No matter how much tape you watch or how many interviews you conduct to prepare for the NFL draft, sometimes star players just slide into the later rounds because teams, scouts and analysts missed what makes them truly special.
Tom Brady, who was drafted with the No. 199 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, is the most obvious example. But the NFL is littered with star players who were selected on Day 3 of the draft. 49ers tight end George Kittle has gone from a fifth-round draft pick in 2017 to All-Pro tight end in three shorts seasons in Santa Clara. He set the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end in 2018 and now is seen as the best tight end in the game along with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
So, how did the 49ers land a generational tight end in the fifth round? Why did teams pass on Kittle over and over again when the need for a dynamic tight end who can make plays in the passing game and be a dominant blocker is paramount in today's NFL?
Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner took a look at a few recent Day 3 picks who became stars to try and examine what scouts missed and why the picks became the stars they did. Kittle was among four fifth-round picks Renner examined, including Shaq Mason, Grady Jarrett and Stefon Diggs.
First, Renner looked at why the pick slid to Day 3 in the first place. For Kittle, that was a no-brainer. He simply wasn't productive enough at Iowa to warrant a high pick, as he tallied just 43 catches during his entire college career. Kittle has always understood this and doesn't hold a grudge against the teams that passed on him.
"No, hey guys like looking at stats," Kittle told FOX Sports' Jay Glazer. "I did not have a lot of production in college. I was hurt a lot in college. I think a lot of teams saw me as a risk and I understand that. But I was just more excited I had an opportunity to play in the NFL."
So, what did the scouts miss? The thing that stands out every Sunday when Kittle is running over, around and through defenders.
"Athleticism matters at tight end," Renner writes. "To produce like a wide receiver in the NFL, you have to move like one. Kittle’s 4.52 40, 7.00 3-cone, and 11-foot broad jump were all exceptional numbers for the position. The tight ends who have the juice to get open down the field are the true needle movers at the position."
[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]
Kittle has blossomed in San Francisco and is primed to get a lucrative contract extension that is well deserved.
Not only is the Iowa product the 49ers' top pass-catching option who is almost impossible to tackle, but he's also one of the best run-blockers in the game and relishes dominating opponents at the point of attack.
Now, did the 49ers know their fifth-round tight end was going to be, well, George Kittle? Of course not, or else they wouldn't have passed on him earlier in the draft.
But that's the beauty of the NFL draft, sometimes all it takes is finding a prospect with one elite skill and letting them become a star.
It's not often you get the second-best player in the class in Round 5, but the 49ers hit the lottery with Kittle. Now, they just have to make sure they can keep him in the Bay for a long time.