SANTA CLARA -- George Kittle has stayed healthier this season and emerged as a game-changer for the 49ers’ offense. 

The tight end has been one of the bright spots in the 49ers’ difficult season. He fought through some injuries early in training camp, but he has gotten himself healthy, and his production has continued to rise in his second NFL season.

“His numbers are a lot better," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "He’s a lot healthier.

"He’s improved in that way in the fact that he got a lot of playing time last year. He got thrown into a ton of situations starting from the first game to the last game, battled through a bunch of injuries."

During the offseason, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch spoke about the need for Kittle to remain healthy. Thus far, Shanahan has liked what he has seen.

“I think he learned how hard it is to stay healthy throughout a year.” Shanahan said. “I think he’s taken better care of his body throughout this offseason, what he does day in and day out, how physical he plays throughout a game, what he does Monday through Saturday just to get his body back ready to play on Sunday.

"So, it’s been a complete credit to him, just how well he’s taken care of himself.”

When Kittle was asked how his workout program has changed, he explained that not having to train for the NFL Scouting Combine during the offseason was a big difference. 

 

“My workouts are targeted more toward building up all the smaller muscles,” Kittle said. “Just smaller things, explosive movements, just everything I thought would translate to the field instead of just mass and strength gaining.

"Not just a whole bunch of squats and bench press preparing for the combine. Just smaller things that translate, so that was what I had my strength coach do in Nashville, and he did a great job to help me out with it.” 

Kittle added that the most important change he has made during the season is getting more sleep. He regularly sleeps for at least 8 1/2 hours, which helps his body recover. Last season, he said he didn’t get nearly that much sleep. 

Kittle said he is eating healthier, but he still splurges on Mondays, when he and fellow teammate Adrian Colbert go to the local Panda Express after team meetings. 

All of these improvements have translated for Kittle on the field. He has the top overall grade for tight ends in the league through Week 7, according to Pro Football Focus: 

Overall Grade: 86.5 (1st)

Run-Blocking Grade: 74.9 (3rd among TEs with 50-plus run-blocking snaps)

Yards Per Route Run: 2.50 (2nd)

YAC/reception: 11.2 (1st)

This comes as no surprise to Shanahan and the 49ers' coaching staff, who had very high expectations of Kittle from the start. 

“I think we had a lot higher expectations for George going into last year than a lot of people realize.” Shanahan said. “I think he did, too, knowing how training camp went and OTAs and stuff. Then he started the year out getting so banged up, he wasn’t able to reach all of that stuff.

"He ended strong, but I think George learned through the first year, he knew he could play in the league." 

Kittle said he couldn't care less about the numbers, focusing more on the win column. That is one of the reasons he plays a very physical and angry game.

“I can play more angry because I know what I’m doing this year,” Kittle said. “I’m no longer just thinking what I have to do, so I have a little more freedom. That’s allowed me to just open up my play. 

Quarterback C.J. Beathard also has noticed his former Iowa teammate's production. 

“I think he’s just a good route runner,” Beathard said. “He’s talented, he’s athletic, so he can turn little plays into big ones. Obviously, we’ve had chemistry going back to college, so I can kind of read him and know what he’s doing pretty easily.

"But he’s just a really talented athlete and player, and he’s doing really well.”

Beathard isn’t the only one on the team who has noticed Kittle’s consistency and dedication. This week, Kittle was voted team captain by his peers.