49ers

49ers' George Kittle breaks NFL season record for receiving yards by tight end

49ers' George Kittle breaks NFL season record for receiving yards by tight end

LOS ANGELES -- George Kittle broke the NFL single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end in his final game -- and on his final catch -- of the year.

Needing just 2 more yards to set the mark Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, the San Francisco 49ers star caught Nick Mullens' short pass and took it 43 yards for a touchdown with 2:20 to play.

Travis Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs tight end who sent Kittle a signed jersey this past week as the two chased history, held the record for just a few moments Sunday. He caught five passes for 62 yards in a rout of the Oakland Raiders, giving him 1,336 yards on the season. New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski’s league record of 1,327 yards had stood from 2011.

Kittle countered with nine catches for 149 yards, though, finishing with 1,377 on the season to snatch away the record.

Kittle also broke Eric Johnson’s 49ers single-season record for the most receptions by a tight end. Johnson caught 82 of his 117 targets for 825 yards and two touchdowns in his record-setting 2004 season. Kittle finished the day with nine receptions, giving him 88 on 136 targets on the season.

The second-year pro fell just 5 yards shy of breaking Shannon Sharpe's NFL single-game record for receiving yards by a tight end three weeks ago. Kittle caught seven passes for 210 yards in the first half against the Denver Broncos, but he didn't have a reception in the second half, causing 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan to apologize for the oversight.

There wasn't an oversight this time, though, as Shanahan went right to Kittle with little time left, first with a 6-yard pass to the right, then the record-setting throw in the 49ers' 48-32 season-ending loss.

Team management was waiting for Kittle in the tunnel with congratulations.

For Kittle, it's now on to the Pro Bowl, then preparations for the 49ers' 2019 season.

Why Peter King thinks Jimmy Garoppolo key to 49ers making NFL playoffs

jimmygusatsi.jpg
USATSI

Why Peter King thinks Jimmy Garoppolo key to 49ers making NFL playoffs

Jimmy Garoppolo has started and ended a season as the 49ers' starting quarterback, but never in the same year.

He joined San Francisco in a midseason trade in 2017, ending the year on a 5-0 run and signing a lucrative contract extension the following offseason. He tore his ACL in Week 3 last year -- his eighth start with the 49ers -- and missed the remainder of the season. 

The 49ers went 3-10 in Garoppolo's absence, turning to both C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens to fill the void for their franchise QB. Garoppolo is set to take the reigns under center once more, and NBC Sports' Peter King believes a healthy season from the quarterback is enough for San Francisco to end its five-year playoff drought.

"I think the 49ers are going to make the playoffs," King said Tuesday on "The Damon Bruce Show" on 95.7 The Game. " ... It's hard to say that in a vacuum. If Jimmy Garoppolo slips on a banana peel in September, they're not making the playoffs. But, I don't think you look at Jimmy Garoppolo [or Philadelphia Eagles quarterback] Carson Wentz necessarily and say, 'Well, they're doomed to a life of being injury-prone.'"

Because of last year's injury and his time backing up Tom Brady with the New England Patriots for the first three-and-a-half years of his career, a 16-game season in 2019 would be a first for Garoppolo. In fact, Garoppolo has only started 10 regular-season games in his career. 

Five starts -- and six appearances -- for San Francisco in 2017 were enough for the 49ers to commit to Garoppolo long-term, but the sample size of his NFL career as a starter remains small. King noted that Garoppolo's torn ACL made him an outlier among starting QBs last season, given how much time he missed. 

As long as Garoppolo remains healthy, King thinks the 49ers will learn a lot about him this season. 

"This is a golden year for the 49ers, in my opinion, because we're going to be able to see what Kyle Shanahan has in Jimmy Garoppolo, and what Jimmy Garoppolo can do over the long haul." King said. " ... To me, they were the outlier last season, and if they had Garoppolo for 16 games, I think they would've been knocking on the door in December." 

[RELATED: How 49ers' offense stacks up against NFC West rivals]

The 49ers undoubtedly missed Garoppolo last season, but making the playoffs won't depend upon him alone. San Francisco addressed some of its defensive shortcomings in free agency and the draft, and a pass rush that accounted for the 22nd-most sacks in the NFL (37) looks much-improved on paper. There still are question marks in the secondary, however, after the 49ers allowed more passing touchdowns (35) than everyone other than the Raiders. 

In other words, the 49ers will have to worry about positions other than the one under center, whether or not Garoppolo hits the ground running. 

NFL preview 2019: How 49ers' defense stacks up against NFC West rivals

defonfcwestdefenseap.jpg
AP

NFL preview 2019: How 49ers' defense stacks up against NFC West rivals

Does defense still win championships?

Based on the way the NFL has evolved over the last several years, with new rules emphasizing the protection of quarterbacks, one has to wonder. It's a different game now. Scoring is at an all-time high. Last season, NFL teams combined for 1,371 touchdowns, the most in a single season in the 99-year history of the league.

What realistic chance does a defense have against modern offenses, under current rules? That depends on the contents of each respective defense, but one thing is clear: It's not a fair fight.

The NFC West likely will exemplify that fact this coming season. One could make the case that the strength of each team in the division is its offense, and if the critical players remain healthy, they're bound to put up huge numbers.

Still, though, it's not like the NFC West lacks for defensive talent. There are numerous Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers on the defensive side of the ball, and several promising young players making the ascent to that level.

Based on the offseason developments, here's how the NFC West defenses rank with training camp only weeks away:

1. Los Angeles Rams

When it comes to the Rams' defense, everything starts and ends with Aaron Donald.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is a one-man wrecking crew. He led the league with 20.5 sacks last season, and his 113 total pressures led all interior linemen by a wide margin. With all the double and triple teams he faces, it allows the other members of the defense to thrive.

Ndamukong Suh and Lamarcus Joyner are gone, but Los Angeles acquired veterans Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle in free agency. Weddle will join a defensive backfield that includes former standouts Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, rising safety John Johnson and second-round draft pick Taylor Rapp.

Matthews and Dante Fowler -- who was brought back on a one-year deal -- both have double-digit sack potential, roaming in Donald's wake.

2. San Francisco 49ers

Since 2015, the 49ers have used four first-round draft picks on defensive linemen. Additionally, they traded a second-round pick to Kansas City for Dee Ford. It's time to put up or shut up.

Based on talent alone, one could make the case San Francisco has the best defensive line in the NFL. Even if it's not the best, it certainly has the potential to be up there.

Ford is coming off a season in which he recorded 13.0 sacks and seven forced fumbles and led all edge rushers in quarterback pressures. Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner made the leap last season, leading the 49ers with 12.0 sacks. Add in former first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, as well as 2019 No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa, and it's easy to see why opposing quarterbacks should be very, very afraid.

San Francisco will need that defensive line to live up to its potential, though, because the rest of the defense has quite a few question marks.

The 49ers' biggest defensive free-agent acquisition came in the form of linebacker Kwon Alexander, who offers lots of promise at the position, but is coming off a torn ACL. If he can stay healthy, Alexander and Fred Warner could form a near-ideal linebacking duo for the modern NFL.

Richard Sherman has one cornerback spot locked down, but the rest of the defensive backfield seems to be in constant flux. At safety, neither Jaquiski Tartt nor Jimmie Ward has proven the ability to stay healthy, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon took a step back in his sophomore campaign.

If the 49ers' defensive line fulfills its promise, it'll make life a lot easier on everyone else.

3. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals' defense wasn't as bad last season as their record indicated. When you're the worst team in the league, your defense faces a lot of short fields. That's something new head coach Kliff Kingsbury and new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph hope to change this coming season.

They've got some talent to work with. Linebacker Chandler Jones has recorded more sacks (41) than any other player since 2016. The Cardinals added former Arizona State legend Terrell Suggs in free agency, and he can still get after the quarterback after totaling 7.0 sacks last year.

The defensive backfield might be the strength of the team, with future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson holding down one cornerback spot after his six-game suspension, and 2019 second-round draft pick Byron Murphy likely manning the other. D.J. Swearinger and Budda Baker form a quality safety duo.

[RELATED: These three players are most important to 49ers' success]

4. Seattle Seahawks

My, how times have changed.

After years after possessing arguably the top defense in the league, the Seahawks took a step backward last season, and they might take another this year.

Bobby Wagner is still one of the best linebackers in the league, but there's a significant talent dropoff after him. Seattle traded away defensive end Frank Clark, who notched 32 sacks over the last three seasons combined. L.J. Collier was drafted in the first round as an eventual replacement, but it would be wildly unfair to expect him to make the same kind of impact in his rookie season. Free-agent signee Ziggy Ansah has a bunch of talent, but health is a constant concern.

With Earl Thomas departing for Baltimore and Kam Chancellor retiring, the "Legion of Boom" era is officially dead. And, looking at their current defensive backfield, it's going to be a while before it is revived.