The San Francisco 49ers may be the biggest surprise in the NFL this season. It was apparent to many that they would be vastly improved over last year just by nature of getting Jimmy Garoppolo back from injury. But this good? They are one of only two teams still undefeated, their defense is the best the bay area has had in a long time, and Kyle Shanahan looks like a play-calling mastermind. In a division with the reigning NFC champions and a Seattle Seahawks team with Super Bowl aspirations, the 49ers have legitimately looked like the kings of the NFC West.
Offensively for the 49ers, there are no qualms about who the best player on the field is: George Kittle. Kittle was a shining beacon of hope last year for San Francisco in what was otherwise an underwhelming and disappointing season. His 1,377 receiving yards were good enough for eighth-best in the league and 1st among tight ends. The expectations for Kittle coming into 2019 were sky high with Garoppolo now healthy and under center. Through five games, he has not disappointed.
According to PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), Kittle has been the most impactful player in Shanahan’s offense through five games, and he boasts the ninth-best OSM in the entire league (42.06). In San Francisco’s five contests thus far, Kittle has led the 49ers in OSM three times. That includes Week 6, in which he recorded his best OSM by far this season (51.50).
Against the Los Angeles Rams, Kittle led the team in targets (8), receptions (8), and receiving yards (103). But beyond the box score, he expanded on an area in which he has excelled in all season: Blocking.
With PFN’s Offensive Share Metric, players aren’t just judged based on their statistical performance, but rather how they impact the team overall. Blocking is one area for skill positions that is often widely overlooked but is incredibly crucial to team success. Apart from being a run after catch monster and a savvy route runner, Kittle is also one of the premier blocking tight ends in the league.
Shanahan loves to run the football and find creative ways to hand the ball off. Having a TE who can serve as almost a sixth offensive lineman gives the offense such an advantage to dictate what they want to do.
Kittle’s Week 6 performance wasn’t just good for second overall in terms of OSM (behind only Austin Hooper); it was the fifth-best performance this season. Obviously, the storyline for this team is going to be both the development of Garoppolo and the continued dominance of this defense. But when this team is at their best, they are a running football team, and Garoppolo is playing efficient football. Kittle plays a significant role in delivering on both of those fronts.
The 49ers play the Washington Redskins this week and despite battling a groin injury, Kittle is primed for another big day. With Kittle playing the way he has so far this season, it will be tough for Washington and the rest of the league, for that matter, to stop this 49ers offense.
Ethan Knipfer is a writer for PFN covering the NFC West. You can find him @Ethan_Knipfer on Twitter.