SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As the NFL's third-most productive tight end and a player on the verge of a full-fledged breakout season, the profile of the San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle has been on the rise through the first month of the season.
To Kittle, nowhere has that been more evident than in the massive increase in correspondence he has received from the fantasy football community via social media. Most offer encouragement, wishing him good luck or congratulating him on a job well-done. Occasionally, he gets someone who tells him not to let them down.
Messages of that kind aren't limited just to fantasy football, either. Before last week's game against the Los Angeles Chargers, a fan sent Kittle a photo of a betting ticket. The fan had bet 70 euros that both Kittle and 49ers rookie receiver Dante Pettis would score a touchdown in the game. Included with the photo was this simple message: "Don't disappoint me."
Kittle promptly posted six catches for a career-high 125 yards, the most receiving yards by a Niners tight end since Vernon Davis in 2013. And yes, those totals included an 82-yard touchdown that was the second-longest score by an NFL tight end in the past 12 years. Pettis suffered a knee injury two minutes into the game and did not return.
"I was like 'Well, I did my job; go talk to Dante,'" Kittle said, laughing. "That gave me a good laugh. I really enjoyed that. He had both of us, so he lost; so that's Dante, not me. I'll give him crap for that. I didn't let him down."
Indeed, four games into Kittle's second NFL season, he has been anything but a letdown. Finally healthy after a rookie season in which he dealt with a high ankle sprain, as well as calf, hip, chest, elbow, back and hamstring ailments, Kittle has spent the first month of the 2018 campaign establishing himself as the go-to target in the Niners' passing game.
As it stands, Kittle is Pro Football Focus' highest graded tight end. Kittle's 316 receiving yards are the third most in the league (trailing Jared Cook and Zach Ertz) and the most by a 49ers tight end since 2001; and that total ranks 20th among all tight ends through the first four weeks of a season since the ESPN Stats & Information database tracking began in 2001.
To Kittle and the Niners, his early surge has come as no surprise. While the 49ers didn't draft Kittle until the fifth round in 2017 and he didn't post big receiving numbers during his time at Iowa (48 receptions for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns in four years), coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch saw on tape a player capable of becoming a key component of their aerial attack.
Kittle bolstered that belief with strong workout numbers that included the third-fastest 40-yard dash (4.52 seconds) and the third-best long jump (11 feet) among tight ends in his draft class.
"You had to watch body movement, the routes that he did get at Iowa; you had to watch how he ran at the combine," Shanahan said. "Then you look at his 40 time and how fast he is. I was very, very surprised when we drafted him that people said we were drafting a blocking tight end. He is very good at blocking, but we didn't see him at all that way. I guess it's because people looked at his lack of numbers and stats."
Shanahan now jokes that Kittle's numbers suffered at Iowa because he played with a quarterback who couldn't get him the ball. That same quarterback, C.J. Beathard, is now starting under center for the Niners.
If last week was any indication, the Beathard-Kittle connection is just fine. Kittle caught six of eight targets from Beathard against the Chargers. One of those misses was Beathard just throwing the ball away in the end zone and could have been credited as a target for someone else. Kittle's career day was a particularly promising sign, considering that much of his career production to that point had come with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.
Before last week's game, Kittle had played most of eight games with Garoppolo at quarterback and about 10 total games with the combination of Beathard and Brian Hoyer as the signal-callers. In the time with Garoppolo, Kittle had accumulated 59 percent of his career receiving yards and was averaging almost 5 yards more per catch.
Against the Chargers, Beathard leaned on his longtime friend and teammate, and the two wasted little time getting on the same page, an encouraging sign that Kittle can continue to produce. Although some of that can be attributed to Beathard's increased comfort in Year 2, the same is true of Kittle.
Aside from the injuries, Kittle said his rookie season was difficult because he felt like his head was swimming as he attempted to grasp Shanahan's offense. Now, he has a firm understanding of the playbook, and instead of wondering what his job is from play to play, he can focus on identifying the things that will make his job easier.
"When C.J. calls a play, instead of me saying I have this, this and this, it's, all right, I have this route, I have to line up here," Kittle said. "I got those; now I can look at the coverage. I can look at the 'Sam' and the strong safety. I can see pressure. I can see if safeties and corners are stacked. You can just see way more. Then you don't have to think about it. You're like, all right, now I need to take an inside release to help out the guy outside of me. It's like a pick thing; you just see that stuff. It makes it a whole bunch easier."
As Kittle crossed the goal line for the longest touchdown he can remember scoring, he put his hand behind his head and reached the ball out in a way that brought flashbacks of former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
"Honestly, I don't remember doing that," Kittle said. "I black out from extreme excitement sometimes."
If Kittle can keep doing what he has done through the first four weeks, he'll have little trouble remembering the year he stepped into the upper echelon of NFL tight ends.