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Comparing George Kittle and Rob Gronkowski’s first three NFL seasons

The San Francisco 49ers made a huge investment in their superstar tight end and hope he can develop into the best of all time.

When the San Francisco 49ers selected George Kittle in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, no one would have predicted that he would have a chance to develop into the best tight end in league history. Now, after just three seasons, the 26-year-old has shown that it isn’t too far fetched.

Kittle has 216 receptions for 2,945 yards and 12 touchdowns since entering the league. His value goes beyond just catching the ball. He’s an amazing blocker, which helps open up the Niners’ running game, and is regarded as the best overall player on the 49ers’ roster.

General manager John Lynch and co. rewarded Kittle with a massive five-year $75 million contract, making him the highest-paid tight end in league history. Kittle is the best at his position, and should only get better over the new few seasons, a scary thought for opponents.

Current Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski is seen as the best tight end in history. Gronk spent the first nine seasons of his career with the New England Patriots and was a big part of their three Super Bowl-winning teams.

Here is how the two compare over their first three seasons using stats from Pro Football Reference and Pro Football Focus:

Rookie season:

Kittle (15 games): 43 receptions, 515 yards, two TDs, 68.3 catch percentage, 65.8 PFF grade.

Gronkowski (16 games): 42 receptions, 546 yards, 10 TDs, 71.2 catch percentage, 86.7 PFF grade.

Second season:

Kittle (16 games): 88 receptions, 1,377 yards, five TDs, 64.7 catch percentage, 89.7 PFF grade.

Gronkowski (16 games): 90 receptions, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs, 72.6 catch percentage, 92.0 PFF grade.

Third season:

Kittle (14 games): 85 receptions, 1,053 yards, five TDs, 79.4 catch percentage, 95.0 PFF grade.

Gronkowski (11 games): 55 receptions, 790 yards, 11 TDs, 69.6 catch percentage, 91.1 PFF grade.

Gronkowski benefitted from playing for one of the best teams in football when he entered the league. The Patriots made the playoffs each of Gronk’s first three seasons, including losing in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants his sophomore year.

The Patriots drafted fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez in 2010 as well, and head coach Bill Belichick used the “12” personnel with both Gronk and Hernandez on the field, and it terrorized opponents. New England lined Gronkowski up closer to the line due to him being just as effective as a blocker, and split Hernandez outside more often. We could see San Francisco take advantage of having Jordan Reed on the field with Kittle, who is a much better route runner and receiver than Ross Dwelley.

One big similarity between Kittle and Gronkowski is that they are great in both facets —pass-catching and blocking—of the position. Each player can lineup along the line of scrimmage and create lanes for their running backs.

On the receiving side, Kittle’s rookie numbers look worse due to having Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard as his quarterbacks for most of the 2017 season. His touchdown totals probably won’t come close to Gronk’s due to the system the 49ers run. Head coach Kyle Shanahan spreads the love around in the red zone, with the Niners having 13 players who recorded a receiving touchdown in 2019. By contrast, Gronk had 11 of the 34 touchdown receptions the Patriots had in his third season, with only seven other New England players tallying a receiving touchdown. In 2018, San Francisco had 10 players catch a touchdown pass, with Kittle getting five of them. Gronkowski’s second year had 17 TDs, with only four other Pats players getting a reception score.

Belichick’s offense was built around getting Gronk the ball while close to the goal line, while Shanahan uses multiple options to get in the end zone. I don’t see Kittle’s TD numbers taking a giant leap over the next few years, but that is not due to his lack of ability near the goal line.

PFF ranked Kittle’s 2019 campaign the best of any tight end in NFL history. Here are the top 10 seasons by tight ends, according to PFF:

George Kittle 49ers 2019, grade: 95.0

Rob Gronkowski Patriots 2011, grade: 92.0

Rob Gronkowski Patriots 2014, grade: 91.8

Tony Gonzalez Chiefs, 2006, grade: 91.7

Rob Gronkowski Patriots 2012, grade: 91.1

Jason Witten Cowboys 2007, grade: 91.1

Rob Gronkowski Patriots 2013, grade: 91.0

Mark Andrews Ravens 2019, grade:90.8

Jason Witten Cowboys 2008, grade: 90.8

Rob Gronkowski Patriots 2015, grade: 90.7

The fact Gronk appears on the list five times shows how dominant he has been over his career. Kittle will benefit from the fact the 49ers are set to be one of the best teams in the NFL over the next few years, just like New England was throughout all of Gronkowski’s time with the team.

I’m excited to see how Kittle performs during his prime years. He is the heart-and-soul of the Niners, and if he can play at a level similar to how he did in 2019, he’s worth every penny.

How do you think Kittle compares to Gronk early in his career?