• Travis Rapp

How Kittle Being a Leading Receiver May Change Shanahan's Game Plans

Image Credit: Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports

As all NFL fans know, George Kittle had a season for the record books in 2018. With 88 catches for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns, Kittle had the most prolific season by a tight end in league history, in terms of yards gained. The big part of that stat line which isn’t brought up much, is that was also the most receptions by a San Francisco TE in team history. After going for 43/515/2 his rookie season, the more than double in productivity was actually done with fewer games with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm.

With three different quarterbacks, two of whom were second-year players in C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens, Kittle led the league in yards after catch. Not just for TEs, but for all skill players. More YAC than the coveted Antonio Brown.More than the spectacular Christian McCafffery. Kittle was that good last season. With 857 yards after the catch, he shattered Travis Kelce’s previous record by more than 200 yards. That means he had more yards after the catch than any tight end not named Kelce, Zack Ertz, or Jared Cook. The numbers are unbelievable.

Kittle proved that he could be the focal point of the offense when he went for 210 yards in the first half against the Denver Broncos,which has led some to believe that Kittle could reach heights never before seen from a tight end. His personality sure gives him a great connection with the fans. With reports of Kittle turning down a promotional opportunity to start training for next season shows he’s not letting his success stop him from grinding and helping his team reach Super Bowl success.

So the question is:what type of focus will Kyle Shanahan put on Kittle in 2019 after such historic numbers? Probably about the same that he did in 2018. Shanahan has shown that he is going to do what he believes is the best thing to win a game. Everyone has to remember that Shanahan hinted early that his offensive attack for 2018 was designed around Jerick McKinnon, and when he went down before the season started, Shanahan had to change gears.

If you look at Kittle’s efficiency numbers, even though he had the monster season, his yards per route ranked only ninth when compared to other tight ends, but his target rate was second. Kittle was targeted a lot, but he ran a ton of routes. Some of those targets came due to injuries to the wide receivers (Pierre Garcon, Dante Pettis, and Marquise Goodwin all missed games).

Shanahan showed in 2017 and 2018 that he can game plan with the pieces he has. He’s also been around the league since he was a kid, so he knows that a play caller has to stay in front of the film he’s left behind him. With McKinnon coming back, and the expected addition at wide receiver either through trade, free agency, or the draft, it’s anyone’s guess what Shanahan’s play calling plans are. Honestly, he probably doesn’t have the whole picture yet, because he hasn’t seen the completed chessboard yet.

Where does that leave Kittle’s 2019 production? With the returning pieces, the expected additions to the offense, and the expected improvements on the defensive side of the ball, one could expect Kittle to put up similar but slightly lower numbers over a lower number of targets. If the pieces can stay healthy, the offense is pretty loaded with targets in Kittle, McKinnon, Pettis, Goodwin, and Trent Taylor. If Kendrick Bourne and Richie James continue to trend upwards, the passing attack could be quite impressive with Garoppolo spreading the ball around to whoever is open.

Kittle will only get better, and that means the NFL should expect him to be catching 100-plus balls for 1,500 yards at some point, it just probably won’t be next year.

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