49ers

How 49ers feed off George Kittle's unique mentality in running game

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USATSI

How 49ers feed off George Kittle's unique mentality in running game

SANTA CLARA -- Like a shark smelling blood, it takes George Kittle a few reps to get a sense of where to go, and once he does, he attacks his run blocking assignment with no holds barred. 

It wouldn’t be surprising to hear a playmaker who leads the team in receiving yards has gone up to his head coach asking for a play to go to him. Kittle is different. Once he gets a sense of if he can dominate a defender in the run game, that’s what he demands from his coach. 

“The run plays he suggests are kind of half-thoughts,” Shanahan said. “They are more to how he can hit someone. ‘Let me go get this guy’ and then I got to go figure out what run play allows him to do that. He knows his run spot and you got to think of how to tie that into all 11.” 

When asked how he determines who the victim is on the other side, Kittle was straight to the point.   

“The weak link,” Kittle told NBC Sports Bay Area. “I mean I’d much rather run against, if they are going to put backups in behind their All-Pro players then I’ll run at those guys all day. 

“That’s just always my mindset on it. If you attack the weakest link and they can’t hold up, then the whole defense falls apart. That’s just always been my philosophy with it.”

Sometimes, it’s a defensive end, and at other times it’s been a linebacker. As the game progresses Kittle finds the chink in the armor of the opposing team and zeroes in on it. 

“There are some teams where I think the backups play the run better than the some of their starters,” Kittle said. “If that guy's in, I’m not going to demand to go run against that guy. Just however it feels during the game. I don’t go into the game saying I’m going to go run at a guy. 

“My confidence is built throughout the week how I’m feeling against a certain guy, stuff like that. But until I get a couple reps against him, then I know if I can get him or not. And then once it hits that then I know. Then I demand the run hits.” 

Kittle’s enthusiasm as a blocker is admired not only by his coach but by his teammates. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo believes the pride he takes in that aspect of his game is infectious and everyone benefits.

“It’s so unique for a guy of his caliber in the pass game, and all the amazing things that he does, that he loves the run game just as much,” Garoppolo said. “I mean the O-line feeds off that, just everybody. It’s contagious. It’s fun to be around that.” 

Like Garoppolo, offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey, recognizes Kittle’s rare mentality as well as his talent in the run game. 

[RELATED: Jimmy G believes ACL tear was 'blessing in disguise']

“You don’t really see it with guys like him who have the status and play making ability that he does in the pass game and stuff,” McGlinchey said. “George is such a complete football player and he takes so much pride in getting his job done in the run game and that’s where our team’s foundation is and that’s what we love to do. 

“That’s what makes our team special. We have a guy who is our MVP, our best player, and the thing on his mind is the nitty-gritty stuff and making sure he is doing his part in the 11-man scheme of things to make our run game go. He’s a competitive ass dude and that’s why in that situation he gets it going.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday)

Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 6:30 p.m.

49ers roster analysis: Ascending linebackers should make group better in 2020

49ers roster analysis: Ascending linebackers should make group better in 2020

This is the seventh installment of a nine-part series that examines the 49ers’ roster coming out of the 2019 season, looks ahead to 2020 and outlines the offseason challenges facing general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan on a position-by-position basis.

Today, a look at the 49ers’ linebackers.

Under contract (signed through)

-Kwon Alexander (2022)
-Fred Warner (2021)
-Dre Greenlaw (2022)
-Mark Nzeocha (2021)
-Azeez Al-Shaair (2021)
-Joey Alfieri (2021)
-Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (2021)

The 49ers and Alexander agreed to a contract restructure in November that saves the team more than $8 million in cap space for the 2020 season. His salary is set to leap to $12.55 million in 2021. Three voidable years were added to his contract. He is still scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the 2022 season.

Expiring contracts

-Elijah Lee (RFA)

Lee was among the 49ers’ final cuts and was signed to the practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster for the final eight games of the regular season after Alexander went on injured reserve. Lee saw action in each of the 49ers’ three postseason games as a core special-teams contributor.

What needs to happen

The 49ers’ only real decision is with Lee, who is a restricted free agent. The lowest tender of $2.144 million is probably too much, but the 49ers can look to re-sign him to a minimum level contract.

But even with some uncertainty surrounding Lee, the 49ers appear set with their starters and backups. The 49ers certainly do not need to spend free-agent money to add a player. And they do not need to use one of their top draft picks to bring in a linebacker, either.

[RELATED: 49ers roster analysis: Work needed to keep up defensive line dominance]

Expectations

This position group is comprised of players who are all ascending. The unit was good in 2019. It should be better in 2020.

Warner was one of the breakout stars for the 49ers as a second-year player. He had an interception of Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl that looked, at the time, to be one of the big plays in that game. Warner believes he can make improvements in all areas, including the production of more game-changing types of plays.

Alexander sustained a torn pectoral in the middle of the season. Then, worked hard to get back for the playoffs. Although he settled back into the 49ers’ defense as a part-time player, Alexander still served an important role on the team due to his leadership and energy.

Greenlaw became an every-down player after Alexander’s injury and made one of the most memorable plays of the season when he stopped Seattle Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister just inches short of the goal line to preserve the 49ers’ Week 17 win to clinch the NFC West and home-field advantage in the playoffs. It will be difficult to keep Greenlaw off the field.

Al-Shaair, who defied the odds to win his roster spot last season as an undrafted rookie, and Nzeocha are solid backups and core special-teams players, too.

NFL free agency: A.J. Green would fit 49ers, but health risks are real

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USATSI

NFL free agency: A.J. Green would fit 49ers, but health risks are real

A.J. Green last played in an NFL game on Dec. 2, 2018. He injured his toe in that game, and underwent season-ending surgery shortly after.

Green then missed all of last season, as the Cincinnati Bengals' star receiver dealt with an ankle injury. And yet, he's one of the biggest names set to hit free agency next month.

So, should the 49ers take a run at signing the seven-time Pro Bowl pick? Talent-wise, yes. But it's not that simple.

Green, who turns 32 years old on July 31, has played in just nine games in the last two seasons. He has missed 29 games since 2016 and isn't getting any younger. But he's also one of the most talented receivers in the league when healthy.

The former No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft started his career with five straight seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards. He was well on pace to extending that streak in 2016 when he had 964 receiving yards in 10 games and then had 1,078 in 2017.

San Francisco simply doesn't have any receivers with Green's kind of pedigree. Deebo Samuel opened eyes as a rookie, and he is dangerous with the ball in his hands. The 49ers have to add talent around the young South Carolina product, though.

Green also is the kind of large target that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan hopes to give quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Samuel is listed at 5-foot-11 and 214 pounds. Green, however, is 6-4 and 210 pounds.

One NFL executive believes Green hopes to move on from the Bengals this offseason, too. 

"I think he wants out of Cincinnati," the exec told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. 

That, however, isn't in Bengals coach Zac Taylor's plans

"He's a guy that we're excited about to have part of this team, first and foremost. That’s what matters right now," Taylor said Thursday in his interview on the '"Bengals Beat Podcast." "As we go through the offseason, we'll figure out how it best fits. But right now, we expect him to be a part of the team. We want him to be a part of the team.

"He's certainly been a valuable member for the last couple years and done some great things. I'm excited to coach him, really for the first time this next season."

Green signed a four-year, $60 million contract with the Bengals in 2015. He will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time this offseason, and the veteran still could sign another hefty contract. The same executive told ESPN that "even 'B' receivers are getting $14 million to $15 million."

The 49ers currently have just under $17.9 million available in cap space this offseason, according to Spotrac. San Francisco also has its own contracts to take care of in free agent Arik Armstead, as well as extensions for George Kittle and DeForest Buckner. 

[RELATED: Why 49ers could add Gabriel to receiver mix this offseason]

One way or another, the 49ers should look to give Jimmy G more weapons this offseason. This year's NFL draft class is loaded with receivers, and the front office could make that their priority with their first pick. There's no doubt Green could be a great option in free agency, but it all comes down to health.

"As long as the foot checks out, he's still elite," an NFC personnel evaluator said to ESPN.

That's a big if, though. Green is one talented question mark.