In 2018, the San Francisco 49ers had quite the opposite of what we would all call a “good season”. Whether it was the injuries to top players like quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo or the anticipated starting running back Jerick McKinnon whom both went down with torn ACL’s, or being the leading team in league with the least amount of defensive turnovers. It was bad.
The one shining light for the 49ers was the second-year tight end from Iowa, George Kittle. He came out of nowhere and became a household name. He made big plays and was proving to be one of the best players on the field every single week.
Kittle finished the 2018 campaign with the NFL’s single-season record for yards by a TE with 1,377, beating New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski’s record of 1,327 in 2011.
As great as he was in 2018, can this be a sustained outcome for him? Can he consistently put up these numbers not only weekly, but yearly?
We see it every single year in this league, a player comes out of nowhere and can be the story of the season, only to put in a lackluster follow-up season and so on. It’s tough to put up elite numbers year in and year out in the NFL, sometimes players have fluke seasons.
Before we go any further, I do not think Kittle’s season was a fluke. I believe that Kittle is in the upper tier of the NFL and has the potential to be one of the all-time greats. However, I also think that we need to prepare for a regression.
It’s not that I believe he will regress due to talent, but more along the lines of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s system.
Shanahan uses his TE’s heavily, this is a known fact, but the offense that they have built is starting to get a little crowded. In 2018 the 49ers wide receiver group was dismal except for Dante Pettis, who put in some quality play to close out the season.
They were also on their third QB, so it’s easy to see why Kittle saw such a heavy dose of the passing game. In 2019, the offense will look a lot different. In the 2019 NFL Draft, the 49ers added multiple offensive weapons in South Carolina WR Deebo Samuel and Baylor WR Jalen Hurd. We also can’t forget that they signed former Atlanta Falcons RB Tevin Coleman during free agency to pair up with breakout RB Matt Breida and Jerick McKinnon.
Because of this, I think that Kittle may see a slight dip in production. Pettis and Samuel are going to get much attention from coach Shanahan as they rightfully should. Pettis has shown the potential to be a star and Samuel was one of the top WR in the draft. Hurd is also a versatile piece for Shanahan to use as he pleases.
Coleman scored 12 touchdowns in two seasons with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator in Atlanta. The football is going to get spread around in 2019, which is a good thing.
Defenses have taken notice and are going to do everything they can to try and contain Kittle which will open up other avenues. I expect to see Shanahan use Kittle in ways that open the offense up for other players to reap the benefits. It’s what Shanahan does; he’s a master at his craft.
The 49ers just signed former Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions TE Levine Toilolo; this will benefit Kittle in the coming season. Shanahan will likely use Toilolo as the teams primary blocking TE, who registered an 87.0 pass-blocking grade last season with the Lions according to Pro Football Focus. This should alleviate those responsibilities from Kittle who can now focus on becoming a true receiving TE.
I still think Kittle is going to have a great season. In my opinion, I feel that he is a consistent 850-1,000 yard TE and firmly believes that his talent will keep him among the best TEs in the NFL but, I wouldn’t expect him to be breaking any more records.