Pick: San Francisco tight end George Kittle under 59½ receiving yards
San Francisco star wide receiver Deebo Samuel is dealing with a shoulder injury he suffered during the 49ers’ divisional-round win over the Packers. Coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters there wasn’t a fracture but that it was a similar injury to the one that forced Samuel to miss two games earlier in the season. If he can’t play or is hampered, it might seem logical to look at fellow wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle to pick up the slack in the passing game.
However, there are reasons to be cautious about Kittle’s prospects. Detroit has held opposing tight ends, as a group, to 55.3 receiving yards per game; after adjusting performance for strength of schedule, the Lions have the seventh-best pass coverage against tight ends. The average tight end performance against the Lions’ secondary has been 29 receiving yards. Kittle certainly is an above-average tight end, but if Detroit’s secondary has one fewer threat to worry about, it should make it easier for the Lions to focus on Kittle and Aiyuk — and to keep Kittle from hitting the 59½ receiving yards total.
One thing we should address is Kittle’s two games with Samuel out of the lineup this season. The first, a 78-yard performance in Week 7, was against Minnesota, the 18th-worst pass defense against tight ends, per defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). The other was an amazing 149-yard performance the following week against Cincinnati, the 27th-ranked pass defense against tight ends. A better comparison for us is San Francisco’s game against Cleveland, the No. 2 pass defense against tight ends, in Week 6. In that game, Kittle caught one of two targets for one yard despite playing a team-high 61 snaps. You also could look at the 49ers’ opening game against Pittsburgh, the sixth-best pass defense against tight ends, in which Kittle was limited to 19 receiving yards while playing 47 of 66 snaps.