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George Kittle is the Late-Round Tight End to Target - Footballguys

A detailed look at George Kittle's fantasy prospects for 2018

Pay Up or Punt?

The tight end position is even top-heavier than usual this year. Spending a second-or-third-round pick on Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce -- the only two tight ends who provide a substantial edge over your opponents on a weekly basis -- isn't necessarily a strategy to avoid, but it will leave your roster short one high-end running back or wide receiver.

If you choose to forego Gronkowski and/or Kelce, your choices at tight end are either spending a mid-round pick on a perceived reliable starter -- again leaving running back and wide receiver value on the table -- or punting the position altogether with hopes you can turn a late-round pick into more than just a weekly streaming option.

George Kittle makes the latter strategy preferable. Stockpiling running backs and wide receivers until you reach the double-digit rounds can provide you with a potential edge over your opponents at fantasy football's most important positions, along with the roster depth needed to withstand injuries and pre-plan for the inevitably one (or more) of your early-round picks will bust. When you can secure these advantages and still get top-10 weekly production from your tight end, you will be well positioned for a deep playoff run.

There are several reasons Kittle is the tight end to target to help you execute a late-round tight end draft strategy:

  • Kyle Shanahan has an established history of featuring tight ends in his offense.
  • Jimmy Garoppolo is a rising tide that lifts all boats. Kittle performed as a cumulative top-10 fantasy tight end during Garoppolo's five starts.
  • It flew a bit under the radar, but Kittle's rookie year production placed him in rarified air among tight ends.
  • Kittle is the only pass-catching option on San Francisco's roster who profiles as a red zone threat.


A Tight End-Friendly Scheme

Shanahan receives a lot of credit (and justifiably so) for having The Midas Touch with fantasy running backs. The success of tight ends in his scheme gets less publicity but is every bit as noteworthy considering the dearth of reliable options at the position this year.

Here are the end-of-season stat lines for Shanahan's No. 1 tight ends in each of his 11 seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach:

Year
Player
Games
Targets
Receptions
Yards
TDs
2008
16
101
70
862
2
2009
8
58
40
519
5
2010
Chris Cooley
16
126
77
849
3
2011
12
88
59
796
3
2012
7
31
24
325
0
2013
9
59
45
499
3
2014
10
48
24
424
2
2015
Jacob Tamme
15
81
59
657
1
2016
14
27
19
271
3
2017
15
63
43
515
2

Two Key Takeaways:

  • Owen Daniels' 2008 and Chris Cooley's 2010 stand out as elite TE1 seasons, but injuries are the reason there aren't more. Daniels was the cumulative TE2 through eight games in 2009 before tearing his ACL. Fred Davis was the TE5 through 12 games in 2011 before an Achilles injury ended his season. Jordan Reed was the TE9 on a per game basis as a rookie in 2013 but missed seven games with a concussion. And Jordan Cameron -- who was coming off a top-5 season the year before playing for Shanahan in Cleveland -- had his follow-up derailed by shoulder and head injuries in 2014.

  • Shanahan leans on a single tight end in the passing game, as long as he has a choice. The only years he failed to produce a fantasy starter as an offensive coordinator were 2012 when injuries to Cooley and Davis forced Washington to platoon third and fourth stringers, 2014 when Cameron was hurt, and 2016 when Austin Hooper was learning the ropes as a rookie.

An Ascending Talent

Kittle fell to the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft mainly due to his failure to compile impressive receiving stats in college. In four years at Iowa, his career-high for receptions in a season was 22. The Hawkeyes, however, were one of the run-heaviest offenses in college football, averaging a meager 16.6 completions per game during Kittle's tenure.

Iowa's preference to slug games out on the ground shaded Kittle's top-notch athleticism. He dominated the 2017 scouting combine, leading all tight ends with a 4.52 40-yard dash and 132” broad jump. Kittle's agility score and catch radius are also off the charts for a tight end.

Shanahan showed immediate faith in Kittle by jettisoning incumbent starter (and former second-round draft pick) Vance McDonald in the preseason and was rewarded with one of the top-10 yardage seasons for a rookie tight end since the turn of the century:

Team
Player
G
Starts
Trg
Rec
Yds
TDs
2002
Jeremy Shockey
15
14
128
74
894
2
2017
15
11
115
64
722
6
2008
John Carlson
16
9
80
55
627
5
2013
Tim Wright
16
8
76
54
571
5
2010
Aaron Hernandez
14
7
64
45
563
6
2010
Tony Moeaki
15
15
73
47
556
3
2010
16
11
59
42
546
10
2008
Dustin Keller
16
6
78
48
535
3
2012
Dwayne Allen
16
16
66
45
521
3
2017
15
7
63
43
515
2

Three Notable Takeaways

  • Kittle tied with Aaron Hernandez for the fewest games started in the cohort.

  • Kittle, Hernandez, and Gronkowski were the only players on the list to average at least eight yards per-target in their 500-yard rookie seasons.

  • While it's a plus Kittle was one of 10 rookie tight ends in the last 17 years to crack 500 receiving yards, it barely mattered for fantasy. He was the cumulative TE19 in PPR leagues and finished as a weekly top-12 option three times -- the same number as Rhett Ellison.

An Ascending Offense

The expectation Kittle will establish consistent fantasy value this season is directly tied to the performance of the 49ers offense in the final five games of 2017. What Jimmy Garoppolo accomplished in those games with only three weeks to learn Shanahan's scheme was remarkable:

Statistic
Before Garoppolo (Week 1-12)
After Garoppolo (Weeks 13-17)
Offensive Yards/Game
321.7 (21st in NFL)
410.0 (3rd in NFL)
Points/Game
17.0 (28th)
28.8 (5th)
Yards/Play
4.9 (24th)
6.1 (4th)
Passing Yards/Game
221.8 (17.th)
297 (3rd)
Passing Yards/Attempt
5.66 (29th)
8.44 (1st)
Completion Percentage
56.6 (31st)
67 (6th)
Total QBR
32.4 (28th)
80.0 (1st)
Rushing Yards/Game
99.9 (23rd)
113.0 (16th)
3rd-Down Conversion Percentage
34.1 (26th)
50.0 (3rd)
Offensive Efficiency
20.88 (31st)
70.53 (4th)
First Downs/Game
18.5 (t-22nd)
23.4 (2nd)
Time of Possession
27:36 (31st)
32:54 (3rd)
Defensive Yards Allowed/Game
374.2 (28th)
301.8 (7th)
Defensive Yards Allowed/Play
5.41 (18th)
4.96 (9th)
Points Allowed/Game
25.82 (28th)
19.8 (t-9th)

(Chart via ESPN.com)

Whether or not those numbers are completely sustainable is a topic for another article, but Garoppolo has proven competent every time he's gotten an opportunity to play -- and the Patriots offensive juggernaut can no longer be pointed to as the reason why. While expecting San Francisco to finish 2018 as a top-5 offense is a huge ask, it would be surprising if they end up below league average for a few reasons:

  • At Shanahan's previous stops as offensive coordinator in Houston and Atlanta, his scoring offenses improved from year one to year two by 5% and 61%, respectively. The only time a Shanahan-led offense failed to improve in its second season, Washington's starting quarterback changed from Donovan McNabb in 2010 to Rex Grossman in 2011.

  • Garoppolo has a full offseason to master the playbook and develop a rapport with his teammates.

  • Jerick McKinnon and a healthy Pierre Garcon give Garoppolo more weapons to keep the chains moving than he had at his disposal last year.

If we make a modest assumption the 49ers can crack the top-12 in points per game; it's excellent news for Kittle's outlook. The top-3 fantasy tight ends from last season -- and five of the top-10 -- came from top-12 scoring offenses in 2017.

A Solidified Role

Those opposed to projecting a year-two breakout for Kittle likely believe Garrett Celek will cut into his opportunity. Celek shared snaps with Kittle down the stretch last season and is a favorite of the coaching staff for his run-blocking. But assuming Celek will play more than a backup role simply because he did last year is flawed logic.

Despite coming into the season recovering from a hamstring injury, Kittle played on 90% or more of the 49ers offensive snaps in four of their first six games. In the two early-season games he ceded snaps to Celek, Kittle was dealing with injuries to his hip and chest, respectively. The bumps and bruises continued to pile up as Kittle missed practice time with back and elbow injuries before suffering a debilitating high-ankle sprain in Week 9 that kept him off the field through the team's Week 11 bye, and on the injury report through Week 13.

The ankle injury “prevented Kittle from planting his foot in the ground and making the kind of cuts required of a pass catcher”, which explains why his snaps were held below 40% until Week 15. As Kittle's snaps ramped back up, he showed great chemistry with Garoppolo, ranking as the cumulative TE5 from Weeks 15-17, on the strength of a combined 14-11-194-1 receiving line.

When he was healthy, it was clear Kittle was the tight end Shanahan preferred -- and it wasn't only due to his pass-catching ability. According to Pro Football Focus, Kittle was the 49ers most efficient pass-blocking tight end in 2017. He allowed 5 quarterback pressures on 407 passing plays compared to 9 on 292 for Celek. And while Celek is admittedly one of the better run-blocking tight ends in the league, it's not as though Kittle is a liability on running plays. Among 72 qualifying tight ends, Kittle's run-blocking ranked right near the middle at 38th.

Shanahan also endorsed Kittle's blocking in a recent interview:

“I think George can be a very good tight end in this league,” Shanahan said. “It's rare that you have a guy who is built to block very well who also runs in the 4.5's and who is quick enough to separate.”

Even if Celek was to carve out about 30% of the team's tight end snaps, it leaves Kittle -- who ran a pass route on about 50% of his snaps last year (11th-highest percentage among tight ends) -- plenty of opportunities to amass the six-or-so targets per game required to make him a fantasy starter.

A Red Zone Monster in the Making

While the 49ers had no issues moving the ball or scoring points over their final five games, their drives ended in field goals far too often. In 24 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line, San Francisco converted 11 touchdowns, with only six coming on Garoppolo passes. But if he's able to maintain anything close last year's prolific passing yardage numbers, we should expect some statistical progression towards the mean.

The average quarterback threw one touchdown for every 162 passing yards in 2017. Garoppolo threw one touchdown for every 223 passing yards. Had he thrown touchdowns at the league average rate, he would have finished with closer to 10 touchdowns than seven.

Not surprisingly, San Francisco has placed an emphasis on finishing scoring drives during offseason practices, and it's clear who Shanahan thinks gives him the best chance to convert close scoring chances. Kittle led the team with 16 red zone targets in 2017, despite playing limited snaps. While he only converted two of those looks into touchdowns, it wouldn't be surprising if that number tripled this year.

With the requisite size (6-foot-4, 247 pounds) and extraordinary catch radius, Kittle looks the part of a natural touchdown-maker. But since he wasn't asked to catch many passes in four years of college, he entered the NFL lacking experience in contested catch and high-traffic situations (i.e. most red zone plays). Besides adding muscle mass in hopes it will help him stay healthy (which also can't hurt in the red zone), Kittle's main focus this offseason has been learning to catch the ball in tight quarters. Two quotes from 49ers tight end coach Alan Embree point to progress in this regard:

"One of the things he's had to learn on our level is, in college football 'open' is wide open," Embree said. "In the NFL at our position, I would say that 85 percent of the passes you catch are going to be contested balls with people around you. So he's had to learn, and is still learning, how to play outside of his frame. In other words, playing with his hands away from his body, using his length."

“I fine him,” Embree said. “Every time he jumps and lets the ball get on his body, he just puts money in our little (kitty) there. So you just keep doing that and keep driving it home.”

Even if there were no reason to expect improvement from Kittle in the touchdown department, we can be confident he'll continue to be relied upon in the red zone. Who else on the 49ers is a threat to score from within striking distance?

Pierre Garcon has been in the league since 2008 and never scored more than six touchdowns in a season. Marquise Goodwin -- at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds -- not surprisingly scored a single touchdown on 14 red zone targets last season. Rookie Dante Pettis is a string bean at 6-foot-1, 186 pounds, who was beaten down in college by physical cornerbacks. And running back Jerick McKinnon was rarely trusted by Minnesota's coaching staff near the goal line.

Projections

Projector
Games
Receptions
Yards
Y/R
TDs
FanPts
David Dodds
15.1
45.0
531
11.8
4.0
122.1
Bob Henry
16.0
49.0
580
11.8
4.5
134.0
Jason Wood
16.0
45.0
510
11.3
4.0
120.0
Maurile Tremblay
16.0
40.2
432
10.7
3.1
102.0
Phil Alexander
16.0
54.0
648
12.0
6.0
154.8

Final Thoughts

The only thing Kittle is missing at his current 13th-round ADP is a neon sign around his neck that says “steal me”. He was hand-picked by a coach who has consistently maximized tight end fantasy production, had an excellent rookie season at a position with a steep learning curve, is tied to a potential franchise quarterback, and is the only viable red zone threat on his team.

Outside of Gronkowski and Kelce, every tight end you're left to choose from in the single-digit rounds comes with question marks:

  • Zach Ertz - When will Carson Wentz look like himself on the field? Will Dallas Goedert cut into his touchdown opportunity?

  • Jimmy Graham - Scoring potential in Green Bay is undeniable, but looked like a shell of his former self when he wasn't catching goal-line bunnies from Russell Wilson last year.

  • Greg Olsen - Coming off a serious foot injury and facing stiff competition for targets from Devin Funchess, D.J. Moore, and Christian McCaffrey.

  • Evan Engram - Had one of the best rookie seasons ever for a tight end but played 11 games without Odell Beckham and four games without both Beckham and Sterling Shepard. Adding Saquon Barkley to the mix makes the pie smaller too.

  • Kyle Rudolph - Emergence of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen all but guarantees you won't want him in your lineup in the 8-10 games he fails to score a touchdown.

  • Delanie Walker - Enters his age-34 season as a mainstay on the injury report with talented Jonnu Smith breathing down his neck.

  • Trey Burton - Talent and scheme appear to be there, but the quality of quarterback play and distribution of playing time in Chicago remains to be seen.

  • Jordan Reed - The riskiest fantasy starter to rely on at any position, despite top-3 upside.

Let your league mates spend their high-equity draft picks on non-elite tight ends and take Kittle, who can approximate or exceed the production of most players listed above, in the double-digit rounds.


Thoughts From the Footballguys Message Boards

Travdogg doesn't buy the hype:

"I'm letting someone else draft Kittle. He's not a full-time player, as Garrett Celek plays a lot, and is a much better blocker, while also having reliable hands.

Kittle's numbers spiked slightly when Garoppolo took over, but that was also with no Garcon, and now Pettis and McKinnon (who is way better than Carlos Hyde as a receiver) have been added as well, making the target pie even smaller. He also had almost 20% of his total yards, in a meaningless week 17 game.

I can't shake the feeling that Kittle is this year's Austin Hooper."