George Kittle wasn’t a highly touted prospect coming out of the University of Iowa, but the 49ers took a chance on him in the fifth round (No. 146 overall) of the 2017 draft. This has paid off handsomely as he’s turned into one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
If you followed Kittle’s college career, you probably wouldn’t have expected him to break out in the pros. But 49ers got a bargain taking him so late in the draft. Other teams are likely kicking themselves for overlooking the two-time Pro Bowler. So, which tight ends were drafted before Kittle?
George Kittle’s college career
Kittle played for the Hawkeyes all four years at Iowa. But he only competed in three games in each of his freshman and sophomore seasons, recording six receptions in those seasons. Kittle finally saw more playing time as a junior, playing in 10 games but only grabbing 20 catches. As a senior, he caught 22 balls in nine games.
In all, he had 48 receptions for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns in his 25-game college career. Those types of numbers, combined with the fact that he played for Iowa — not a powerhouse of college football — meant that he wouldn’t likely become a high draft pick.
The 2017 NFL draft
That brings us to the 2017 draft, where Kittle waited for a long time before his name got called. In all, eight tight ends were selected ahead of Kittle. The first four tight ends taken in 2017 have all gone on to have decent careers in their first three seasons.
The Buccaneers’ O.J. Howard went first off the board at No. 19, followed by Giants TE Evan Engram and Browns TE David Njoku at Nos. 23 and 29, respectively. The Rams’ Gerald Everett went next at No. 44. After that, though, the four tight ends taken before Kittle aren’t too impressive.
The Bears took Adam Shaheen at No. 45; the Titans grabbed Jonnu Smith with the 100th pick; the Lions selected Michael Roberts with No. 127; Jake Butt went 145th overall to the Broncos. There’s no question Kittle is the best of that bunch by a wide margin. Every team in the NFL had several chances to draft him.
Kittle has become a star in the NFL
Kittle has become a star in his first three seasons. And you can make the argument that he’s the best tight end in the league. Stars at the position often excel in pass-catching but may not be as good at run-blocking — a key aspect of the position. Kittle plays at an All-Pro level in both parts of his game.
The tight end has become the 49ers’ go-to option in the passing game. They know quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo can count on Kittle to make plays when his number is called. Kittle only made seven starts in his rookie season for 43 catches for 515 yards and two touchdowns. But he broke out in his second season.
In the 2018 season, the 26-year-old started all 16 games, grabbing 88 receptions for 1,377 yards — eighth-most receiving yards in the NFL — and five touchdowns. Kittle played 14 games in 2019, with 85 catches for 1,053 yards and five scores.
He comes through in the clutch, with two touchdowns on four catches in his first two playoff games — and he will be a big part of the 49ers’ game plan in Super Bowl LIV.
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