In todays NFL there are two types of tight ends; glorified receivers, and mini offensive linemen (and of course former basketball players). On a rare occasion, there will be a player that completely changes this notion by combining those two prototypes. Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, and Greg Olsen are examples of elite tight-ends that fit both of these molds. Now it’s time to add 49ers sophomore George Kittle to that list.
At the University of Iowa, George Kittle was primarily used as a blocking tight end. Iowa mishandling Kittle’s skills helped him fall all the way to the fifth round. Not only did 49ers general manager John Lynch take a chance on the tight end that could block, but he also took the opportunity at a player with one of the best combine showings ever at his position. Kittle ran a 4.52 40-yard-dash (for reference, DeAndre Hopkins ran a 4.57), jumped 132 inches on his broad jump, accomplished a 35-inch vertical leap, put up 18 reps on a 225-pound bench press, all while being measured at 6’4″ and nearly 250 pounds. These absurd numbers are just a preview of how good Kittle can be.
Through the first half of the 2018 NFL season, Kittle is establishing himself as one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Putting up some massive numbers. He’s second in the entire NFL (not just tight ends) in yards after the catch with 367, putting him ahead of everybody not named Saquon Barkley. He’s third in the NFL for tight ends in first down catches with 27. Third in yards for a tight-end with 584, while he also has two touchdowns. He does all of this while boasting a 64.91 catch percentage. What makes those stats even more impressive? Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t played since week four.
So just how has Kittle been so good?
Kittle is the perfect Y tight-end for Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. For Shanahan’s playbook to work to its full potential, a tight end that can run a large route tree was needed. Shanahan needs a tight-end that could command the middle of the field, not only for his gain but to enable Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis to take the top off the defense. Kittles height and athletic abilities mix perfectly with that scheme as Kittle has been featured in many looks that send him far from the line of scrimmage. When Kittle plays near the line of scrimmage, he’s just as effective. Per Samuel Gold, most of Kittles targets are on outside routes near the line of scrimmage, which are two to five-yard routes. Kittle averages 9.6 yards per catch on these routes. On dig routes, he averages 14.6 yards per catch. Those are just two of Kittles routes based on his route tree, he has shown that he can catch screens for significant gains (15.4 yards per catch), and his seam routes (go route in the middle of the field) are second to none, which I will get to later.
To kick off this film review of a tight-end, an 82-yard scamper to the end zone seems (seams?) appropriate.
Notice how Kittle attacks the seam here. The Chargers are in a cover-three look, essentially meaning that the safety Jahleel Addae (No. 37) must focus on Kittle running the seam. Addae does just that, but Shanahan and Kittle knew that would happen, so Kittle runs a nod stem to fake Addae into leaving that area. Kittle executes this perfectly, selling a deep out route, then quickly cutting back in to take advantage of the open space. After Kittle catches the ball in open space, he shows off that 4.52 speed by blazing past defensive backs for an 82-yard touchdown. The play by Shanahan was fantastic, but Kittles quick route-running as a tight end and sharp timing made this play work to its full potential.
This next play showcases Kittle playing as a de-facto receiver. He moves from the tight end position all the way to the left side of the field in a bunch formation as the outside receiver. The Cardinals are in cover-two (two deep safeties, underneath coverage by cornerbacks, outside linebackers, middle zone drop by the linebacker), Kittle runs a 12-yard dig (inside cut) route to attack the middle of the field that was vacant. The center of the field was so empty because the Cardinals sent a four-man blitz with a linebacker in man coverage to contain the running back.
Watch Kittle blow past defensive backs, and leave them looking for answers on a delayed inside cut. His speed is scary. Defensive coordinators should always keep a linebacker posted in the middle of the field to contain him.
Kittle can undoubtedly attack the soft spots of various zone coverages, but he also excels in beating linebackers in man coverage. On this next play, the Rams are running cover-two-man (two deep safeties, everyone else in man). Kittle is faced opposite of Cory Littleton, and he makes a fool of that matchup. Notice how runs a shorter dig-route on this play. He rubs close to Cory Littleton, then cuts inside. That rub-cut forces Littleton into thinking Kittle is running a curl route (obvious to tell when Littleton sits there thinking Kittle is behind him). Instead, Kittle just keeps running that dig. Whether or not that dig was planned is up to Shanahan, but Kittle does an excellent job of selling something completely different to get into open space and run an extra 22 yards for a 35 yard gain.
While Kittle is a fantastic player with the ball in his hands, his route-running also happens to be some of the best in the NFL at the tight end position. Note the play below. Kittle is running a slant route to expose the soft spot in zone coverage. He plans on beating the pressed linebacker with a quick in’n’out cut, but, he slips. Despite Kittle slipping, he quickly gets his right foot outside then proceeds to run the slant route for a first down. Not a regular play, but still impressive.
Now let’s look at a play where the field is a little less slick to fully show off Kittle’s route running abilities. Of course, this is another slant route. I swear I don’t have a thing for slant and dig routes, Kittle just runs a lot of them.
Notice how Kittle uses a lunging jab with his right foot to shake safety Quandre Diggs (No. 28). A lot of tight ends aren’t as nimble as Kittle to make this type of cut, but Kittle is not like most tight ends. Those type of cuts and quick burst route running allow for Kittle to separate himself from the pack of other receiving tight ends.
This is the last play in which I showcase Kittle’s abilities as a receiver. This is a screen directly to Kittle. The play should be engrained to opposing defensive coordinators as not many tight-ends (if any) can do what Kittle does here.
Kittle sells the block to seal the edge, then subtly turns around to catch the screen. After that, he reads his blocks correctly and bursts through them for a considerable gain. This was a fantastic play call from Kyle Shanahan.
While Kittle is one of the best tight ends in the NFL both before and after the catch, he’s not a one-trick pony. George Kittle is a big reason why the 49ers are sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 133.6 yards per game. Not only is Kittle a sound run-blocker using great positioning, but he also gives so much effort into plays when that effort isn’t even needed. His ability to block and be one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL make him a top-five talent at his position, and a focal point for the 49ers offense.
During this crafty play by Kyle Shanahan, neither Matt Breida (No. 22, the sweeping player that actually ran the ball) nor Dante Pettis (No. 18, a wide receiver who lined up as a back) is the focal point of this play (crazy right?). Kittle is. Even though Kittle doesn’t touch the ball, his block to seal the edge is essential to make this play work, if he can’t perform this block the play is most likely a minimal to loss of yards outcome.
Watch Kittle’s positioning on this play. Instead of immediately attacking the C gap (between himself and the tackle), Kittle remains patient to let Joe Staley attack the C gap on the outside zone run. While Kittle waits, he remains in a strong position to use his legs to retain the block. Once cornerback Jamal Agnew comes to make the play in the backfield, he is immediately met by Kittle with momentum. Not only was Kittle in excellent form, but he was aware of scanning the gap assignments to help the run nearly get to the end zone.
Notice this next play where Kittle seals the edge along with fullback Kyle Juszczyk (No. 44). He stands firmly with his block against Josh Bynes (No. 57). Which lets him deliver a great block. Despite the stable block, Tre Boston and Budda Baker were quickly able to sniff out the play.
George Kittle isn’t just a fantastic blocker because of his positioning and football intelligence. He’s a great blocker because he puts everything he has into his blocks, forcing defenders downfield to never allow them to make a play near the line of scrimmage. This play below is a quality example of that notion.
Watch how he rams safety Antoine Bethea (No. 41) all the way into the end zone. You don’t see that type of energy and willingness from skilled receiving tight ends. That willingness to make those blocks is what makes Kittle such a fantastic player. This a clean, legal block that most tight ends wish they could execute.
Like most second-year players, Kittle has some things to work on. At times he can drag his feet while running routes. He also has a few dropped balls on the year. To combine with those two habits, he needs to learn how to come back to a bad pass. These things can each easily be improved on as they are just bad habits that he gained before playing for the 49ers.
So what do you get when you combine an athletic marvel of a tight end with the willingness to play anywhere and a creative head coach in Kyle Shanahan? A top five tight-end on a rookie contract. Not only is George Kittle putting up great statistics for the 49ers, but he’s also improving their run game with his energy and strength. He’s a polished albeit not perfect player in only his second year in the NFL. I’d like to see Kittle utilized more on short yardage touchdown situations, but currently, I don’t believe that C.J. Beathard has the touch to get the ball to a jumping George Kittle. Despite that, Kittle will continue to get better and dominate the middle of the field for the 49ers. I hope you are as excited as I am about the future of the 49ers offense.
-Avery Duncan *shout out to u/GeorgeKitleHypeTrain for inspiring this story*
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