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George Kittle’s prolific season debut a sign of expanding role



© Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA — Kyle Shanahan stresses the importance of playing with “controlled anger,” a phrase that applies to second-year tight end George Kittle.

Last Sunday, Kittle caught five passes for 90 yards in San Francisco’s 24-16 opening loss at Minnesota. If it wasn’t for a drop on a 30-yard pass that may have led to an 80-yard touchdown, Kittle’s prolific day would have been a career one.

Many Vikings fans were more upset with the hit he lay on first-team All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes after he intercepted Jimmy Garoppolo than Kittle’s production itself.

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“I got a lot of messages from Vikings fans saying I was a dirty player,” said Kittle, smiling, at his locker Thursday. “I enjoyed it.”

It’s only fitting that Kittle, who reveres renowned wrestler and actor “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, has embraced Shanahan’s mantra.

“It’s hard to play football if you’re not angry,” Kittle said. “It’s not really a passive sport, and it’s the only other sport other than boxing that you actually can hit somebody without going to jail for it. You have to be kind of violent, especially at a position in the trenches.”

Kittle developed a reputation at the University of Iowa as a stout blocker. He was not much of a receiver, however, logging just 20 and 22 catches his junior and senior seasons. Once he ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL Combine, which ranked third at the position and tied for 13th all-time for tight ends at the event, he sprouted on NFL radars as a potentially dynamic pass-catcher.

Any 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end who runs like a receiver is likely to be drafted high. At least that’s what Shanahan thought.

Shanahan had targeted Kittle before the 2017 NFL Draft. When he was still available in the fifth round, the 49ers head coach wasn’t taking any more chances.

“We were really disappointed earlier with some of the way things went down in the draft, and we thought that there was no way that we were going to get him,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “Then when he was there in the fifth round, we were shocked and we were extremely happy.”

In a short time, Kittle looks like one of the steals of the draft.

Kittle’s rookie production was the best for any tight end drafted in the fourth round or later in NFL history. He caught 43 passes for 515 yards with two touchdowns in 2017. Kittle blossomed when Garoppolo became the 49ers’ starting quarterback, averaging nearly four catches and 45 yards per game in the final five games of the season. Kittle capped his rookie campaign with a four-catch, 100-yard day in Week 17.

He spent the following offseason running routes with receivers and against defensive backs. With time, he gained a better understanding for Shanahan’s scheme, which isn’t easy to digest as a rookie.

That much was obvious last Sunday.

He was San Francisco’s most productive receiver in its Week-1 loss, leading the 49ers in yards (90), catches (five), and targets (nine). He can’t remember ever being targeted that many times in a game.

Garrett Celek, San Francisco’s top tight end on the depth chart, did not record a target Sunday. He’s more of a blocker than a receiver. Kittle played 77 percent of the offensive snaps, compared to Celek’s 35 percent. Their snap counts were nearly split last year. It’s worth noting that Kittle’s overall usage steadily declined as the 2017 season drew to a close, despite his receiving production.

It appears Kittle is in line for a healthier workload in 2018.

Two of his five catches Sunday came during a sequence in which Shanahan ran four straight play-actions, all of which yielded positive yardage. Kittle ripped off consecutive catches of 18 yards and 13 yards to jumpstart the 49ers offense on its third drive of the day.

Kittle did most of his damage in the second quarter, catching four passes for 54 yards. On third and six with 6:49 left in the first half, Kittle ran a dig route and connected with Garoppolo for 14 yards to pick up the first down.

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Later in the drive, with the 49ers in the red zone, Shanahan drew up a screen play that disguised Kittle as a blocker. Garoppolo hit Kittle for an easy completion. He turned upfield for nine yards.

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In the third quarter, Garoppolo and Kittle connected for a 36-yard gain. Kittle sat in the middle of the Minnesota defense, then shuffled to an open area, as linebacker Eric Kendricks got spun around. Kittle caught the pass and accelerated up the sideline.

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That was all of Kittle’s receiving production Sunday. Two incompletions intended for him proved to be vital in a one-possession game.

Earlier in the third quarter, Shanahan drew up another play-action for Kittle. He shot through a logjam of Vikings defenders and looped upfield. Garoppolo delivered a perfect throw but Kittle didn’t come down with the ball.

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As the 49ers mounted a fourth-quarter comeback, their best chance at a late touchdown involved Kittle. This time, it was Garoppolo’s miscue. He overthrew Kittle, who beat Harrison Smith, in the back of the end zone on third down. The 49ers settled for a field goal to cut Minnesota’s lead to 24-16, the game’s final score.

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Despite the second-half mishaps, Sunday was quite the start for Kittle, who moved all over the field in Shanahan’s creative scheme. The Iowa product figures to be an integral part of the 49ers offense as both a blocker and pass-catcher moving forward — which Shanahan envisioned when he drafted Kittle a year ago.

“I am thankful Coach Shanahan trusts me to put me on all these spots,” Kittle said. “It’s really fun for me to go do these things maybe people don’t think I can do.”