Image Credit: Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports
Last season, tight end George Kittle took the league by storm with big plays, lively celebrations and an infectious play style. His 1,377 receiving yards were the most by any tight end in the history of the league. The fact that he was doing a vast majority of his damage with second- and third-string quarterbacks makes it all the more impressive. Kittle was responsible for a whopping 24 percent of all yards the 49ers put up in 2018 which was good enough for third best among pass catchers behind only wide receivers Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins.
Realistically, this is not a trend that will continue now that Kyle Shanahan has more weapons to surround Kittle. The 49ers offense is going to be completely revamped as players return from injury, were added in free agency or handpicked in the draft last month. Let’s take a look at how the players from each of those categories will ease the workload from George Kittle.
First and foremost, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is the most important player returning for the 49ers at any position. The NFL is geared to run through the QB, and Shanahan’s offense is no exception. While Nick Mullens was a serviceable backup for the second half of the season, the offense ground to a halt with C.J. Beathard taking the snaps. Garoppolo taking back the reins will immediately make all players around him considerably better. His ability to diagnose a defense and quickly get rid of the ball make this offense hum.
It was rumored last season that Shanahan had built a considerable amount of the playbook around Jerick McKinnon and his ability to make plays, not only as a running back but as a receiving threat out of the backfield. When he went down on the final play of the walkthrough before the Week 1 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, you could see how ill-prepared Shanahan was to change the game plan on such short notice. Having never seen McKinnon take a meaningful snap in the red and gold, it is somewhat difficult to anticipate what he will bring to the table but his time in Minnesota suggests he could be an ideal change-of-pace back to complement Matt Breida’s running style.
The wide receiver group was wearing thin by the end of last year and that was partly due to Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis and Trent Taylor all missing significant time due to injuries and off the field personal matters. Pettis, in particular, was in and out of the lineup with varying injuries until ultimately being shut down for good after an MCL sprain against the Chicago Bears. Marquise Goodwin showed some flashes that made his 2017 season so special but could not get the same rhythm with Mullens or Beathard as he did with Garoppolo. Taylor was an interesting case because he did not actually miss any games, however, he was dealing with a back injury that limited him in nearly every game. When healthy, he was an ideal slot receiver that never met a third down he didn’t love.
While a bulk of the moves in free agency were completed on the defensive side of the ball, John Lynch and Co. did manage to bring in a key player for Shanahan. Tevin Coleman was signed to a team-friendly two-year contract to add yet more speed to an already blazing running back room. Coleman comes with experience playing for Shanahan and put forth his best year under him in Atlanta. His addition also allows for any of the running backs to properly recover from an injury they may incur instead of being forced to play through them. Last year, Matt Breida was run into the ground simply because there were no suitable backups that could properly shoulder the load. Now, an ankle sprain can be healed for a week or two while the other running backs step up.
For the first time in three years, it felt as though Kyle Shanahan firmly made his mark on a draft class by selecting wide receivers in the second and third rounds. Deebo Samuel, the Senior Bowl darling, will immediately start across from Pettis on the outside, but he possesses the versatility to line up anywhere in the formation. Fluid route running and ability to create separation should match seamlessly with Garoppolo’s play style. Jalen Hurd comes in as an even more flexible weapon for Shanahan to utilize. Originally a running back at Tennessee before transferring to Baylor and the wide receiver position, Hurd will create mismatch nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators whether he comes out of the slot, backfield or lined up out wide.
Finally, at George Kittle’s own position, Kaden Smith was taken in the sixth round out of Stanford. Smith’s measurables do not immediately jump off the screen but he does come with above average hands and catch radius. Frankly, he seems to be a younger version of current second-string tight end Garrett Celek. Celek is one of the few holdovers from the previous regime; however, his time could be running out.
When all is said and done, Kittle will not have to carry the offense as he did in 2018. That isn’t to say that he isn’t capable of accomplishing that feat, he clearly already has. Moving forward, look for the new plethora of weapons to draw more attention away from Kittle and allow him to continue to amaze with game-breaking plays and “cero miedo” celebrations.
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