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49ers 90-in-90: How George Kittle can improve as a player

Breaking down the 90 players on the 49ers offseason roster in 90 posts (over 90 or so days). Today is tight end, George Kittle

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Signs you are good at your job: You are the third leading receiver on your team despite missing half of the games. That was George Kittle’s 2020 season. For as dominant as he was in 2019, Kittle was on pace to have a better ‘20.

Kittle’s year didn’t get off to a great start. He suffered an MCL sprain in Week 1 that caused him to miss the next two games of the season. Some injuries are unavoidable. In Kittle’s case, he was going for a high pass that exposed his knee to a defender.

His second injury was a broken foot that would sideline Kittle from Week 9 to Week 16. Losing a tight end is one thing. Losing one of your most valuable players is another. During the second half of the season, the 49ers' offense was putrid. The defense did everything they could, but Shanahan’s bunch had a difficult time sustaining drives.

We talk about Richie James, Jalen Hurd, Mohamed Sanu, and a cast of other wideouts regarding the 49ers WR3 position. If Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and Deebo Samuel are healthy, none of that matters.

Basic info

Age: 27 (turns 28 on October 9)

Experience: Four accrued seasons

Height: 6’4

Weight: 250

Cap Status

Kittle enters the second year of his five-year extension. Kittle’s cap number this season will be the last time that it’s in single-digits for the remainder of his contract. His base salary is $1.2 million, with a prorated bonus of $4.05 million, making Kittle’s cap number an affordable $5.45 million.

That figure more than triples next year to $16.1 million. The 49ers have had Kittle “cheap” for five years now after this season.

How he can improve in 2021

It’ll be difficult for Kittle to improve as a player when we’re talking about on-the-field traits. The offense targeted him down the field more than ever last season, and it paid off. Drops were an issue, as Kittle had a 14% drop rate, but we know that he has good hands.

Kittle remains an extraordinary blocker. In 201 blocking snaps last year, per Sports Info Solutions, Kittle had one blown block. Now, I’m sure there are angles and a few plays he’d like to have back, but that gives you an idea of how few mistakes Kittle makes as a blocker.

Where I’d want Kittle to improve is his style of play, but, at 27, it’s ingrained in him, and there’s likely no hope. Kittle plays with a “run through your face mentality” that looks great when he’s lowering his shoulder and making highlights, but there’s too much unnecessary contact.

The two best tight ends in the game are often pinned against each other. Who is better, Travis Kelce or Kittle? Since 2017, Kelce has missed two games. More factors go into it, but you don’t see Kelce with this battering ram style of play. He’s looking to avoid contact, make a guy miss, and maximize his yardage.

The lone complaint I have about Kittle is him seeking out contact in the open field instead of avoiding it. As he gets older, that could be the key to a long-lasting career.

What to expect in 2021

Kittle has produced with Nick Mullens, C.J. Beathard, and Jimmy Garoppolo. If Trey Lance eventually wins the starting job, I wouldn’t expect Kittle’s numbers to dip. If anything, Lance should lean on the star tight end.

One of the biggest critiques about Kittle is that he doesn’t score touchdowns in the same manner as Kelce. When the 49ers were on top of the world in ‘19, Kittle scored one touchdown during the first half.

We know his impact goes well beyond the box score, but in ‘19, San Francisco finished 20th in red zone scoring percentage. That number jumped from 55% to 67% last season, but we know the opportunities were few and far between, and most of those touchdowns weren’t as meaningful as the year prior when you factor in the team’s record.

Kittle is too big of a target and too good of a weapon for the team to struggle in the red area. I’d expect him to be a focal point of the offense in high-leverage situations. Meaning, everyone in the stadium knows Kittle is getting the ball, but you still go to him.

If San Francisco finds that go-to threat on these plays, they have a chance to be dangerous this season.