So much so that when the 49ers selected team captains earlier this week, Kittle was among five players voted upon to share the honor.
Given that Kittle is only in his second season, the designation was a bit of a surprise, although he has certainly been among the most productive players for San Francisco with 32 catches for 527 yards and two touchdowns.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran guys on the team … but coach (Kyle) Shanahan said it was just based on the season so far, and I feel like I’ve been playing really well,” Kittle told lthe San Francisco Chronicle. “So (it wasn’t) expected, but I really appreciate it. Any time you can be voted a captain by your peers is always a great thing.”
Kittle already has surpassed his yardage total (517) from his rookie season and is well on pace to eclipse the 43 receptions from a year ago.
However, despite his improvement and the fact that he is on pace to break the franchise record for yardage by a tight end, veteran left tackle Joe Staley said the respect for Kittle goes well beyond the numbers.
“He’s obviously got a ton of talent, and everyone that watches our games can see that,” said Staley. “But it’s the way that he works every single day. The preparation that he puts into it day in and day out. … I think guys really respect that.
“I think it’s telling for a guy that’s so young in his second year how guys think about him.”
A fifth-round draft pick out of Iowa in 2017, Kittle struggled to stay healthy as a rookie and was limited to 11 receptions over a six-week span before notching 11 catches and a touchdown in his last three games, including his first 100-yard effort in the regular-season finale.
“I think we had a lot higher expectations for George going into last year than a lot of people realize,” Shanahan said, per NBCSports.com. “I think he did, too, knowing how training camp went and OTAs and stuff. Then he started the year out getting so banged up, he wasn’t able to reach all of that stuff.
“He ended strong, but I think George learned through the first year, he knew he could play in the league.”
The 49ers finished last season on a five-game winning streak once Jimmy Garoppolo was inserted as the starting quarterback, leading to lofty expectations for 2018.
Those high hopes received a jarring setback when Garoppolo suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. There has been no drop-off in Kittle’s play, however. He has 20 catches over the past four games with backup QB C.J. Beathard, a college teammate at Iowa.
“I think he’s just a good route runner,” Beathard said. “He’s talented, he’s athletic, so he can turn little plays into big ones. Obviously, we’ve had chemistry going back to college, so I can kind of read him and know what he’s doing pretty easily.
“But he’s just a really talented athlete and player, and he’s doing really well.”