George Kittle an emerging star regardless of who is at quarterback

With four games left to play, George Kittle is on pace to put up the best statistical season by a tight end in 49ers history. Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Far from a fashionista, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle isn't much into using clothes to make a statement. Given his druthers, Kittle would arrive to and leave every game in a pair of sweatpants and a cutoff sweatshirt.

To this point in a career that's a season and three-quarters deep, Kittle hasn't gone that far. Yet.

Instead, Kittle uses his pregame outfits as a way to get himself in the right frame of mind. An unabashed fan of professional wrestling -- he has a Stone Cold Steve Austin action figure prominently displayed in his locker -- Kittle's idea of keeping up with fashion is changing which wrestling T-shirt he's going to wear from week to week.

"For me, it's always kind of a mindset," Kittle said. "Like, I wear the Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt, which he's just kind of like 'Screw everything, I'm going to do whatever I want to do and I'm going to win.' It just kind of gets me in the mindset for it."

Despite early season success in his basic jeans and a T-shirt look, Kittle said his fiancée began pushing him to have more style, suggesting other options like a button-up shirt with a nice pair of jeans and a bomber jacket. He tried it before the Week 2 game against Detroit but that seemed a little too far for Kittle, who recently began compromising by opting for something a little dressier while also seeking a theme.

For instance, on the day of the Week 12 loss in Tampa, he wore a button up Hawaiian shirt adorned with toucans.

"I won't wear a suit to every game because I sweat too much," Kittle said. "I really like to be able to wear just a pair of jeans and a nice T-shirt. That's fun for me."

In this, Kittle's breakout season as one of the league's best tight ends, his outfits bear a striking resemblance to his quarterbacks, which is to say that no matter what he wears or who is throwing him the ball, Kittle is getting the job done on the field.

Through 12 games, Kittle ranks third among tight ends in receptions (62) and receiving yards (893), first in yards after the catch (563) and yards after the catch per reception (9.08) and fourth in yards per catch (14.4). Among all pass-catchers, Kittle is 17th in receiving yards and fourth in yards after the catch, trailing only running backs Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and James White. He also has been the picture of consistency, posting at least 57 receiving yards in nine of 12 games and at least 70 yards in eight of those 12 contests.

With four games left, Kittle is on pace to put up the best statistical season by a tight end in 49ers history. If Kittle can muster 73 receiving yards Sunday against the Denver Broncos, he will pass Vernon Davis' 965 receiving yards as the most by a Niners tight end. If Kittle can post 107 receiving yards, he'll become the first 49ers tight end to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season.

Although Kittle entered the year far from a household name after entering the league as a fifth-round pick in 2017, those paying attention were already aware of what could be coming, especially considering Kittle was supposed to get a full season with starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo and Kittle had quick and easy chemistry at the end of last season, opening eyes to the potential of the pairing.

But Garoppolo suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Week 3, turning the reins over to C.J. Beathard, Kittle's close friend and teammate dating to college at Iowa. Beathard handled the job for the next five games before a wrist injury forced Nick Mullens into action for the past four contests.

Regardless of who has been under center, Kittle has continued to produce.

"Obviously, it hasn't mattered what quarterback is in there," Mullens said. "He's been making plays since day one. You can credit him to that chemistry because it doesn't matter who is in there. He's going to catch it and step up and make plays.”

Indeed, Kittle has been unfazed by the game of musical quarterbacks the Niners have been forced to play this year. In three games with Garoppolo delivering the passes, Kittle averaged 63.7 receiving yards, four catches and 16 yards per reception. In five games with Beathard, Kittle averaged 78.6 yards, five catches and 15.8 yards per reception. In four games with Mullens, Kittle is averaging 77.3 yards, 6.3 catches and 12.2 yards per reception.

One might think the rotating quarterbacks would make life difficult for Kittle, but he says the only differences he sees are in the amount of touch each quarterback has on his throws, how that quarterback might read things and the individual preferences each signal-caller might have for throwing certain routes. Most of that can be refined in practice, though Kittle acknowledged that when a change is made it's fairly common to spend a little extra time after practice to run some extra routes.

The overriding takeaway: Kittle is becoming the star tight end the team envisioned when it drafted him last year. Although some nagging injuries have slowed him this year, they haven't accumulated as they did in 2017. And though Kittle still has some issues with the occasional drop, those have been reduced this season as well.

"Kittle has been very similar since the day he got here," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "His production has gone up and down to me based off of health, based off of situations, how good we're doing around him. But I think Kittle has been very good since he got here. He's gradually gotten better because he works the right way and I think that'll continue throughout his career."

No matter what he wears or who is throwing him the ball.