In three seasons, George Kittle has gone from fifth-round draft pick to the best tight end in football. That's a big leap for a guy who wasn't highly touted coming out of Iowa.
Did the 49ers believe Kittle would be a good NFL player? Yes. Did they think he would stiff-arm and bulldoze his way to elite status in three seasons? Doubtful, or else they wouldn't have waited until the fifth round to draft him.
However, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters told 49ers.com that they had a third-round grade on Kittle heading into the draft, but believed he would be there later and took a chance by waiting to draft him.
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"I remember scouting George Kittle at Iowa when I was with the Broncos, at the time," Peters said. "He was a really unique athlete but wasn't a really highly thought of prospect by most people. When we got to the 49ers, our coaching staff did a great job of identifying exactly what George could do, and exactly what George could be in our offense.
"I don't know if anybody really knew how good George was going to be, but we had targeted him, and we had really a third-round draft on George. So, we thought he was a third-round pick, but we gambled, and we knew that we could get him in the fifth round."
A risky proposition, no doubt, but it all worked out for the 49ers. Kittle has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and earned two Pro Bowl selections and an All-Pro nod in his first three seasons. He set the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season in 2018, when he racked up 1,377 yards on 88 catches.
Kittle has become one of the most dominant players in the NFL, and he is due for a big payday soon. The 49ers got lucky that Kittle, who flew under the radar because of a college career that wasn't as productive as his talent suggests, was still around in the fifth round. They wouldn't take that chance again, though.
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"I don't think we'd do it again. I don't think we'd gamble on that again, obviously," Peters said, "but we were able to get George in the fifth round. Really, it was cool because we kind of called our shot a few weeks earlier and made it happen on draft day."
The key to building quality roster depth in the NFL is consistently finding prospects in Rounds 3-5 who can be productive NFL starters. If you can do that year after year then your roster will be set up to contend for Super Bowl titles.
And sometimes you get lucky and unearth a late-round gem who becomes a star even if he isn't a 99 in Madden. Gambling pays off every once in a while.
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