There was only one San Francisco 49ers player this year who was targeted in the regular season more than 100 times. It wasn’t a wide receiver — or even a running back.
It was Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark’s second favorite tight end.
“My favorite tight end in the league is Travis Kelce, and I feel like he’s the best, but right behind him, it’s George Kittle, I feel,” said Clark on Friday “So at the end of the day, when you got a tight end as good as he is, and as fast as he is — I believe he is a 4.5 guy. Another guy who’s good at picking up yards after contact, extended drives and first downs. We know this is Jimmy (Garoppolo)’s go-to guy, where he wants to win games and we know what we’re going to have to do to stop him.”
In 2019, the third-year tight end registered his second straight season of 1,000 or more receiving yards, a year after setting the single-season record for a yardage by a tight end. Kittle actually broke the record that Travis Kelce had set earlier on the same day back in 2018.
Kelce admitted Friday that in Kittle, he sees a lot of himself.
“I think we’re both positive guys,” said Kelce of the 49ers tight end. “We both love to play the game. At the same time, we both love life, and with that comes a lot of responsibility in the tight end room to be not just a one-dimensional, be almost a utility guy in the locker room, whatever the team is. That’s what we’re capable of doing. In terms of similarities, I do believe the run-after-catch is something that I’ve been able to have a knack for since I’ve been in the league and obviously since Kittle’s been in the league, he’s taken that to a whole other level.”
This season, Kittle was behind Kelce in yardage — but nearly 200 yards ahead in yards after the catch, trailing only Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler and Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
But he provides more than just production for San Francisco.
“We were really impressed with how good of a run blocker he is,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. “There are many games we can go in and say look with our D-ends, there’s no way we can lose a battle, a blocking battle, with a tight end. There are just teams that their tight ends are more of receivers. This guy, he’s as all around a tight end that we have seen this year. I give him tremendous credit for the emphasis he puts on run blocking. He looks like he enjoys doing it.”
“I feel like I’ve played against a lot of good blocking tight ends in my career — I’ve been playing five years in the league,” added Clark. “I played a lot of good blocking tight ends in college, but he’s one of the all-around [best] ... I’m a fan of him. Great tight end, great receiving tight end. Even better blocker this year — if you watch film, how he’s developed from last year compared to this year.”
Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, who would be considered one of the team’s most physical players, complimented Kittle in that regard.
“I think he adds a different element to their offense — physicality,” said Mathieu. “More so, the attitude that he plays with. He seems like he is having a ball every ball game. It will be important for me — and guys like Dan (Sorensen) — to match that energy and just compete.”
It is worth noting Kittle’s slow start in this year’s playoffs. The tight end has had only four catches for 35 yards in the postseason, while Raheem Mostert, for example, had 29 carries for 220 yards and four touchdowns solely in the NFC championship.
Still, the Chiefs remain aware of what he can do — he is much more of a sleeping giant than someone they can overlook.
“Just about everybody in the world thinks the world of George Kittle,” said Kelce. “He’s an unbelievable person. Unbelievable amount of energy, how he plays the game with the tenacity — it’s one of a kind. It’s special.”
A year after Rob Gronkowski left the game, the game’s next two leaders at the tight end position will go head-to-head on the biggest stage possible.