As George Kittle returned to practice this week after a stint on injured reserve due to a calf injury, questions turned to whether the San Francisco 49ers are overworking their star tight end.
Kittle has played just 12 of the past 23 games due to injury, including missing the past three. When he's been active, the TE rarely comes off the field. Through the first four games he's averaging 62.8 snaps a tilt, per Next Gen Stats, participating in 97 percent of the team's snaps. The next highest tight end is Tyler Higbee, who is averaging 88 percent of the Rams snaps.
The workload isn't so much about the snap count but rather the grinding blocking and road-grading the TE is asked to do. However, coach Kyle Shanahan more or less scoffed at the suggestion the Niners should lessen the star TE's workload to try and keep him healthier moving forward.
"I think when you talk about workload for tight ends, it's about training camp, it's about practice, it's about stuff like that," Shanahan said, via KNBR's Jacob Hutchinson. "When a guy's not healthy, you've always got to do that. But I haven't heard of people managing a tight end, especially one like Kittle."
"Tight ends go. They play every play usually. Lots of them, you have different personnel groupings, but most tight ends are over 80-percent of the game. But Kittle is always going to play through stuff and go out there when he isn't a hundred percent. And when he's not a hundred percent, that's when you've definitely got to do that. But I've never done that with a tight end before though."
It isn't certain that Kittle will return this week against the Arizona Cardinals, but the tight end sounds like he's itching to play.
The TE insisted his bruising style of play isn't what has led to the health issues, describing them as "freak" injuries.
"Oh, well, let's see. Two of my injuries were taking a helmet to the kneecap and I had a broken foot and I had a lower-body injury this time and not a single one of those things was from being overly physical or attacking people or truck sticking people or the run game, so I don't really know how to answer that," Kittle said. "I'm just gonna try to keep being me.
"I mean, I feel like I do a lot of stuff in the offseason, in season. All I care about is football and make myself available and sometimes you know, football is a violent game and it's very unforgiving. Stuff happens and you just got to kind of deal with it."
The Niners sit at 3-4 with back-to-back NFC West matchups with the Cards and Rams on tap. The No. 7 seed in the NFC is wide open at this point (currently occupied by the 4-4 Carolina Panthers). If the Niners are to go on a run in hopes of claiming a playoff spot, they'll need to keep Kittle healthy.