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Back in 2017, the 49ers drafted a freakishly athletic, but not exceedingly well-known blocking tight end from the University of Iowa, named George Kittle, in the fifth round with the 146th overall pick. Since then, Kittle has surpassed every possible expectation of him.
His 2,945 receiving yards through his first three seasons are the most for any tight end in NFL history, and he owns the single-season tight end record for receiving yards, with 1,377 in 2018. He has 12 receiving touchdowns in his career, with at least four touchdowns negated by penalties. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler, and two-time All-Pro, going from the second team to first team this offseason, when it was revealed his NFL colleagues voted him the seventh-best overall player on the NFL Top 100.
Sufficed to say, Kittle was well-deserving of a reported five-year, $75 million extension with $40 million guaranteed, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
Shortly after the deal was announced, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan joined the Murph and Mac show, first expressing his elation at getting a deal done when maybe the 49ers didn’t have to. With two years remaining on his rookie deal and the franchise tag at their disposal, San Francisco could have made it much more painful for Kittle, and themselves, if they wanted to pinch pennies.
“When you have a guy like George who is different and is special and it’s not about just being the best tight end in the NFL, it’s who he is after that,” Shanahan said. “That, to me, makes you want to go get this stuff done when you might not actually have to right now, especially for a guy like that. He’s earned it. He does everything the right way.”
He was asked about the team’s draft process in evaluating Kittle back in 2017, saying that they viewed Kittle as a third-round prospect who they expected to be off the board by the 146th overall pick.
Shanahan said most teams saw the upside in Kittle as an elite, physical blocker who ran a 4.51 with massive physical upside, but with just 22 total receptions in college. His body has also matured, Shanahan said.
“You got to take all that stuff into account, but we thought he was going to go into third round,” Shanahan said. “We really wanted to go that direction in the third round but we had some other needs that were pressing more at the time. And so we waited, and we thought he’d be gone, so we’re going to go a different direction on the fifth round.
“But the fact that he was still there and how high we were on him from me to [Jon] Embree, our tight end coach, to [John] Lynch and Adam Peters and everyone upstairs to Mike McDaniel from a run game standpoint, and then all our skill guys. I mean we all loved the guy and when he was sitting there in the fifth, even though we thought to go different directions, we couldn’t pass up on him because we saw him as a third-round prospect and we felt so lucky to get him in the fifth. Now I look back and, you know, he’s a top-10 prospect that we got in the fifth, so it was a hell of a deal.”
Shanahan recalled watching his father, Mike, go through hits and misses and steals in the draft like Terrell Davis (sixth round, 196th overall pick in 1995) with an understanding that drafts are an inexact endeavor.
“You watch everybody do it and then you go back and you watch those drafts three years later, you’re like, ‘Alright, people are really good at this, but it doesn’t matter who you are, damn, everybody is gonna miss on somebody and you see how inconsistent it is,” Shanahan said. “It’s high-risk gambling with educated guesses.”