With all the quarterback drama swirling around the San Francisco 49ers, other important parts of the team have seemingly flown under the radar. One of those significant pieces is tight end George Kittle. What’s being called a Grade 2 groin strain looks like it will keep Kittle sidelined for the team’s season opener against the Bears in Chicago on Sunday afternoon.
Kittle is a three-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro. He’s been viewed as a top-three TE in the NFL over the past few years. At his best, the 49ers know they can count on 80-plus receptions and over 1,000 yards receiving. Kittle’s known and loved for his physical style, but with this latest injury, you have to wonder if all the pounding is starting to catch up with him.
Last season Kittle dealt with two leg injuries during the season and missed three games. In 2020, George played in only eight games in an injury-plagued year for the Niners. As potent as this offense can be with Kyle Shanahan at the helm, they’re even more dominant with Kittle on the field.
Now they’re handing things over to Trey Lance, who hasn’t played much football over the past couple of years. Lance’s upside is through the roof, but he’s unproven on the pro level. He was barely proven on the college level. Not having a security blanket like Kittle could be detrimental to the start of the Lance era in the Bay Area.
A QB’s best friend is often their TE, and that’s especially true for young players. There will be times this season when Lance misses a read and will need to check down to his TE. If this groin injury keeps Kittle out of the first couple of games of the year, that’ll be a major factor in how this Niners’ offense fairs early on.
Of course, Lance will have Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk on the outside, but when plays break down, and they aren’t open, Kittle will be that fallback, so to speak. That’s in addition to plays that will be explicitly run to get Kittle the ball. Anytime a young QB is without one of his main targets, that usually impacts the team greatly.
During the offseason, there was much talk about Samuel and his extension and why he wanted it now. Shanahan/McDaniel used Deebo as a WR/RB last season. Samuel recorded more rushing touchdowns (eight) than he did receiving (six) in 2021. Part of Samuel’s issue following last season was allegedly the number of carries added to his receiving load. So, he wanted to be paid accordingly, and no one should be mad at that.
It was initially reported that Samuel no longer wanted to carry the ball out of the backfield. Deebo later cleared that up, saying he’d do whatever it takes to help the team win. Even if he is willing to continue playing “wide back,” it’s possible the Niners could decide to cut back his carries. If that should happen, it’s just one more dynamic aspect of the offense that’ll be taken away from Lance.
The Niners are among the few well-rounded, balanced teams built to win now. Despite Lance’s lack of experience, San Francisco has the top-to-bottom talent to challenge for the NFC crown.
But if Kittle misses significant time, that could hinder any plans the 49ers have on rolling through the conference. The Niners start the season with Chicago and Seattle, so a 2-0 start isn’t out of the realm of possibility. But from there, the schedule gets a little tougher with tilts against the Broncos and Rams in Weeks 3 and 4, respectively.
Like most of the NFL world, I’m waiting to see how much Lance has improved from the limited time he saw last season. Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to play too long without one of the best TEs in the league to bail him out of tricky situations.