and Dave Parks (3,021). Kittle gains more yards per route run than any player in the NFL. He can block every bit as well as he runs routes and he’ll be a matchup nightmare in Saturday’s divisional round contest against the Minnesota Vikings.

The 26-year-old first-team ?All-Pro received the highest score ever given to a tight end by Pro Football Focus graders (95.0 on a scale of 1 to 100), breaking a record set by future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski in 2011 (92.0). Kittle, in fact, had the highest PFF grade of any player in 2019, edging out Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (93.7).

“And I don’t think this year is a fluke,” Pro Football Focus senior analyst Steve Palazzolo said. “He was our highest-rated tight end last year, too. It was a similar kind of performance.”

(Pro Football Focus’s grading system, which started in 2006, isolates a player’s performance on a given play and not the end result, meaning two players could make a similar play and get vastly different grades.)

What makes him so great? Kittle caught 85 of 86 catchable targets this season for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns. He had the sixth-highest catch rate of any player with at least 100 total targets and his 3.1 yards per route was the highest mark in the league, wideouts and running backs included, according to PFF’s game charters. Kittle joined Rice, Terrell Owens and Anquan Boldin as the only pass catchers in 49ers franchise history to post back-to-back ?1,000-yard seasons and he is just the fifth 49ers player (and first tight end) to have multiple ?1,000-yard receiving campaigns.

“Kittle was incredibly efficient,” Palazzolo said. “He caught all but one of his catchable targets. Many of those receptions went for first downs or touchdowns. He even had a couple big plays negated by penalties, plays we still grade if the guy earns it. He is an ?old-school, in-line tight end that can make any block while also being that mismatch weapon as a receiver. Gronkowski is the only real comparison for Kittle.”

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan uses “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) most frequently but he will also use Kittle as his third receiver in “21” personnel formations (two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers). The 6-foot-4, ?250-pound tight end, in turn, is adept at running most of the route tree, excelling on deep crossing routes and seam routes. He also averaged 7.1 yards after the catch, the most among wideouts and tight ends in 2019, making him dangerous any time the ball gets in his hands.

“He loves to pancake people and he loves to be physical. When he does get the ball in his hands, he is looking to punish somebody,” said LeVar Woods, the special teams coordinator at Iowa and Kittle’s tight ends coach in college. “He’s a physical guy. A tough guy. A guy that can run all the routes and make all the catches.”

But his pass-catching ability is only part of his value. Kittle, whose father, Bruce, played offensive line at Iowa and now coaches it in high school, is a superb run blocker in Shanahan’s outside zone scheme, which requires offensive linemen and tight ends to run horizontally along the line of scrimmage in unison. While other star tight ends such as Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz and Baltimore’s Mark Andrews are bona fide playmakers, run blocking is what sets Kittle apart. Pro Football Focus gave Kittle the second-highest run-blocking grade at the position this year (Arizona’s Maxx Williams, who had just 15 catches, was No. 1). No other tight end ranked in PFF’s top 10 for both pass-catching and run-blocking.

“We ask our tight ends to run block and he did a tremendous job of that in college,” Woods said. “And once he put on the weight and developed physically he was able to do that at a high level in the NFL.”

Here’s proof: In 14 games - he missed weeks 10 and 11 with a knee injury - San Francisco’s running game averaged 4.8 yards per carry, with 23 touchdowns and 107 first downs over 452 carries. In the two games he missed, the 49ers managed just 2.6 yards per carry with no touchdowns and only three first downs over 46 rushing attempts.

Plus, because Kittle is such a threat to make a play, cornerbacks and linebackers have to account for his movements, further stretching out the defense on run plays. Here’s an example against the Seattle Seahawks in the regular-season finale. Kittle goes in motion and makes a move to the outside, drawing the interest of linebacker K.J. Wright and cornerback Akeem King. Because King shadows Kittle to the outside, 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk only has to block Wright to spring Raheem Mostert for a two-yard touchdown.

On Saturday, Kittle will face a Vikings defense that was stout against tight ends this season. Minnesota managed to hold opposing quarterbacks to a ?league-low 62.2 passer rating when they targeted tight ends in coverage, allowing just one touchdown with seven interceptions, per data from TruMedia. However, the Vikings haven’t faced a tight end like Kittle this season, because there isn’t one in the NFL.

“They use him all different ways,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. “He’s very nifty in the passing game. He’ll give you a head fake and a shake and go the other way. And he’s got great speed. You combine those things with his ?run-after-catch ability and the way he can get open in routes and it makes him very difficult.”

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