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Why did Kittle fall in the 2017 NFL draft?

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Nebraska v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

PFF’s Mike Renner did an exercise examined the best Day-3 draft picks since PFF started grading college football and what scouting takeaways can be gleaned from their success. This exercise wouldn’t be complete without including San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle. Here is Renner’s blurb on the Niners star tight end:

146. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS – IOWA TE GEORGE KITTLE (2017)

Reason He Fell: Kittle had 43 catches during his entire college career and 22 for 309 yards his final season. It’s simply difficult to be too high on a player you’ve barely seen catch the football. Kittle also missed seven games his final two seasons at Iowa with injury.

PFF’s Take at the Time: We were fans of Kittle’s game, as he checked in 70th on our draft board, but that obviously wasn’t nearly high enough. He earned a 93.8 overall grade in 2015 and 78.6 in 2016 with eight broken tackles on 42 catches over that span.

What We Learned: Athleticism matters at tight end. To produce like a wide receiver in the NFL, you have to move like one. Kittle’s 4.52 40, 7.00 3-cone, and 11-foot broad jump were all exceptional numbers for the position. The tight ends who have the juice to get open down the field are the true needle movers at the position.

Much is made about Kittle’s college stats. I was in Iowa City during his college career. Injuries and Iowa’s offense are why Kittle wasn’t a first-rounder. Before Kittle stepped foot on the Hawkeye’s field, he suffered a serious knee injury before 2015. Kittle was injured early in the 2015 season, though he did see action in every game. He missed two games in 2016 due to injury. Kittle left Purdue in the first half. He was limited in one of the biggest games of the season against Wisconsin, and that’s why he didn’t have any stats. Iowa beat the No. 2 team in the country (hello, Harbs) without Kittle that season. His senior season, Kittle, played through plantar fasciitis in the arch of his right foot.

His lengthy injury history is often forgotten due to what Kittle has accomplished in the NFL. As Renner mentioned, athleticism matters in athletics—what a novel concept. Iowa has produced some very good football players and athletes over the years, but Kittle blew the other tight ends out of the water with his testing numbers. Kittle was the top performer in each athletic test Iowa had. He jumped 37.5” in the vertical. We’re splitting hairs, but George actually ran a 4.51 40-yard dash during Iowa’s spring testing. He’s a freak athlete.

Having Kittle 70th on their board is impressive for PFF, considering he wasn’t highly thought of. Just because Kittle didn’t have the gaudy stats doesn’t mean he wasn’t open. Also, Kittle was always a dominant run-blocker:

I had Kittle as the fourth-best tight end and the 61st overall player, and that looks pretty silly now (two spots below Kittle was Ahkello Witherspoon and five spots below ‘Spoon was Joe Williams whoops.)

Let’s look at PFF’s scouting report on Kittle:

Biggest concern:

Durability concerns — injuries forced him to miss seven games over the last two seasons.

While his technique is well-above average, size may limit his ability to block in-line at the next level.

May fit best as a No. 2 tight end and receiving mismatch. • Minimal special-teams experience.

Player comparison: CHRIS COOLEY, WASHINGTON REDSKINS Cooley is bigger than Kittle, but he could line up in multiple spots including H-back or in the slot. Kittle will likely play in a similar role, creating passing game mismatches while perhaps even providing more in the run game than Cooley.

Bottom line: Kittle has the athleticism to be a receiving mismatch at the next level though it’s his blocking that makes him a perfect fit as a No. 2 tight end capable of playing in a “move” role. He can separate from linebackers and safeties, whether attached to the formation or in the slot, and while he’ll likely never be a dominant in-line run blocker, Kittle projects as a useful matchup option in a two-tight end offense.

That’s pretty spot on if you ignore the repeated references to being limited to a No. 2 tight end.

So why did Kittle fall in the draft? Injuries. Had he not had to play through such a painful foot injury his senior season, Kittle is selected, at worst, in the third round with his combine. Going to Iowa didn’t help as they are as traditional and pro-style as it gets. There is luck involved when it comes to building a Super Bowl contender, and landing Kittle late in the draft is a prime example.