San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle had over 1,300 yards receiving in 2018. Somehow, he improved in 2019. Not statistically, but as an overall player. Kittle didn’t exactly “struggle” statistically. Kittle caught 79% of his targets, had the third-highest DYAR of all tight ends. Kittle averaged 7.1 yards after the catch, which was the third-best among all tight ends. He “only” had 1,053 yards, but his impact goes well beyond the box score.
We know how dominant of a blocker Kittle is, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for what he can do when the ball is in his hands. The Saints game is the most popular example, but that wasn’t an outlier. Kittle led all tight ends with 27 broken tackles. Percentage-wise, he led the NFL. It’s not always a highlight play, but it doesn’t need to be. Kittle can turn a three-yard gain into a nine-yard gain, and that’s why the 49ers had so much success on offense last year. When Kittle was on the field, the 49ers were dangerous. It’s that simple.
Age: 26 (turns 27 on October 9)
Experience: Three accrued seasons
Kittle is entering the final year of his contract. As general manager John Lynch said on Tuesday, both sides are working hard to hammer out an extension. Kittle’s cap number in 2020 on his current deal is $2.2 million.
Why he might regress in 2020
What Kittle has accomplished in three seasons has been pretty remarkable. His DVOA has gone from 5.6% as a rookie to 15.1% in 2018, to 18.9% last year. Entering last season, I had hoped to see Kittle reach seven touchdowns. He finished 2019 with five, and it felt like Kittle had a touchdown called back every week for the first few games. If Kittle ends up with fewer than five touchdowns in 2020, that would be disappointing.
Outside of scoring, it’s tough to imagine where else Kittle will take a step back if he’s on the field.
What to expect in 2020
The 49ers will have Trent Taylor, Jalen Hurd, and Jerick McKinnon as they enter training camp. I’d expect to see another season where Kittle is targeted just over 100 times but won’t have the gaudy, 136 targets as he did in 2018. Kittle’s average depth of target went down almost two full yards from 2018 to 2019. With Taylor returning, I’d expect Kyle Shanahan to use Kittle more as an intermediate target than an underneath one. That should benefit everyone, including Jimmy Garoppolo.
Kittle should continue to be a headache for defenders to guard and tackle. San Francisco may rely on Kittle more early in the season if Deebo Samuel has to miss multiple games, but the Niners should do everything they can to manage Kittle’s workload, so he’s fresh for the “second” season, the playoffs. I expect Kittle to continue his reign as the top tight end in the NFL that makes a difference when he’s on the field, whether the ball is in his hands or not.