SANTA CLARA – The 49ers are in a position to improve down the stretch of the season, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said.
Collinsworth was at the 49ers’ practice facility on Friday in advance of the team’s first appearance on Sunday Night Football on NBC since October 2015. The 49ers and Green Bay Packers meet at Levi’s Stadium in what is likely to be a key game for playoff seeding in the NFC.
“The versatility of this group when they get healthy and they all get back together and (Jimmy) Garoppolo continues (to improve) and they finally get their tackles back on the field, you can see this team making a great run at the end of the season,” Collinsworth said on The 49ers Insider Podcast.
The 49ers are 9-1 and hold a one-game lead for the top spot in the NFC West and also in the conference standings. Seattle, Green Bay and New Orleans are all 8-2. But the 49ers are not the only team Collinsworth believes will continue to make improvements.
“The warning would be that the Green Bay Packers are kind of like that, too,” he said. “They’re growing into this offense as well, and they are healthier than the 49ers are at this point in the season, so it’s going to be a great matchup.”
The 49ers could be bolstered on Sunday by the return of tight end George Kittle, who has missed two games with left knee and ankle injuries. Kittle is an important part of the 49ers’ offense as a pass-catcher and a blocker in the run game.
Collinsworth believes there is no question Kittle is the best tight end in the league and he compares him to former New England tight end Rob Gronkowski for his ability to impact a game on many different levels.
“It’s almost insulting to your intelligence to talk about anybody else being the best tight end in football,” Collinsworth said. “There are better receivers out there at the tight end position, but you put the combination of what he does after the catch with what he does blocking in this offense, and how significant blocking is to this offense, I just don’t think you can compare.
“I think you have to go to a Gronkowski or somebody like that to get that kind of complete player.”
The 49ers have relied on the passing game in recent weeks as the running game has struggled. Garoppolo is coming off a game in which he threw for 424 yards and four touchdowns in a 36-26 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Collinsworth sees a player whose best football is ahead of him.
“He’s just coming back off a knee injury, which usually we don’t even talk about how anybody’s going to play until Year 2,” Collinsworth said. “Well, now in Year 1, you’re seeing him get a little bit better as the season goes along. And, clearly, two of the last three games, he’s had to carry the load.”