The NFL will have to adapt to life without Rob Gronkowski in 2019, but that adjustment may be made easier by the presence of a player seemingly positioned to replace him as the gold standard at tight end.
Plenty of similarities can be drawn between Gronkowski and 49ers star George Kittle. At his peak, Gronkowski was a freak athlete who served as a mismatch against linebackers and safeties. Kittle’s athleticism is comparable to that of Gronkowski, with whom he also shares an exuberant, fun-loving personality.
Entering only his third year in the NFL, Kittle is still some way off matching the achievements of Gronkowski, who is a lock to enter the Hall of Fame, possibly as a first-ballot inductee. However, Kittle already has a jersey in Canton after a historic second season.
In the dying embers of a 49ers season derailed by injuries, with the light fading at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Kittle sent the San Francisco sideline into raptures with a 43-yard touchdown against the Rams that would on another day have been nothing more than a footnote in a largely meaningless Week 17 contest.
That score saw Kittle break the record for most receiving yards in a single season by a tight end. It took him to 1,377 yards, surpassing Travis Kelce (1,336), who had broken Gronkowski’s previous record mark of 1,327 earlier on the same day, with the achievement made all the more impressive by the fact Kittle played with three quarterbacks in 2018.
“It wasn’t a goal of mine, it wasn’t an expectation,” Kittle told Omnisport of the record. “I don’t really set too many individual goals, all my goals are kind of team-oriented. I just want to win as many games as possible, I just want the team to do well. I could have zero catches, and if we win I’d still be happy.
“I think I had a really good offseason, it put me in a position to have a good year. I kind of clicked with Jimmy [Garoppolo] and then when Jimmy got hurt, obviously when CJ [Beathard] came in, he’s my college quarterback. And then Nick Mullens, he just stepped up and it really felt like I didn’t miss a step with him.
“He’s just a football player, that’s why it clicked so well. The fact that I had three quarterbacks and Coach [Kyle] Shanahan at the steering wheel directing us – it just made it pretty easy. We’re just going out there playing catch and having fun with it.”
Describing his campaign as “playing catch” does not do justice to an incredible season in which he proved a nightmare for opposing defenses with his athletic talent and his abilities with the ball in his hands.
However, Kittle knows there is plenty he can do to improve, possessing a work ethic akin to that of Gronkowski, for whom a commitment that likely shortened his career was overshadowed by the veneer of his off-field personality.
Asked if he can improve on his record-breaking year, Kittle replied: “You can always get better, no matter what year you have. I broke that record but I only had five touchdowns so I’ve got to get better in the red zone. I had more drops than I wanted to, that’s something I have to work on.
“You can always improve in the run game, no matter what, nobody’s ever perfect at that and that’s something I take a lot of pride in. You always get better, those are things I’ve always looked at trying to improve on. I’ve been focusing on that this offseason whether it was strength gaining for the run game or just catching as many passes as I possibly can, those are things I’ve been focusing on and I feel like my game’s definitely stepped up a little bit.”
Kittle’s work as a run blocker was clear for all to see in 2018. When he wasn’t catching passes and slicing through defenses, he was aiding a vastly improved 49ers ground attack by driving defenders down the field and often into the turf.
As much as run blocking has partially defined the start of Kittle’s pro career, so it did the end of Gronkowski’s. Shorn of most of his dominant physical traits due to the wear and tear of his outstanding career, the primary way in which Gronkowski influenced the Patriots’ Super Bowl 53triumph was as a dominant run blocker.
However, Gronkowski also made key contributions as a receiver, including a diving catch to set up the only touchdown in New England’s Super Bowl win over the Rams, who will again be the team to beat for the 49ers in the NFC West next season.
San Francisco won four regular-season games to the Rams’ 13 last season and the Niners have lost three of their last four to Los Angeles. Yet, with Garoppolo poised to return from the torn ACL in Week 3 that wrecked the 49ers’ hopes last year, Kittle has no concerns about their ability to compete with the team that present the biggest barrier to him adding team success to his individual accomplishments.
“I’m not going to lie, when we have Coach Shanahan calling plays, I’m pretty confident every single game that we go into,” Kittle said. “I’m not worried at all.
“I’m just really looking forward to playing the Rams twice a year, that’s going to be fun. They’ve added some big pieces to their Super Bowl team, and I’m just looking forward to competing against them because it’ll show what we’re really made of.”