George Kittle's breakout season fueled by 'angry mindset,' love of the game


George Kittle's breakout season fueled by 'angry mindset,' love of the game

George Kittle, who was used primarily as a blocker during his college career at Iowa, has quickly turned into one of the NFL’s top playmakers at tight end.

On Dec. 9, Kittle set the 49ers’ all-time single-season record for receiving yards from a tight end. He has 79 catches for 1,228 yards entering Sunday’s season finale against the Los Angeles Rams. Eric Johnson holds the club record for receptions from a tight end with 82 in a single season.

Kittle, a second-year player, was named last week to the NFC Pro Bowl team.

Where Kittle has made his biggest mark is in yards after the catch. According to Pro Football Focus, Kittle has 772 yards after the catch this season, which ranks behind only Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey’s 835.

Among tight ends, Kittle is 229 yards ahead of Travis Kelce of Kansas City and 408 yards in front of Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz, who ranks third in yards after the catch.

Recently, former 49ers quarterback and NBC Sports Bay Area analyst Jeff Garcia drew a comparison between Kittle and Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens. Garcia said Kittle, like Owens before him, runs “angry.”

The typically mild-mannered Kittle said he flips a switch when he steps onto the field to play.

“I play the game angry,” Kittle said on The 49ers Insider Podcast. “And I love playing the game, so it’s kind of half and half. I’m angry, and I’m having the best time of my life at the same time.”

Kittle said he never wants to give any defensive player any breaks. If Kittle is going to come down short of the end zone, he wants that player to earn the tackle and pay the price.

“I decide, if you want to tackle me, you’re going to have to tackle me,” Kittle said. “I’m not going to let you tackle me. I’m going to do everything I can to go through you, go around you, avoid you, anything.

“But you have to decide that you want to tackle me. And I think with an angry mindset that makes it a little bit easier and a little bit harder on them.”

Kittle’s single-season receiving total ranks 13th in 49ers history. Jerry Rice occupies eight of those spots, while Owens had three 49ers seasons with 1,300 yards or more. Split end Dave Parks had 1,344 yards receiving in 1965.

In Iowa’s run-first offense, Kittle’s best college season came as a senior in 2016 when he caught 22 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns in nine games. The 49ers selected him in the fifth round of last year’s draft.

Why Colin Cowherd would hire 49ers' Kyle Shanahan to coach his NFL team

Why Colin Cowherd would hire 49ers' Kyle Shanahan to coach his NFL team

There currently are 32 NFL franchises, and for the vast majority of us, at no point during our lives will we have any chance of owning one of them.

But, forget reality. What if you were able to purchase a team? Who would you hire as head coach?

Fox Sports' Colin Cowherd gave his answer to that question Wednesday, but first established the five criteria by which he would form his list of the top 10 coaches he'd want to lead his franchise. They were:

1. Age does not matter 
2. Easy to work with 
3. The less controversy, the better 
4. Innovative thinker 
5. Relates to players

Based on those criteria, Cowherd landed on 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan as his top choice (h/t 49ers Web Zone).

"I know he has had a couple of Super Bowl moments you don't love," Cowherd explained Wednesday on "The Herd," "but I think San Francisco was right. I think he's intense. I think he has got the lineage from his dad (Mike Shanahan). I think he has a system, but he is nimble enough to manipulate the system and listen to (general manager) John Lynch and others. I think he's obsessively driven, which is probably most of these guys.

"But if I start my franchise today, I get the (experience from his) dad, I get him, I get playoff experience, and I also think he has got a chip on his shoulder because he thinks he should have won that Super Bowl last year. And he thinks he should have won that Atlanta Super Bowl against New England when he was the [offensive coordinator]."

Though the 49ers don't have new owners, they clearly share similar feelings about Shanahan, having just recently signed him to a six-year contract extension. He led San Francisco to a nine-win improvement this past season, and already has made it clear the expectation is to get back to the Super Bowl for a second straight year.

[RELATED: Bryant Young knows 49ers in good hands with Shanahan, Lynch]

Should the 49ers accomplish that goal -- and prove victorious in Super Bowl LV -- what few criticisms there are of Shanahan no longer would be valid.

For reference, here is Cowherd's full list:

1. Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers
2. Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills 
3. Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles 
4. Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams 
5. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens 
6. Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears 
7. Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins 
8. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma Sooners 
9. Urban Meyer, formerly Ohio State Buckeyes 
10. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

NFL rumors: George Kittle's 49ers contract could land around $13M annually

NFL rumors: George Kittle's 49ers contract could land around $13M annually

The elephant in the room at this point of the 49ers' offseason is the absence of a contract extension for standout tight end George Kittle. He is entering the final year of his rookie deal which will pay him $2.1 million, and is due to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season.

After cementing himself as the best tight end in all of football over the last two seasons, Kittle's inevitable extension has long been expected to reset the market at the position. Austin Hooper currently averages the highest annual salary of any tight end after signing a four-year, $42 million contract with the Cleveland Browns in free agency earlier this offseason.

Estimates for what Kittle could average on his next contract have ranged as high as $20 million per season, but the real number likely is somewhere between there and Hooper's annual rate due to the expected drop in league revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Athletic's Matt Barrows reported Wednesday that someone "in the know" told him that Kittle ultimately would get a contract extension averaging $13 million per season.

That's a far cry from $20 million, but as Barrows noted, it still would make Kittle the highest-paid tight end by a fairly wide margin. Though Kittle probably is worth more than that, the salary-cap uncertainty caused by COVID-19 likely will rule out the possibility of a market-shattering contract. The unprecedented situation could result in a creative deal.

[RELATED: Report: NFL preseason halved; 49ers-Raiders game remains]

The Athletic's David Lombardi recently suggested that it might make sense for Kittle and the 49ers to come to an agreement on a contract that is partially tied to the size of the salary cap moving forward. 

"The 49ers can offer Kittle a guaranteed base annual salary or signing bonus before using a percentage-of-the-cap scale on top of that to pay him commensurate to cap increases in future years, when the NFL’s revenue outlook should be rosier," Lombardi wrote. "That's just an idea. But since this is uncharted territory, creative contract structures cannot be ruled out -- especially if they help break a potentially problematic impasse."

Creativity aside, if an agreement can't be reached on a contract extension, the 49ers would still have the ability to apply the franchise tag to Kittle -- which would pay him the average of the top five tight-end salaries -- for the 2021 and 2022 seasons. That option obviously wouldn't provide Kittle with the long-term security he likely desires, but there's ample motivation on both sides to get a deal done for San Francisco's most indispensable offensive player.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]