Fantasy Football: Should George Kittle Be the First Tight End Off the Board?

The tight end position is officially cool again -- or at least not as awful as it has been in previous years -- and one of the top tight ends in the game is San Francisco 49ers star George Kittle.

Kittle's current average draft position (ADP) is 2.10, according to ADP from BestBall10s held in May. That's barely behind Travis Kelce (2.07), with the TE3 not coming off the board until Round 3, so Kelce and Kittle are in their own tier at the position. It's the same story on Fantasy Football Calculator, with their PPR ADP putting Kelce one spot in front of Kittle.

Do early drafters have it right, or should Kittle be the TE1?

Entering His Prime

Kittle missed two games in 2019, but despite that, he totaled the second-most fantasy points among tight ends in PPR formats (222.5) and the third-most in standard scoring (137.5) -- behind Mark Andrews (143.2) and Kelce (157.3). Going by points per game, Kittle and Kelce were tied at 15.9 PPR points per outing, more than a point clear of any other tight ends.

It was much of the same in 2018, Kittle's breakout campaign, as Kittle averaged 16.2 PPR points per game. He's been one of the best tight ends over the last two seasons.

Year Rec Yards TDs Standard PPG (TE Rank) PPR PPG (Rank)
2019 85 1,053 5 9.8 (T-1st) 15.9 (T-1st)
2018 88 1,377 5 10.7 (2nd) 16.2 (3rd)

While it's hard to find many flaws with Kelce, who is a monster in the game's best passing attack, one edge Kittle has is age. Kelce is going into his age-31 season while Kittle will turn 27 in October. Kittle may have another gear in him as he enters his prime, while we might have already seen the best of Kelce.

Some other notable tight ends from the past decade have recorded career seasons at 26 or 27 years old -- Jimmy Graham (2012, 2013), Rob Gronkowski (2015), and Kyle Rudolph (2016) to name a few. In 2012 and 2013, Graham posted back-to-back seasons with at least 85 receptions, 982 yards, and 9 touchdowns. In 2013, Graham led the league with 16 receiving touchdowns to go along with 86 catches for 1,215 yards. At 26, Gronk played one of the healthiest seasons of his career and recorded 72 receptions for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns. And believe or not, Rudolph had a career year at 27 with 83 receptions, 840 yards, and 7 touchdowns in 2016.

Something that separates Kittle from almost every other tight end sans Kelce is Kittle's yards-after-the-catch ability. Kittle ranks first among tight ends the past two seasons in yards after the catch, getting 1,426 of his 2,430 yards (58.68%) after the catch. Among tight ends, Kittle had the second-most red-zone receptions (11) in 2019 and the fourth-most in 2018 (10), per PlayerProfiler.

Somehow, Kittle has managed only 10 touchdowns in two seasons despite Jimmy Garoppolo's 4.8 red-zone pass attempts per game (seventh-most), so Kittle is likely due for some positive regression in the touchdown department.

Kittle in 2020

Kittle, as you'd expect, gets great usage in the Niners' offense. In 2019, he led all tight ends in target share (28%) and was second in air yards share (26%), per, besting Kelce in both areas. Only three wideouts -- Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams -- had a target share better than Kittle's 28% clip last year, so it's easy to justify taking Kittle early in drafts.

With Emmanuel Sanders gone, Kittle could see even more volume this year. Deebo Samuel is the team's top receiver, and he logged just an 18% target share as a rookie, though that number will probably rise in 2020. After Samuel, it's rookie Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne, with Bourne coming off a season in which he saw just 9% of San Fran's targets.

Kittle accounted for 34% of the team's receiving yards per game when active last season, as well as 32.4% of the Niners' receiving yards in 2018 -- both team-high clips. And there's a chance Kittle dominates the looks even more this coming season.

In all, Kittle could get more volume, is due for positive touchdown regression and is heading into what should be one of the prime seasons of his career. We're splitting hairs when trying to separate Kittle and Kelce, but when you add all that up, Kittle gets a slight edge for me -- though both are fantastic picks in the back half of Round 2.