49ers tight end George Kittle returns to practice

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George Kittle returned to practice Thursday for the first time since sustaining left ankle and knee injuries Oct. 31 against the Cardinals.

It was a positive step for the 49ers’ star tight end, as he hopes to make his return for the pivotal game Sunday night against the 8-2 Green Bay Packers that could go a long way toward determining seeding in the playoffs.

“It went really well,” Kittle said of practice. “It was definitely a step in the right direction. It was really fun being back out there with the guys. I definitely don’t miss sitting in the training room all day, so definitely a good step in the right direction and the goal is definitely still Green Bay.”

Kittle was a limited participant as he wore a blue non-contact jersey. He watched the last two games against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals from a luxury suite eight stories above the field at Levi’s Stadium. He wasn’t allowed to watch from the sideline to avoid standing on the injured leg for the three-plus hours during games.

“It’s just absolutely brutal,” he said. “It’s absolutely awful. I’d love to be down there. They said I would hurt myself if I put myself down there. I disagreed but I understand. I hate watching from up there. It’s a great view, but I would do anything to be on the field.”

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan indicated Kittle will be a game-time decision Sunday, though Kittle’s return to practice is an indication he’s on track to play against the Packers, barring a setback. Kittle didn’t practice Wednesday.

“It’s going to come down to the wire again and hopefully it will work out,” Shanahan said.

Without Kittle, one of the 49ers best run blockers, the league’s No. 2-ranked rushing attack had its two least productive games of the year with just 87 and 34 yards the past two weeks, respectively.

Kittle’s presence in that area isn’t lost on Packers head coach Matt LaFleur.

“One thing I think that I respect so much about George Kittle is he’s a complete football player,” LaFleur said on a conference call this week. “I think he’s as good in the run game as he is in the pass game. And I think he’s arguably the best tight end in the game.”

Despite missing two games, Kittle is San Francisco’s leading pass catcher with 46 receptions for 541 yards. He’s caught 19 of 20 passes on third down for 109 yards, including 14 conversions.

Sanders, Samuel return to practice

There was also good news for San Francisco’s top receivers Emmanuel Sanders (ribs) and Deebo Samuel (shoulder) on Thursday. Both returned to practice as limited participants after missing Wednesday’s session.

Sanders was in a jersey and cleats running routes and doing conditioning after exiting Sunday’s victory over the Cardinals in the second half due to his ongoing rib issue that first popped up Nov. 11 against Seattle. It’s likely Sanders will try to play Sunday versus Green Bay.

Sanders’ mobility Thursday is a good sign for Sunday night, given he’ll have a full week to prepare after getting just six days last week.

Samuel was back at practice in a blue non-contact jersey after temporarily leaving the game with a shoulder injury in the third quarter. He returned to make a handful of catches, including two during the game-winning drive. He had eight receptions for 134 yards, becoming the first rookie in team history to have at least eight catches and 100 yards in back-to-back games.

Bosa among top 49ers in Pro Bowl voting

The 49ers, tied with the New England Patriots for the best record in the NFL at 9-1, as a team received the second-most Pro Bowl votes during the first week of voting, the league announced this week.

The 49ers have four players leading their respective positions in the NFC in voting: fullback Kyle Juszczyk (87,534), Kittle (59,958), defensive end Nick Bosa (72,506) and cornerback Richard Sherman (42,889).

Bosa has more votes than any other defensive player. His brother, Joey, the defensive end for the Chargers, is second with 62,029.

Kittle was named to his first Pro Bowl last season after setting a record for tight ends with 1,377 receiving yards. Juszczyk has gone to the last three Pro Bowls and is widely considered the best fullback in the league. Bosa’s seven sacks are second among rookies behind Jacksonville’s Josh Allen (8.0).

Sherman, a three-time All-Pro, went to four straight Pro Bowls from 2013 to 2016 before sustaining a season-ending Achilles tear during his final season with the Seahawks in November two years ago.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Johnson, whom the 49ers play Dec. 1, leads the league in Pro Bowl voting. The game will be played Jan. 27, a week before the Super Bowl, in Orlando.

Running back Matt Breida (ankle) and pass rusher Dee Ford (hamstring) were doing rehab and conditioning and did not practice. Kick Robbie Gould did not practice and remained stationary as he deals with a right quadriceps injury in his kicking leg.

Left tackle Joe Staley (finger) was not on the practice field and isn’t expected to play this week, which means rookie Justin Skule is expected to get his eighth start of the season.

Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (concussion) was a full participant in practice for the second straight day. Nose tackle D.J. Jones (groin) and running back Raheem Mostert (knee) were upgraded to full participants and will likely play Sunday.

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