The San Francisco 49ers may have gained clarity in regard to the competition at tight end. Just four days before finalizing their 53-man roster, San Francisco announced the trade of veteran Vance McDonald to the Pittsburgh Steelers. And the primary benefactor of the 49ers transaction could be rookie tight end George Kittle.
"I'm sad to see Vance leave, he was a great leader for us," Kittle said. "He really helped me out with the play book, learning things while on the field, especially these past couple of preseason games where neither of us played the third or fourth quarter, being able to talk schemes and stuff."
With McDonald's departure, the focus shifts to the 49ers fifth-round pick who is in line to become the 49ers starting tight end. The Iowa product has been impressive since he arrived at the SAP Performance Facility back in May. Despite missing time due to a hamstring injury, Kittle has continued his upward trend.
The highlight of the rookie's preseason came on a 29-yard touchdown from C.J. Beathard against the Denver Broncos. The 6-foot-4 tight end caught a short pass in the left flat, bulldozed one defender and stiff-armed another on his way into the end zone.
Last season at Iowa, Kittle put up a career best of 314 yards on 22 receptions. Experience in a pro-style offense at Iowa sped up Kittle's learning curve in Shanahan's scheme. Now Kittle is tasked with catching up with the pace of NFL play.
"Obviously, the game is a lot faster than what it is in college," Kittle said. "You can't lose your focus for one second on the field or else you can completely screw something up. So, I'm just trying to be as hard as I can with myself with every step that I take, every read that I make, and I'm just going to try to keep learning my mistakes."
Kittle is one of three new tight ends on San Francisco's roster. The 49ers signed free agent Logan Paulsen in the offseason and signed Cole Hikutini as an undrafted free agent. They join Garrett Celek and Blake Bell as the remaining incumbents of San Francisco's roster. Each player knows they have to contribute in blocking and as a weapon in the 49ers passing game.
"You've got to be able to play both roles, whether your hands are in the dirt, or if you're in a two-point stance, you've just got to be able to know everything," Kittle said. "Every single tight end we have on the roster is interchangeable, and we've all done every single position. So, that's very nice."
Although San Francisco's final roster cuts are yet to be decided, Kittle is a candidate to be the 49ers primary receiving tight end. It's yet to be determined whether or not Kittle will play in Thursday's preseason finale against the Los Angeles Chargers. Either way, Kittle said there's plenty of work to be done before the Carolina Panthers come to town in Week 1.
"I think I've learned a lot. I also still feel like I'm a rookie and I've still got a lot to learn," Kittle added. "It's just a 'one day at a time' mentality for me. That's something I've always lived by. I'm just going to try to keep trying to get better at every day and make the most out of every opportunity I get."