Last November, I did a similar “Going Deep” piece on George Kittle, except the headline read: “The Best Tight End in Football?” I’ve decided to make a slight change.
The question mark is gone this time.
You can view the original article here. It was regarded as a hot take by some at the time, with my suggestion that Kittle was the best at his position. He wasn’t a household name the way Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, and Zach Ertz were at the time – the “big three,” if you will – with Greg Olsen not far behind. Couple that with the fact other young talents like Evan Engram and O.J. Howard had far more hype behind them entering 2018, even extending towards the midway point of the season. When I wrote the article, the 49ers were coming out of their Week 10 bye, and not all fantasy owners were ready to believe that Kittle’s run of production with second and third-string quarterbacks C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens could possibly be sustained with Jimmy Garoppolo out for the year after Week 3 last year. What skeptics may have missed, however, was the role Kittle played in HC Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, and how the offense had come to revolve around him as the centerpiece and playmaker. It didn’t matter who was throwing him the ball, so long as he was the focal point of the offense.
Over the final six games of 2018, Kittle would average 6.3 catches for 100 yards per game. Mixed in were two games in which he went absolutely nuclear (7-210, 1 TD vs Denver in Week 13 and 9-149, 1 TD vs Los Angeles Rams in Week 16), likely single-handedly winning his owners’ playoffs matchups with those performances.
To put it all into perspective, Kittle broke the NFL record for most receiving yards in a season for a tight end. His 210 yard game against Denver was four yards shy of breaking Shannon Sharpe’s record for most yards by a tight end in a single game, set in 2002.
George Kittle finished 2018 with 1,377 yards on 88 receptions (15.6 Y/R) and five TDs. The yards were good for 8th best in football, ahead of Kelce, Ertz, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., and Keenan Allen. The 15.6 yards per reception was good for 13th best in the NFL, a better average than Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Brandin Cooks, Beckham Jr, Ertz, Kelce, and A.J. Green.
Much like last time, let’s get a wider view of how Kittle compares to his tight end counterparts :
*all stats from NFL.com.
As the table above illustrates, conventional stats provide only some clarity. Ertz was by far the most targetted, while Kelce scored the most TDs. Howard had the best average yards per reception, but that comes with the caveat that his season was cut short by injury and his Yds/G average could have gone down with more opportunities. While Kittle held his own in these statistical categories when I did the first “Going Deep” piece on him last November, he did not lead all his peers in any at the time. By season’s end, however, he emerged as the statistical leader in total yards and yards per game, and very well may have led his peers in average yards per reception had Howard continued to play with the likes of Jameis Winston continuing to throw him the ball. Ultimately, Kittle was still the only player to lead the pack in two or more of those categories despite the fact he had Beathard and Mullens as his QB.
However, it can be argued that traditional stats do not make a complete picture of a player’s true value, and a look under the hood actually reveals how efficient and dynamic a player Kittle truly is. After all, a lot of context needs to be applied to the statistical output of many of these players.
So, let’s take a look under that hood…
If you still are not familiar with SPARQ, it’s a metric developed by Nike to measure a player’s athletic ability. SPARQ is essentially an acronym for speed, power, agility, reaction, and quickness. A football player’s SPARQ score is measured through four basic combine tests – the 40-yard dash, short shuttle, bench press (or kneeling power ball toss) and vertical jump. The player’s score is then adjusted for his weight. While Nike ultimately removed their SPARQ calculator from public access, Zach Whitman of Three Sigma Athlete re-engineered Nike’s calculation formula and created a comparable pSPARQ scoring metric. Whitman also expanded the areas measured to include additional tests from the NFL Combine like the ten-yard split and 3-cone drill, which measure short-area quickness. Whitman then took the test forward another step by normalizing by position, so players’ ratings would be weighted based on tests most relevant to each position, and players would then be graded against their peers.
An average NFL skill position player typically checks in at a 110 pSPARQ. The better athletes post a score of 120, and the truly good ones average 130. The elite athletes produce a 140 score. The 150+ range is reserved for freaks of nature (think Calvin Johnson).
George Kittle produced a pSPARQ score of 143.0, the highest SPARQ score of the 2017 TE draft class (higher than David Njoku, Evan Engram, and O.J. Howard). Rob Gronkowski’s back woes sapped what made him so special, but his combine scores revealed he posted a pSPARQ score of 120.9. Coming out of college in 2013, Travis Kelce earned a pSPARQ score of 128.5. Zach Ertz posted a SPARQ score of 113.8, making him an underrated athlete for his position but nowhere near the elite athleticism that Kittle possesses. In fact, Kittle’s athleticism is in a league of its own even when compared to the best the tight end position has had to offer for virtually the last decade.
“Yards after the catch” is a stat that measures how dangerous a football player is with the ball in his hands. A recent PFF article by Ben Cooper mentioned that only two tight ends have ever managed to finish a regular season with 535+ yards after the catch since 2006 – Kelce and Gronkowski. That in itself isn’t surprising. What may have been surprising is that George Kittle joined that list last year, and he did it in just 10 games.
Kelce’s 652 YAC was produced on 85 receptions in 2016. Kittle torpedoed that number in 2018 with 870 YAC. That number didn’t just lead all tight ends – it led the entire NFL and it serves as a PFF record. Part of that success was due to excellent game planning by HC Kyle Shanahan who brilliantly schemed Kittle, his best playmaker, open as much as possible. But that shouldn’t take away just how lethal Kittle was with the ball in his hands once he generated a full head of steam.
Kind of like this:
… and this…
… and, while we’re at it, this, too:
As Cooper relays: “Among the 88 tight ends since 2006 with 90 or more receptions in that span, Kittle is the current leader in percentage of receiving yards that have come from yards after the catch (62 percent). And it’s important not to understate that stat because it shows an ability to produce when you don’t have a Brady-esque quarterback throwing to you (only 40.1 percent of Gronkowski’s yards have come after the catch).”
However, Cooper’s most salient point at the time may have been this revelation right here:
“Kittle is currently out-producing top pass-catching running backs in yards after the catch per reception, namely Todd Gurley (10.6), Saquon Barkley (9.5), Christian McCaffrey (8.4) and Alvin Kamara (7.8). Kittle has had 10 or more yards after the catch on 19 receptions, third-most among all players. Barkley and New England Patriots running back James White are the only others with more, and the next closest tight end is Kelce with 10.”
So Kittle wasn’t just outproducing his position – he was outproducing the most dynamic, elite running backs in football. To assume this is the result of creative playcalling would do Kittle’s equally elite athleticism a disservice.
Football Outsiders uses innovative stats to apply value to a player’s performance on individual plays. One of their signature metrics, DYAR stands for Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. According to FO, “this gives the value of the performance on plays where this TE caught the ball, compared to a replacement-level TE in the same game situations and then translated into yardage.” Let’s see how Kittle compared to his peers in 2018:
YAR measures the same thing DYAR does, but it’s not adjusted based on opponent. Whether the opponent is taken into consideration or not, George Kittle clearly stands at the front of the line as arguably the most valuable tight end when it comes to catching a ball and turning it into yardage. Only Kelce compares. The manner in which Kittle’s success in this metric dwarfs that of Howard, Ertz, and Engram is rather staggering. It’s easy to dismiss Engram’s struggles as a byproduct of Eli Manning’s shortcomings, but it bears worth mentioning once more that Kittle had been catching passes from a middling second-year pro (Beathard) with a QBR of 39.7 and Mullens, a UDFA signal-caller who threw his first NFL pass at midseason.
Catch rate is something that needs to be considered in context given how a tight end can’t control how the ball is thrown to him. For the sake of simplicity, establishing a catch rate that only takes into account the percentage of passes completed by a receiver, we can extract some sense of value, albeit in a vacuum since quarterback play, both efficient and poor, play a huge role in how many balls can be reasonably labeled as “catchable.”
Here’s an example of Kittle’s stellar ball skills:
All that being said, among the tight ends with elite skillsets, Kittle’s catch rate (65%) was exceeded by Kelce (69%), Engram (70%), Olsen and Howard (both 71%), and finally Ertz (74%). However, it should be noted again that Kelce was being targetted by a phenom in Patrick Mahomes and Engram had a Super Bowl veteran in Eli Manning. Ertz was catching passes from one of the league’s best young quarterbacks in Carson Wentz, while Olsen has years of chemistry with Cam Newton. Even Howard had the added luxury of seeing favorable coverage with WRs Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and Chris Godwin commanding attention outside. Kittle is the 49ers’ number one option in the passing game, and he was catching passes from two guys who combined for just 21 TDs to go along with 17 INTs last year. Even Manning, for all his faults, tossed the same amount of TDs with only 11 INTs. All of this makes Kittle’s still solid 65% catch rate that much more impressive.
George Kittle finished 2018 as PFF’s highest-graded tight end (89.8). Kittle is not only a complete tight end – he may be one of the most complete players in all of football. In addition to his offensive prowess, Kittle was the fifth-highest graded run blocker in the NFL last season at tight end. Lastly, Kittle ranked third (2.82) in the NFL in PFF’s Yards Per Route Run behind Miami receiver Albert Wilson (3.03) and Julio Jones (2.93); he was the only tight end in the top 10. There’s nothing this guy can’t do, and it’s only his third year in the league. It’s tantalizing to think what Kittle could be given a full season playing with an ascending quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo. Regardless of your feelings on Garoppolo, there’s no denying that he’s a significant upgrade over the likes of Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard.
If you’re still not convinced, I’ll leave you with this stat to chew on for a moment:
There is enough data to argue that Kittle may already be the best tight end in football. Whether you agree or not, what should be certain to all is that the 49ers have a blue-chip playmaker at a position where there aren’t that many.
(Photo by Stephen Hopson/Icon Sportswire)