Is George Kittle's success since entering the NFL in 2017 a result of his own ability or is the San Francisco 49ers' star tight end a product of Kyle Shanahan's system?
While discussing Kittle and what will likely be an extremely lucrative contract extension on 95.7 The Game, Pro Football Focus analyst George Chahrouri was asked how much of the dominance Kittle has displayed in his three seasons in the league is down to Shanahan?
"Tight ends just by nature of the position they play, they get covered by linebackers more who are worse in coverage, they get a little more space to operate, you can scheme them open, there is a little bit of that and that's why tight ends on average are just less valuable than wide receivers. Kittle last year in PFF wins above replacement, which equates value across position, would have been the 20th most valuable wide receiver, and a lot of that is because he didn't go downfield as often as most wide receivers. It doesn't mean he can't, that's just the nature of the position. I do think Shanahan has proven he is confident in his scheme, is anyone more confident and maybe rightfully so as Shanahan."
Chahrouri is correct in that some of Kittle's production must be attributed to Shanahan. There is no play-caller in the league who does a better job of getting his pass-catchers in space than the 49ers head coach. As is often the case, however, the answer lies in the middle, with Kittle's emergence as the NFL's premier tight end a result of the mouth-watering combination of his athletic gifts and Shanahan's acumen as a play-caller.
There are two plays from the 49ers' Week 12 win over the Green Bay Packers that illustrate how devastating that mix can be, as Shanahan utilized the information he received from a 22-yard completion from Jimmy Garoppolo to Kittle in the second quarter to set up the game-breaking play in the third quarter of a 37-8 blowout victory.
On that second-quarter connection, Shanahan did an excellent job of getting Kittle in a one-on-one matchup with cornerback Kevin King by using play-action to suck up the linebackers and a deep route from Richie James to hold the deep safety.
The Niners' first-team All-Pro had no issue gaining separation by defeating the coverage of King, whose decision to bite on Kittle's jab step to the left proved a critical error that Shanahan would exploit in the third quarter to end any hope of a Green Bay fightback.
San Francisco again made use of play-action to hold the linebackers as Ross Dwelley's route over the middle of the field took away the possibility of any safety help for King, who found himself one on one with Kittle once more.
King's judgment in biting on the route to the left on this occasion was more forgivable, with James' motion getting the entire defense flowing to that side, but it was punished much more severely as Kittle broke back towards the far sideline with remarkable fluidity and burst, giving Garoppolo a wide-open target as they linked up for a score that put the game beyond any doubt.
It was a touchdown that came to pass thanks in part to the knowledge of King's susceptibility to fakes that Shanahan and Kittle gained in the second quarter, and it serves a tremendous example of how the Niners head coach frequently uses plays to set up more significant ones later in games and how he succeeds in getting his receivers in space from a variety of personnel packages – doing so on each of these receptions from 13 personnel.
Yet it is a play that may not have been as effective had it not been focused around a player with Kittle's freakish blend of size, agility, and speed.
Kittle's score against the Packers marked his longest play of a spectacular 2019 season that ensured he will eventually become the highest-paid tight end in football if and when he and the 49ers come to an agreement. Chahrouri believes such downfield plays are going to need to be a more prominent part of San Francisco's passing attack if Kittle is to prove worth a contract many anticipate being in the region of $15M a year.
"A lot of the time he was asked to catch kind of shorter passes, his average depth of target was just over six yards downfield, which was by far the shortest of any wide receiver or tight end with over 100 targets. What that tells you is he's catching a lot of short passes, he's making a lot out of them. What we know about the NFL is, the further downfield you go, the better. I would look for him to probably earn in that $15M range, I wouldn't have a problem with it personally, but that would be predicated on Kyle Shanahan using him more downfield because I think he can do it. I think he can be successful going downfield a little more often, I think they're going to need it without Emmanuel Sanders. I would reach $15M.
"Jimmy G has played a little over one full season with Kyle Shanahan and five of those games were in clean-up duty a couple of seasons ago. I think there is a lot of room to grow. I go back and look at those games where George Kittle was hurt and how kind of lost Garoppolo looked particularly on third down. I do think there is a little room, I think they can push the ball downfield. There's always opportunities to change from season to season to add a dimension. Jimmy G is a very accurate thrower of the football and he's accurate down the field, it's not as if he's inaccurate throwing in that intermediate range. I think that's specifically where they could look to grow, and with the confidence they already have, I see no reason why that wouldn't be dynamic."
As Kittle proved in the first of two blowout victories against the Packers, he can indeed be dynamic as a downfield weapon. Garoppolo's still relatively limited time in the Shanahan offense is an aspect of his development that hasn't been talked about enough in the fall-out from the defeat in Super Bowl LIV.
However, if Garoppolo takes the steps that Matt Ryan took in his second full season in the scheme, then the potential is there for the combination of Kittle's remarkable skill set and Shanahan's unmatched play-calling ingenuity to deliver more explosive results in the 2020 season.
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