Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

‘He’s the toughest on the list’: 49ers’ George Kittle tops ESPN’s ranking of tight ends

Jul 15, 2021 at 6:19 AM--

Today, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler wrapped up his rankings of NFL players by position group. He capped off the series by ranking the league's top tight ends.

Fowler's list is based on input from around the NFL. He surveyed over 50 league executives, coaches, scouts, and players to compile it.

"The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2021," wrote Fowler. "This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who's the best today? Pretty simple."

The San Francisco 49ers made George Kittle a fifth-round draft pick out of Iowa in 2017, and he has emerged as arguably the league's most complete tight end. He posted back-to-back seasons of over 1,000 yards receiving in 2018 and 2019 and likely would have done so again last season if not for missing eight games due to injuries. However, Kittle still racked up an impressive 48 catches for 634 yards and two touchdowns in his limited playing time.

"Kittle was still on pace for 96 catches and 1,300 yards over 16 games," wrote Fowler. "He created separation on his routes (3.78 yards away from nearest defender at time of pass arrival) and posted 296 yards after catch."

Earlier this offseason, Pro Football Focus ranked Kittle No. 2, edged only by Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs. Around the league, though, Kittle is seen as the best tight end in football and came in at No. 1 on Fowler's list — the same spot he held a year ago.

"Kittle once again outdistanced Travis Kelce in a tight race for the top spot," wrote Fowler. "Despite missing eight games with a nagging foot injury, Kittle's impact was felt leaguewide. The 49ers fell from fourth to 15th in total offense without Kittle and his quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, for much of the year."

The fan-favorite offensive star isn't just a phenomenal receiver. He makes things happen after hauling in passes. Kittle led all tight ends and wide receivers in yards after the catch in 2018 and 2019. He is also a phenomenal blocker.

"He moves after the catch better than anyone, he's the toughest on the list, the best blocker, and he can catch 100 passes in the right offense," an AFC scout told Fowler.

Kittle is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2019. While he holds onto the top spot within the ranking, Kelce came in at No. 2.

"Kelce beats people up with routes -- Kittle doesn't but he is just so strong and fast that he wins that way," added a veteran NFL offensive player.

Kittle wasn't the only 49ers player who dealt with injuries last season. San Francisco owned the most injury-plagued roster in the league in 2020 and finished with just six wins. Kittle hopes the team's fortunes improve in 2021.

"Injuries are going to happen regardless. It's football," Kittle said last month. "But I think we're very deep at positions where we'll have plenty of guys who can really step up if anything did happen. I also think we've had really great OTAs practices, and just seeing the guys run around, you can see that everyone's pretty excited for the season. We've got good energy rolling around in our building right now."

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