Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports examines the importance of a healthy George Kittle in the 49ers lineup

Jul 13, 2021 at 9:33 AM--

The San Francisco 49ers were the most injury-plagued roster in the NFL last season by a significant margin. In fact, the Niners were the second most injured team over the past two decades, with only the 2016 Chicago Bears having players miss more games in a single season.

One of the losses was pass rusher Nick Bosa, who was coming off an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign. With the young defender in the lineup, the 49ers' defensive line proved problematic for opposing offenses. However, after Bosa suffered a torn ACL during Week 2, along with the absence of veteran pass rusher Dee Ford, the unit proved to be less formidable.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo missed 10 games last season, and the 49ers couldn't replace his production with backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard, neither of whom remains on the roster. In addition, there was one other key offensive star whose absence was greatly felt — All-Pro tight end George Kittle. And it wasn't just because of his ability to make things happen while catching passes from his quarterbacks.

"George Kittle was the Niners' best offensive player for two-plus seasons before multiple injuries claimed half of his 2020 campaign," wrote Adam Maya in a feature for previewing NFC West training camps. "He's also, of course, the most complete tight end in the NFL. His return is as important to the offense as Bosa's is to the defense. Look no further than San Francisco falling to the middle of the pack in rushing offense last year for what should improve most with a healthy Kittle."

"Middle of the pack" is an accurate description. San Francisco ranked No. 15 in rushing offense in 2020, with Kittle available for only half the season. The team ranked No. 2 in that category in 2019. Of course, you can't put all of that on Kittle's shoulders. As was the case throughout much of the roster, the 49ers running backs group was decimated by injuries, prompting the team's decision-makers to add some insurance by signing Wayne Gallman and drafting Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell.

Maya adds that the expectations are high for the 49ers in 2021. He believes that a failure to meet those expectations could reflect poorly on the coaching staff and bring its value into question.

"(Head coach Kyle) Shanahan has now had four years to fashion the roster to his liking," wrote Maya, "including mortgaging the future for Lance only three years after making Jimmy G the highest-paid player in football. Missing the playoffs a fourth time in five years could put Shanahan on the hot seat in 2022."

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