49ers tight end George Kittle no longer a secret

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SANTA CLARA — George Kittle has it made.

The 49ers’ young tight end gained 1,377 receiving yards in 2018, setting the NFL single-season record for most receiving yards at his position. And he’s only 25. When he speaks to the media these days, he exudes the charm and confidence of a Hollywood star giving an interview on late-night television.

“I’m not really a guy who sets personal goals,” Kittle said modestly during OTAs. “If we’re winning games, I could have no catches. As long as we do well in the run game, I’ll be happy. I just wait until Coach Shanahan tells me which plays I’m going to catch and run for 80 yards, and I take advantage of those plays.”

Kittle grinned and chuckled as if he were bantering with Jimmy Kimmel. A star downplaying his own greatness.

Most football analysts expect Kittle will have another fantastic season in 2019, because he’s a fantastic player who still is improving. But despite all of that, his numbers may take a significant hit.

Consider the following:

1. Defenses will make it their business to shut down Kittle

Kittle took the NFL by surprise last season. No one expected him to become the 49ers’ go-to receiver. The biggest weapons in their passing game were supposed to be Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin and Jerick McKinnon, the running back the 49ers signed in free agency.

But McKinnon tore his ACL before the season, Goodwin injured himself Week 1 and never seemed 100% healthy and Garcon struggled after having offseason neck surgery. Meaning Kittle became the 49ers’ No. 1 target by default, and the rest of the league was slow to adjust.

Kittle repeatedly found himself wide open in the middle of the field last season — opposing defenses just lost him continuously in coverage. And once Kittle caught the ball in open spaces, teams had trouble tackling him. He’s a load. He gained 870 yards after the catch — tops in the NFL.

Next season, Kittle probably won’t find himself so open so often. Teams will build their entire defensive game plans specifically to stop him. They will double-cover Kittle and try to force Jimmy Garoppolo to throw elsewhere.

At times, the 49ers may even use Kittle as a decoy, knowing he will draw so much attention.

2. The 49ers have more weapons than a year ago

By Week 17 last season, Kittle was the only healthy, quality receiver on the roster.

The other starters were Kendrick Bourne and Richie James — two unproven youngsters. Garcon was out. Goodwin was out. McKinnon was out. Dante Pettis was out. Trent Taylor was in, but he had a back injury that slowed him down all season.

Next season, Goodwin, Pettis and McKinnon should be healthy. The 49ers also will have running back Tevin Coleman, who caught 32 passes for the Atlanta Falcons in 2018. The 49ers signed him in free agency.

Plus, the 49ers drafted two wide receivers: Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd.

To top it all off, Taylor’s back seems healthy again. During the five open practices in front of the media this offseason, Taylor caught 24 passes to lead all 49ers. Kittle caught only nine, although he sat out two practices.

Kittle almost certainly will receive fewer targets next season.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo will be the quarterback

You would think Kittle would benefit from Garoppolo’s return.

But Kittle and Garoppolo haven’t yet developed a strong connection on the field. They’ve played eight games together, and in those games Kittle has caught 27 passes from Garoppolo, gained 415 receiving yards and scored just one touchdown. If Kittle kept that pace for 16 games, he would have 54 catches, 830 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Good, but not great numbers.

Kittle really took off once Nick Mullens became the quarterback. Those two also played eight games together, and Kittle caught 51 passes, gained 793 yards and scored three touchdowns. He was on a 16-game pace of 102 catches, 1,586 yards and six touchdowns with Mullens at quarterback. Hall-of-Fame numbers.

More than 28% of Mullens’ pass attempts went to Kittle. Mullens liked throwing to him quite a bit.

Garoppolo takes a more egalitarian approach to playing quarterback. He spreads the ball around to lots of players. Since joining the 49ers in 2017, he has thrown only 14% of his pass attempts to Kittle.

Kittle may not even reach 1,000 yards next season.

But he may score more than five touchdowns, his total in 2018.

The 49ers want to make Kittle a weapon in the red zone. Last season, he received a team-high 18 targets in the red zone, but caught only two touchdown passes in that area of the field — a big reason the 49ers ranked dead last in red-zone touchdown percentage. Kittle struggled making catches when he wasn’t wide open.

But he seemed to improve during OTAs. He made four touchdown catches inside the 20-yard line, including three during one practice.

“When you have a guy like Jimmy Garoppolo throwing the ball with accuracy and timing, you’ve got to make those plays,” Kittle said. “I’ve got to get better at tracking the ball and bringing it down every single time.”

Even if he catches fewer passes, Kittle’s best may be yet to come.

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