Some may lean in the direction of Travis Kelce, but to most, George Kittle reigns supreme as the NFL’s current gold standard at tight end. In fact, Kittle earned ProFootballFocus’ top overall grade out of all players in 2019. It’s not an exaggeration to say Kittle is on a Hall-of-Fame trajectory—his 1,377 receiving yards in 2018 were the most by a tight end in NFL history while the 26-year-old has also emerged as arguably the best blocker at his position.
It’s easy to recognize Kittle’s star quality now, but it wasn’t always that way for the People’s Tight End. He didn’t hear his name called until the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, when the Niners selected him 146th overall. He was the ninth tight end to come off the board that year following O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, David Njoku, Gerald Everett, Adam Shaheen, Jonnu Smith, Michael Roberts and Jake Butt. Of those nine, only Kittle has garnered a Pro Bowl invite.
Before the NFL came calling, Kittle had to earn his stripes at Iowa first. Just getting on the Hawkeyes’ radar was challenging enough for Kittle, who was lightly recruited out of Norman High School in Oklahoma, where he played receiver, H-back, linebacker and safety, among other positions.
Kittle had his heart set on going to a Power Five school—Iowa, Wisconsin and Oklahoma (where his father was an assistant coach under Bob Stoops at the time) were among his top destinations. But that interest was largely unreciprocated—Oklahoma and Wisconsin never even considered him while Iowa thought he had potential, but not at his high-school weight of 190 pounds. They viewed him as a likely walk-in, forcing Kittle to look elsewhere including North Texas, Tulsa and FCS Weber State, where he made his only official visit.
“I wore a sweatshirt with a coat on top so I looked 220 when I was really about 195,” Kittle admitted to Ryan Jones of Bleacher Report. “But I had a blast.” Just when it looked like Kittle might choose Weber State, Iowa swooped in with a last-minute offer. Kittle received the Hawkeyes’ final scholarship only after being turned down by two of their preferred recruits. Even when he arrived on campus that fall, the Iowa coaching staff wasn’t sure how to use him.
“I was getting ready to transition to coaching linebackers at the time, and one thought was, 'Hey, he may be an outside linebacker for us,’” said LeVar Woods, a former linebacker for the Cardinals, Lions and Titans who currently serves as Iowa’s special teams coordinator. “‘Or he may be a receiver or ultimately grow into a tight end.' In the end, it was, 'Get him here; we'll see what happens.'" Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it all worked out in the end.
Coming off another All-Pro season and his first Super Bowl appearance, Kittle figures to become the highest-paid tight end in NFL history when the 49ers inevitably extend his contract. Not bad for a position-less, 190-pound nobody whose only Power Five offer came after Iowa exhausted all of its other resources.