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Why George Kittle is the NFL’s second-best tight end in 2018

Rob Gronkowski? Zach Ertz? Nope. 49ers’ George Kittle is the second-best tight end this season.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at San Francisco 49ers Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, analysts raved over the tight end class as being one of the best in recent memory. The common names that were tossed out were Alabama’s O.J. Howard, Ole Miss’ Evan Engram, Miami’s David Njoku, Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges and Michigan’s Jake Butt.

Yet, the ninth tight end that was selected during draft weekend looks to become the best of his class. Iowa’s TE George Kittle was selected 146th in 2017, but looks to one of the 49ers’ best draft picks in the John Lynch-Kyle Shanahan era.

A year and a half into his short career, Kittle’s already distanced himself from his draft peers and is putting himself in a class with the best tight ends in the league. After his dynamic, one-handed catch and run for 71 yards against the Raiders on Thursday Night Football, the national audience began to wonder where Kittle ranks among the league’s elite.

In terms of pass-catching and run-blocking, there’s only one player better at this position and that’s Kansas City TE Travis Kelce. Outside of Missouri, Kittle is the best all-around tight end in the NFL.

Among tight ends who have at least 20 catches, Kittle is tied with Tampa Bay’s O.J. Howard in averaging 16.9 yards per catch. The 49ers’ second-year tight end is third in catches (41), just trailing Kelce (51) and EaglesZach Ertz (61). Despite having 20 fewer grabs than Ertz, Kittle still leads him in overall receiving yards (692).

The former Iowa product also has the longest play from scrimmage, an 82-yard touchdown run against the Chargers a few weeks back. Kittle also has 31 catches for first downs and his first-down rate of 76% leads the league for any tight end with 25 catches on the season. Kittle’s ball security has also been exemplary, as he hasn’t put the ball on the ground yet this season, despite catching a lot of passes right around defenders.

Here’s the kicker: Kelce has been playing all season long with MVP candidate QB Patrick Mahomes and Ertz has been catching passes for a majority of the season from QB Carson Wentz. After the first few weeks, Kittle has been in a run-happy offense led by the likes of QBs C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. Imagine what the ex-Iowa tight end would be doing if he had been playing with QB Jimmy Garoppolo this entire time.

Once again, that’s only half of it. Kittle’s run-blocking has been outstanding, so he’s not just a bigger wide receiver, but he can also line up inside and be a three-down tight end for any team in the league.

Per Pro Football Focus, Kittle is the third-ranked tight end with a grade of 88.1. His run-blocking grade is third among all tight ends in the league, so the 49ers are getting one of the best pass-catching and run-blocking tight ends in one package. It doesn’t hurt that he leads the league with 2.70 yards per route run, either.

The sky is the limit for the second-year player and with Garoppolo’s eventual return in 2019, Kittle’s numbers should only grow as he becomes an even better player. The 49ers struck gold with this pick in the fifth round and Kyle Shanahan couldn’t have asked for a better tight end in his offense.