Nick WagonerESPN staff writer6 minute reading
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – For most of the past six years, the The San Francisco 49ers have often discussed making significant moves at tight end to complement George Kittle.
Despite flirtations — they helped sign Austin Hooper before he landed with the Cleveland Browns in 2020 — the Niners never invested in anything other than cheap free agents or late picks at the position.
Since Kittle entered the league in 2017, the Niners’ list of other tight ends reads like a who’s who of who? Among the 11 other tight ends to play offensive snaps for the Niners in that span are Logan Paulsen, Daniel Helm, Levine Toilolo and two Coles (Wick and Hikutini).
Those 11 tight ends have combined to play 3,411 snaps in 220 games, an average of 15.5 offensive snaps per game. match. The non-Kittle tight ends have posted 1,333 receiving yards on 111 receptions with 15 touchdowns.
Kittle, meanwhile, has played 4,264 offensive snaps in 82 games, an average of 52 per game. competition. He has amassed 5,254 receiving yards on 395 catches with 31 touchdowns. Suffice to say, the idea of giving Kittle a breather has been easier said than done.
“It’s not like we want to take plays away from George, because he’s one of the best players in the league and you want him out there, especially in critical moments,” coach Brian Fleury said. “But we also want to have the ability to function at a high level in the event that he potentially breaks a chin strap and has to be out for a few games.”
To that end, the 49ers finally put some more action behind the words in April’s NFL draft, selecting Alabama tight end Cameron Latu in the third round (No. 101 overall) and Oklahoma tight end Brayden Willis in the seventh (No. 247 overall ). The goal is not to take Kittle off the field too much, but to pick their spots where he might find extra rest and have reliable options that are versatile enough to do whatever if Kittle isn’t available.
Therein lies the Kittle conundrum. His hard-charging style seems to lend itself to injury (he’s missed 16 games due to injury in five seasons but played fewer than 14 games just once), but it’s also what has made him a of the most productive tight ends in league history through his first six seasons.
“It’s just the reality of the game we play and the style he plays it with,” Fleury said.
The dilemma is that Kittle is equally effective as a pass-catcher and a blocker, keeping defenses guessing when he’s on the field. Finding non-specialist tight ends who can tip off defenses about what’s coming is easier said than done.
“It’s the luxury that we have George on the court,” Fleury said. “We’re not predictable in terms of how we use the tight end. A lot of other teams don’t have that luxury. And that’s something if we don’t have George on the field, we have to be. aware of is: ‘Are we creating trends with one tight end versus another?’ And then it’s up to us to balance those things out. It’s challenging and it’s something we’re aware of.”
In 2022, Kittle had 60 catches for 765 yards, but set a career high with 11 touchdown catches in 15 games. Kittle was especially effective finding the end zone after Brock Purdy took over at quarterback, catching seven touchdown passes in the last four weeks.
Perhaps more importantly, Kittle says, he finished the season healthier than he has been in years. With no nagging ankle, hamstring or other injuries to worry about, Kittle has been able to attack his offseason in a way that has allowed him to work on improving rather than rehabbing. Kittle points to getting in and out of breaks quicker on his routes and improving his catch radius as a couple of highlights.
“It’s just allowed me to work the way I wanted to work earlier in the offseason,” Kittle said. “I was actually just able to get a good foundation in … Being able to get on the field, run good routes, catch the ball and not miss things, just being on the football field is a lot more fun than it looks on the side .”
That hasn’t stopped Kittle from keeping an eye on the Niners’ newest additions at tight end. Kittle is one of the founders of “Tight End University,” a now-annual gathering of NFL tight ends to train together and exchange tips on how to play the position. Both Niners rookies are invited and have quickly bonded with Kittle, peppering him with questions and eagerly watching as he takes reps in practice.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, as Latu and Willis cited Kittle as one of the players they try to emulate on the field.
“We saw a lot of George Kittle,” Willis said. “He does so many things that we do as an offense, like the same schemes that we do in terms of spacing, zone, outside zone, inside zone, counters, all kinds of things…He’s a willing blocker, great passer -catcher, a great athlete, a guy who can do it all. We see him as a chess piece, a guy who can move around, a guy who can do a lot of things and make the other team pay, and that’s how I see it on myself as well. I’m excited to learn from him. He’s one of the best in the business and I can’t think of a better mentor for me and my style of play.”
Latu and Willis will have to earn their opportunities. Both arrive with reputations as willing blockers, but need more polish in the passing game. And they’ll still have competition from veterans Charlie Woerner and Ross Dwelley to make the roster. Whoever makes it will work behind Kittle, and the Niners will find other ways, such as not assigning him certain blocks or giving him breaks during offseason practices, to keep Kittle healthy.
“When you’re looking at how you can complement the rest of the room, you’re just looking for a combination of all those skills among whoever is behind George,” Fleury said. “It’s up to us to manage who’s in the game at what time. So if George isn’t, to make sure we can get the most out of it.”