When Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers take the field Sunday night, they might just have their top pass-catcher back in the fold.
Star tight end George Kittle is reportedly expected to play against the Green Bay Packers after being listed as questionable on the team’s final injury report coming into Sunday Night Football, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
It has been just 24 days since Kittle broke a bone in his ankle in Arizona on Oct. 31, leaving in the first quarter only to return and play the rest of the game. The Pro Bowl tight end missed the past two games but feels good enough to return after impatiently waiting to be cleared.
“This week, I think if it was a normal person, I’d probably make him doubtful,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of Kittle. “But Kittle’s different than most people, and he won’t allow me to rule him out too early because he keeps telling me he’s going to surprise me by game day.”
Returning Kittle would give back 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo his best passing target this season, as the third-year tight end leads the team with 46 catches for 541 yards and two touchdowns through eight games. His return, though, won’t catch the Packers by surprise.
Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine acknowledged earlier this week both the power of Kittle and his defense’s shortcomings against tight ends this season. Carolina veteran Greg Olsen magnified the issue with his eight-catch, 98-yard performance in the Packers’ 24-16 home win in Week 10.
“I think (Kittle is) in the conversation as certainly one of the best, if not the best tight end in football,” Pettine said.
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More 49ers Playmakers Could Return
Kittle isn’t San Francisco’s only offensive weapon teetering on the edge of returning to the field. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders (ribs) and Deebo Samuel (shoulder) are both expected to overcome their questionable statuses and play Sunday night for the 49ers.
Samuel flanks Kittle with the team’s second-most 473 receiving yards on 38 catches — twice as many as any other player on the roster — and is coming off consecutive games with more than 100 receiving yards. He caught eight catches 112 yards in the 49ers’ overtime loss at the Seattle Seahawks, then hauled in another eight receptions last week for 134 yards to help the 49ers manufacture a comeback win against the Cardinals.
Sanders, on the other hand, is heralded more for his career than his current production. The two-time Pro Bowler was traded to San Francisco from Denver before the trade deadline and has played in just four games thus far, but he and Garoppolo have already looked comfortable together. Sanders has 16 receptions for 194 yards, including a 112-yard game in Week 9.
“Just playing with Jimmy, man, what a great guy, great energy,” Sanders told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt earlier this season. “I love playing with the guy, I love when he comes into the huddle with high spirit, high energy. He’s the guy that makes you want to go out and make plays to try to win games, so I’ve been enjoying my time playing with him and looking forward to more and more games of developing chemistry with him.”