The San Francisco 49ers are hopeful that one of their cornerstone players will be healthy for all 17 games next season.
Tight end George Kittle missed eight games last season, and the Niners sorely missed his presence. The 27-year-old has been one of the best players in the NFL over the past three years. Not bad for a guy who was picked in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
San Francisco went 3-5 with Kittle in the lineup in 2020. He finished the year with 48 receptions for 634 yards. Kittle ranked 35th among all NFL pass-catchers with 6.2 yards after catch per reception.
Pro Football Focus released its annual NFL tight end rankings going into next season and has Kittle amongst the best in the league, putting him at No. 2 behind Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kittle still imposed his will as both a receiver and blocker when on the field in 2020. The issue was that he was only on the field for eight games, missing significant time with a broken bone in his foot.
Since 2018, Kittle is the highest-graded tight end in the NFL (93.4) on the back of the highest receiving grade at the position (93.7) and third-highest run-blocking grade (78.0). Unlike Kelce, the majority of his damage comes inline, where Kyle Shanahan does as good of a job as any coach in the NFL at creating mismatches in coverage. Kittle’s 1,811 receiving yards when lined up inline since 2018 are over 500 more than any other tight end.
PFF named Kittle the winner of the Dwight Stephenson Award after the 2019 season, which goes to the best player in the NFL, according to the site.
Kelce took over the top spot in PFF’s tight end rankings after breaking Kittle’s record for receptions yards by a tight end. Kittle had 1,377 receiving yards in 2018, but Kelce eclipsed that mark with 1,416 yards last season.
Although Kittle is a great pass-catcher, he’s also a difference-maker in the run game with his blocking ability. He regularly helps create lanes for the Niners’ speedy running backs.
The 49ers rewarded Kittle with a five-year deal worth up to $75 million ($40 million guaranteed) last offseason. If Kittle can stay healthy in 2021, it will go a long way in helping San Francisco compete for a championship.
Here are the rest of the top 10 tight ends, according to PFF’s rankings.
3) Darren Waller - Las Vegas Raiders
4) Kyle Pitts - Atlanta Falcons
5) Dallas Goedert - Dallas Cowboys
6) Mark Andrews - Baltimore Ravens
7) T.J. Hockeson - Detroit Lions
8) Mike Gesicki - Miami Dolphins
9) Rob Gronkowski - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
10) Hunter Henry - New England Patriots
Another player who needs to be healthy for the 49ers next season is wide receiver, Deebo Samuel. As was the case with Kittle, Samuel dealt with various injuries that kept him out of nine games in 2020.
PFF also released its wide receiver rankings and has Samuel listed at No. 31.
Injuries got in the way of a big sophomore breakout from Samuel, but when healthy, he was exactly what we expected: an after-the-catch phenom. Samuel has produced 9.8 yards after the catch per reception in his two NFL seasons. Not only does that lead all wide receivers, but it leads the group by a substantial margin of 2.5 yards. He has also broken 28 total tackles in regular-season play over that span, tying for the fifth-most at the position. He played only six games in 2020, so that’s pretty damn impressive.
Despite missing more than half of the games last season, Samuel led the league with 12.1 yards after catch per reception. In his rookie campaign, Deebo finished 13th in the NFL with 473 yards after the catch.
The plan was to pair Samuel with fellow YAC monster Brandon Aiyuk last season, but the duo only appeared in six games together in 2020 due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols. Even though their top two receivers missed a bunch of games, the 49ers finished third in the NFL in yards after the catch, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan uses Samuel in a variety of ways. His ability to gain tough yards and run through defenders is second-to-none. If Samuel, Aiyuk and Kittle can stay healthy next season, the trio will be a matchup nightmare for opponents.
Here are PFF’s top 10 receivers.
1) Davante Adams - Green Bay Packers
2) DeAndre Hopkins - Arizona Cardinals
3) Tyreek Hill - Chiefs
4) Allen Robinson - Chicago Bears
5) Julio Jones - Falcons
6) A.J. Brown - Tennessee Titans
7) Michael Thomas - New Orleans Saints
8) Stefon Diggs - Buffalo Bills
9) Adam Thielen - Minnesota Vikings
10) Justin Jefferson - Vikings
What do you think of PFF’s rankings? How would you rank the top 10 receivers in the NFL?