SANTA CLARA, Calif.—The 49ers have been pummeled lately, not only on the field, where it’s most noticeable, but in the media for their first-round draft picks from 2017. Solomon Thomas, who has underachieved, and Reuben Foster, who’s been arrested for domestic violence.
But in the fifth round of that same draft the Niners made what now appears to be a brilliant choice, George Kittle, who can catch anything but with speed belying his position as tight end is difficult to catch—as his 85-yard touchdown play Sunday made clear.
Ted Kwalick played tight end for the Niners. So did Brent Jones. But they never had a game like Kittle. His 210 receiving yards on seven catches in the 20-14 upset of the Denver Broncos was a team record and only four yards short of the NFL mark of 214 set by Shannon Sharpe in 2014.
And all of Kittle’s catches Sunday were in the first half.
“He’s dynamic,” Niners cornerback Richard Sherman said of Kittle. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for how athletic he is. His lateral movement is deceptive. He’s got a ton of speed. He’s just guys one-on-one.
“He goes out there full speed and plays as d as anybody I’ve ever met, and not just in the pass game. He’ll pancake guys (as a blocker). He’ll run and never complain about anything. He can block 20 times in a row and not complain. He’ll catch 20 passes and be the same guy. It’s infectious.”
It’s also understandable. A fifth-rounder is always trying to prove himself, especially when as a receiver he came from a program, University of Iowa, that like so many Midwest schools, throws reluctantly.
“Maybe they just ran the ball at Iowa,” quipped Sherman.
They don’t just run it with the Niners, but they run it now and then. San Francisco had 84 yards rushing—as opposed to 305 passing. Denver had 103 rushing and 171 passing. Yes, as much as Kittle and the offense, including free agent quarterback Nick Mullens were big part of the their overall record to 3-10, the defense was a key. As always in a win.
In the first half, the Niners held the Broncos to 65 yards and zero points. And as has been pointed out so frequently, and meaningfully, if the other team doesn’t score you can’t lose. It they only score 14 in the second half after you’ve built a 20-0 lead it’s also very hard to lose.
Kittle had 210 yards receiving by himself before the half.
Asked what happened in the second half, Kittle gave the answer coaches most like to hear, “We won.”
Sherman said he ranks Kittle with Travis Kelce as the NFL’s best tight end. And indication the off-season work Kittle has put in is paying off.
"Obviously I want to be the best as a tight end," said Kittle told ESPN during training camp. "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."
They were satisfied Sunday. So was Kittle.
“All the confidence is coaching that gives me opportunities,” said Kittle.
“When you capitalize on those and you get the ball, it jus builds confidence. You start feeling it, and then you have the quarterback getting you the ball. That’s all that really matters.”
Not all, but remember he’s only in his second year.