The San Francisco 49ers drafted TE George Kittle 146th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, and with him came quite a bit of hype. In his senior year at Iowa (along with fellow SF draftee QB C.J. Beathard), Kittle had 22 receptions for 314 yards and 4 touchdowns. That was in only 9 games played. Expectations are high for him, but sadly there’s a very good chance he doesn’t live up to the talent he has and could have only one contract with SF.
*Nagging Kittle Injuries*
Kittle came into OTAs this offseason looking impressive by all accounts, catching 3 touchdowns from all 3 QBs on the final day of OTAs. Then developed a hamstring injury that kept him out of almost all of training camp. He came in late and, while he had an amazing catch for a touchdown in the 2nd preseason game against Denver, an injury that sidelines him for so long, so early in the season, makes one wonder whether he can stay healthy for an entire season.
Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL, asterisk. That asterisk being when he is on the field, which is way less than New England would care to admit. Kittle could easily run the same course as Gronk. He can end up being the best tight end that SF does not and can not field.
*Too Kittle, Too Late?*
As discussed before, Kittle had a touchdown in the 2nd preseason game against DEN, but how much does it really matter? It is common knowledge by now that leading up to and during the draft, General Manager John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan made it known publicly that they tried to trade TE Vance McDonald. McDonald seems to be following a trend of looking…ok in practice. Not great, but ok. He also has settled into regular season form, dropping the first pass of the 2nd preseason game as thrown by Hoyer.
It seemed like all but a certainty that Kittle would unseat McDonald as TE1 heading into the regular season, and was even taking first team reps at the end of OTAs. He hasn’t seemed to get that momentum back though. That, coupled with the questionable makeup of the TE corps, and you wonder if anyone on the roster can contribute from a passing perspective. TE Logan Paulsen was specifically brought in as one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, and has shown he has the hands for the occasional catch, but he isn’t a TE1. At this point it feels like Kittle either becomes TE1 or flames out of the team.
*Too Many Targets, Too Kittle Competition*
The Niners have nearly completely overhauled the skill positions in a way we haven’t seen since the Harbaugh era. WRs Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington and Anquan Boldin have been replaced by Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, and recent draftee Trent Taylor. These moves, along with the additions of RBs Joe Williams and Matt Breida, and OW Kyle Juszczyk, give the Niners a passing game that is as diverse as Shanahan himself. This ultimately will make it tougher to gameplan against.
Ultimately its up to Kittle to carve out a slice of receptions for himself. He has all the tools and talent to be not just the best TE on the team, but one of the better Res in the NFL. His catch and run vs DEN shows that. He just needs to be consistent and take care of his body. Yes, it was hot as heck on the turf of the Niners practice facility and a dehydration caused hamstring strain was probably inevitable. Yes, the season hasn’t even started yet, and its early to declare a rookie to be a bust. The offseason is the time for evaluation, and if a coach is left trying to work off of what ifs or his evaluations are based on how a player sits on the bench or rehabs on the sideline, it doesn’t bode well for Kittle. Only time will tell.
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