Despite flirtations -- they were in the mix to sign Austin Hooper before he landed with the Cleveland Browns in 2020 -- the Niners never invested in anything more than low-cost free agents or late-round picks at the position.
Since Kittle entered the league in 2017, the Niners' list of other tight ends reads like a who's who of who's that? Among the 11 other tight ends to play offensive snaps for the Niners in that span are Logan Paulsen, Daniel Helm, Levine Toilolo and two Coles (Wick and Hikutini).
Those 11 tight ends have played a combined 3,411 snaps in 220 games, an average of 15.5 offensive snaps per game. The non-Kittle tight ends have posted 1,333 receiving yards on 111 receptions with 15 touchdowns.
Kittle, meanwhile, has played 4,264 offensive snaps in 82 games, an average of 52 per contest. He's racked up 5,254 receiving yards on 395 catches with 31 touchdowns. Suffice to say, the idea of giving Kittle a bit of a breather has been easier said than done.
"It's not that we want to take plays off of George, because he's one of the best players in the league and you want to have him out there, especially in critical moments," tight ends coach Brian Fleury said. "But we also want to have the ability to function at a high level in the event that he potentially breaks a chin strap and has to come out for a few plays."
To that end, the 49ers finally put a little more action behind words in April's NFL draft, selecting Alabama tight end Cameron Latu in the third round (No. 101 overall) and Oklahoma tight end Brayden Willis in the seventh (No. 247 overall). The goal is not to take Kittle off the field too much but to pick their spots where he might be able to find extra rest and have reliable options who are versatile enough to do anything if Kittle is unavailable.
Therein lies the Kittle conundrum. His hard-charging style would seem to lend itself to injury (he's missed 16 games because of injury in five seasons but only played fewer than 14 games once), but it's also the thing that has made him one of the most productive tight ends in league history through his first six seasons.
"It's just the reality of the game we play and the style with which he plays it," Fleury said.
The quandary is that Kittle is equally effective as a pass-catcher and a blocker, which keeps defenses guessing when he's on the field. Finding tight ends who aren't specialists who might tip off the defense about what's coming is easier said than done.
"It's the luxury that we have that with George on the field," Fleury said. "We're not predictable in terms of how we're using the tight end. A lot of other teams don't have that luxury. And it's something that if we don't have George on the field, we do have to be aware of is, 'Are we creating tendencies with one tight end versus another?' And so it's up to us to offset those things. It's challenging and it's something that we're aware of."
In 2022, Kittle had 60 catches for 765 yards but set a career high with 11 touchdown catches in 15 games. Kittle was particularly effective finding the end zone after Brock Purdy took over at quarterback, catching seven touchdown passes in the final four weeks.
Perhaps more important, Kittle says he finished the season healthier than he has in years. With no nagging ankle, hamstring or other injuries to worry about, Kittle has been able to attack his offseason in a way that's allowed him to work on improving rather than rehabbing. Kittle points to getting in and out of breaks on his routes quicker and improving his catch radius as a couple points of emphasis.
"It's just allowed me to work the way that I wanted to work earlier in the offseason," Kittle said. "I was actually just able to get a good foundation in ... Being able to get out on the field, run good routes, catch the ball and not to miss stuff, just it's way more fun to be on the football field than on the side watching."
That hasn't stopped Kittle from keeping an eye on the Niners' newest additions at tight end. Kittle is one of the founders of "Tight End University," a now-annual gathering of NFL tight ends to work out together and swap tips on how to play the position. Both Niners rookies are invited and have quickly attached themselves to Kittle, peppering him with questions and eagerly watching when he's taking reps in practice.
Perhaps that should be no surprise, given that Latu and Willis cited Kittle as one of the players they try to emulate on the field.
"We watched a lot of George Kittle," Willis said. "He does so many things that we do as an offense, like the same schemes that we do in terms of gap, zone, outside zone, inside zone, counters, all types of stuff. ... He's a willing blocker, great pass-catcher, a great athlete, a guy that can do it all. We view him as a chess piece, a guy that can move around, a guy that can do a lot of things and make the other team pay and that's how I view myself as well. I'm excited to get to learn from him. He's one of the best in the business and I can't think of a greater mentor for me and my play style."
Latu and Willis will have to earn their opportunities. Both arrive with reputations as willing blockers but need more polish in the passing game. And they'll still have competition from the likes of veterans Charlie Woerner and Ross Dwelley to make the roster. Whoever does make it will work behind Kittle and the Niners will find other ways, such as not assigning him certain blocks or giving him breaks during in-season practices, to keep Kittle fresh.
"When you're looking on how to supplement the rest of the room, you're just looking for a combination of all those skills among whoever is behind George," Fleury said. "It's up to us to manage who's in the game at what point. So if George is not, to make sure that we can get the most out of it."