Could 49ers' George Kittle break out at TE? It's possible

The 49ers have been working with second-year tight end George Kittle on catching the ball with his hands away from his body. Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In an offseason that saw Jason Witten retire to the Monday Night Football broadcast booth while Antonio Gates awaits a team to sign him and Rob Gronkowski flirts with ending his NFL career, it's safe to say the tight end position in the NFL is in a state of transition.

With those superstars moving on or close to it, there are a number of vacancies at the head of the class alongside the likes of Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz. While there's no shortage of options to fill the void, one candidate wouldn't immediately come to mind when looking at the next wave of tight ends, at least not for those outside of the Bay Area.

But in San Francisco, second-year 49ers tight end George Kittle has quietly emerged as one of the league's most intriguing tight end prospects. And he's not shying away from the opportunity to establish himself as one of the best at his position.

"Obviously I want to be the best as a tight end," said Kittle. "I get on the field, I feel like it's an opportunity to show that I can play football and I'm good at my job and I deserve to keep my job. ... There's comparisons everywhere, but if I can go out and show that I'm the best me, and I can ball and prove to myself that I can play really well and prove to Coach [Kyle] Shanahan and my tight end coach that I'm playing well and I'm the best one and they need me, then I'm satisfied."

Kittle has lofty goals, especially for a fifth-round pick who entered the league with little hype just more than a year ago. Kittle's high expectations aren't exclusive to him. In fact, the 49ers have been high on him since they chose him with the 146th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft.

During his career at Iowa, Kittle never finished with more than 22 catches per season for the run-heavy Hawkeyes. He had just 48 receptions for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns in four years. Iowa's commitment to the running game, however, helped Kittle establish himself as a stout blocker, but blocking tight ends don’t usually get drafted very high.

Still, Kittle had a strong showing at the NFL scouting combine, where he ran the third-fastest 40-yard dash among tight ends (4.52 seconds) and had the third-best long jump (11 feet).

In Kittle, Shanahan saw the ideal fit for his offense -- a tight end capable of in-line blocking and lining up in a variety of places. Among the many rookies the 49ers brought in last season, none had a bigger workload than Kittle, who was taking starting reps from the moment he arrived.

Kittle never flinched, despite playing through a high ankle sprain, as well as calf, hip, chest, elbow, back and hamstring ailments.

"It's rare that you have a guy who is built to block very well who also runs in the 4.5s and who is quick enough to separate,” Shanahan said.

This offseason, Kittle made his health his top priority. He spent the winter training in Nashville with teammates C.J. Beathard and Trent Taylor. He also kept regular appointments with a massage therapist, an acupuncture specialist, a chiropractor and anyone else he believed could help him get back to full strength.

"This is the healthiest I've felt since I was going into college," Kittle said.

Improved health wasn't Kittle's only offseason emphasis. He managed to finish his rookie season with 43 catches for 515 yards, rookie records for a 49ers tight end and second among all rookies at the position. Finally healthy in the season finale against the Rams, Kittle went for 100 yards on four catches. Still, those overall numbers could have been better if not for an early-season struggle with drops.

Kittle finished with five drops on the season, tied for third most among tight ends. Some of those miscues were the product of his tendency to let the ball get too close to his body instead of using his hands to snatch it out of the air. Which is why tight ends coach Jon Embree has instituted a system of fines for his players when they don't catch the ball away from their bodies in practice.

"In the NFL at our position, I would say that 85 percent of the passes you catch are going to be contested balls with people around you," Embree said. "So he's had to learn, and is still learning, how to play outside of his frame. In other words, playing with his hands away from his body, using his length."

Assuming Kittle can stay healthy and eliminate some of those drops, it's not hard to envision how Shanahan can put him to work. While tight ends have never been the primary target in Shanahan's previous offenses (in part because he's rarely had legitimate playmakers at the position), he has had a knack for getting the most out of them when the ball does go their way.

In two seasons with Shanahan in Atlanta, Falcons tight ends were fifth in the NFL in yards per catch (12.18) and third in yards before first contact with a defender (11.07). With Shanahan in 2014, Browns tight ends ranked second in yards per catch (15.22) and first in yards before first contact (14.33). In other words, Shanahan's scheme has a way of creating openings for tight ends to run free for big gains.

In that same vein, Kittle is also working to develop a deeper understanding of Shanahan's system and working with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to develop chemistry. A year ago, Kittle said he "couldn't tell the playbook from his thumb." That has changed dramatically. Kittle says he's far enough along now that he and Garoppolo discuss minor tweaks, such as which shoulder to turn when looking for the ball or altering a step on a route.

Kittle still has a long way to go to be considered among the game's elite at his position, but the 49ers are pleased with his trajectory.

"We put a lot of pressure on George early because we needed to and it was up and down throughout the year, but he never shied away," Shanahan said. “... He is a tough guy who is going to play through things, but he's healthy right now. He's moving great and it's allowing him to get better in the run and pass. That'll continue. George has got a lot of ability."