Arguably one of the biggest surprises of the San Francisco 49ers' 2017 campaign was the production they got out of their fifth-round draft selection, Iowa tight end George Kittle.

Kittle, who was more known for his proficient blocking at Iowa and was said to be a little raw in the passing game department, ended up putting in one of the best rookie seasons for a TE in NFL history. Kittle's 43 receptions and 515 yards are the most ever by a rookie TE drafted in the fifth round or later. And he was able to achieve those feats while banged up and injured throughout his rookie season.


Kittle was third in the NFL among rookie TEs in yards per route run with 1.42. What's even more impressive about that number is the company he shared it with. Each of the other players were first-round draft selections, proving that Kittle is already a tremendous value to the 49ers.


So the question must be asked: Can Kittle become the NFL's next great tight end? Can he have Rob Gronkowski-type numbers year in and year out or was last season just a one-time fluke?

Looking into Kittle's film, I can tell you that this definitely wasn't a one-time fluke. Kittle has the talent to remain a consistent force in the 49ers' passing game, which brings up another question: Wasn't he highly touted for his blocking skills and not necessarily his receiving ability?

Yes, Kittle amassed only 737 yards on 48 receptions during his entire four-year career at Iowa, but it seems that something clicked with Kittle in head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense. His route running and receiving ability became the strongest aspects of his game. While he still seemed to be a decent blocker, Kittle showed that he could be physically outmatched at times. His blocking ability was better suited off the line of scrimmage where he had a bit more space to work with. Kittle wasn't a terrible blocker by any means, but other players on the roster like TE Garrett Celek were more proficient at it.

In this day and age, tight ends don't necessarily need to be able to block at all. Current Green Bay Packers tight end Jimmy Graham is a perfect example of just that. Graham has almost never been used as a blocker and is considered one of the best ever at the position. Receiving tight ends hold a lot of value in today's NFL, and Kittle quickly made that known to the 49ers.

It became even more evident how much of a mismatch Kittle could be when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo took over. Remember that "yards per route run" number we talked about a little earlier?

Kittle nearly doubled it with Garoppolo at the helm, becoming far and away the best at the position during that span.


Kittle had 50 or more receiving yards three times in 2017 with two of those three games coming with Garoppolo at QB, as noted by 49ers Webzone's own David Bonilla.

It was clearly evident that Kittle and Garoppolo built a rapport with each other and did it rather quickly. The chemistry between the two players is what can propel Kittle to the next level.

Gronk has Brady, Graham had Brees, Wilson and now Rodgers.

Kittle has Garoppolo, two names that the NFL world might have to get used to hearing for the foreseeable future.



Plays like the one above are just a piece of what Kittle brings to the table: a fifth-round draft pick making a one-handed grab along the sideline against the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Kittle has the foundation of what could become one of the biggest draft steals in recent memory.

The key for all of this to come together is his health. As noted earlier, Kittle was injured throughout his rookie season, ultimately limiting what he was able to do on the field. He needs to find a way to protect his body during the course of an NFL season if he wants to remain consistent and become one of the league's best.

With training camp and the regular season on the horizon, George Kittle is my pick to be the 49ers' 2018 breakout player. Not only do I think he is capable of being an 800-plus yard receiver, I also think he has the talent and athleticism to do it for years to come and be one of the league's best.

2018 can be Kittle's year, if he wants it.