If you follow the NFL Draft scouting process at all, you’ll hear analysts talk about raw prospects with high ceilings. Finding success in the NFL is hard and oftentimes it’s the little things that make a big difference in whether a prospect is a hit or miss.
Studying film for prospect evaluation is about identifying traits and using what is revealed to determine how the player wins, what their limitations are and how much of an impact the prospect is capable of making at the next level. Hardly any prospect is perfect and determining what can improve with development is challenging.
Even though I had a high fourth-round grade on San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle and he was ultimately selected in the fifth-round, I wish I was higher on him. I bet 31 teams in the NFL do, too.
With 41 receptions for 692 yards and 3 touchdowns through 9 games this season, Kittle is leading the NFC in receiving yards among tight ends and just 49 yards behind Travis Kelce for the NFL lead. Kittle is the NFL’s 13th leading receiver regardless of position. An outstanding blocker, it’s not a stretch to say Kittle is emerging as a top-5 caliber tight end in the league.
So where did I miss on the evaluation? What was I too harsh on? Where did I fail to have enough foresight to know Kittle was capable of producing like this? Let’s take a look at my scouting report on Kittle prior to the 2017 NFL Draft.
In reviewing my film grading of Kittle, he was knocked for route-running and body control when blocking. Most of his receiving production in college did not come as a result of his ability to create separation on his own. His targets were manufactured or a result of him settling into the soft areas of zones. His routes were easy to mirror because he didn’t illustrate the ability to run nuanced routes and sell his breaks.
Playing in Kyle Shannahan’s offense has certainly assisted in Kittle’s production being what it is, but his athletic profile gave indications that he could develop his route running ability. His 40-yard dash, broad jump, three-cone, short shuttle and vertical jumps were all off-the-charts and suggested he has the physical ability to win as a route runner and he has. Make no mistake, Kittle is super productive after the catch but he’s found success in a variety of ways as a receiver to all levels of the field in the NFL.
In hindsight, believing more in his physical traits to overcome a lack of route running nuance would have been wise on my part, especially because of his athletic testing, ball skills and post-catch ability. Taking into account his highly competitive demeanor on the field hinted at his work ethic and mentality to grow as a player.
Finding reps of Kittle burying opponents as a blocker weren’t hard to find when studying his Iowa tape, but his snap-to-snap consistency revealed some body control issues that lead to him falling off blocks. While it was a minor gripe, considering if he was overly frenetic was fair to take into account. Kittle has done a masterful job of harnessing his play strength and technique to find success as an NFL blocker.
Another knock on Kittle was his modest receiving production and when factoring in his below-average route running skills, questions were raised about why he didn’t demand more opportunities to contribute as as receiver. A closer look at the box score reveals that 22 receptions for 314 yards 4 TDs as a senior is better than perceived when accounting for context.
The run-heavy 2016 Hawkeyes logged 502 rushes against 310 passes for the season. Kittle led the team in receiving touchdowns while accounting for 13 percent of the total receptions and 16 percent of the total receiving yards – as a tight end.
Labeling Kittle as a raw but high ceiling prospect was fair, but there were also plenty of clues that indicated he could reach his potential. The eighth tight end selected and pick No. 146 overall, the NFL clearly had its own doubts about Kittle.
With another batch of 300+ scouting reports soon to write, reflecting on Kittle’s evaluation encourages me to give the benefit of the doubt to prospects overcoming technical issues that illustrate high levels of competitive toughness and possess plus athleticism.