SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Just in time for a pivotal two-game stretch against the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams, tight end George Kittle is returning to the San Francisco 49ers’ active roster.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday that Kittle, who has missed the team’s past three games with a calf injury, will be activated from the injured reserve list and play Sunday against the Cardinals.
Shanahan’s announcement came after Kittle completed the week of practice without any setbacks, and it appears Kittle will play a significant role Sunday.
“When a guy’s not healthy, you’ve always got to [manage] that,” Shanahan said. “But I haven’t heard of people managing a tight end, especially one like Kittle. Tight ends go. They play every play usually.”
Kittle initially suffered the calf injury in a Week 1 win against the Detroit Lions, but he played through it in the following three games, despite being limited in practice. But after Kittle came out of a Week 4 loss to the Seattle Seahawks feeling worse, the Niners opted to shut him down.
In three games without Kittle, the Niners went 1-2 with backups Ross Dwelley and Charlie Woerner filling in. On Thursday, Kittle said he did his best to maintain a positive attitude and not allow his health status to prevent him from handling his usual leadership role. Now that he’s on his way back, Kittle said he’s feeling good and expects to have fresh legs and plenty of energy on Sunday.
“I miss football,” Kittle said. “I haven’t hit anybody in a long time. I’m very excited to be out there being able to do that again.”
The Niners will also welcome kicker Robbie Gould (strained right groin) back from injured reserve after releasing replacement kicker Joey Slye earlier in the week. Running back Jeff Wilson Jr., who has been on the physically unable to perform list with a knee injury, also could return, though his status is tied to that of rookie running back Elijah Mitchell.
Mitchell is listed as questionable with a rib injury and was limited in practice on Thursday and Friday, when he wore a blue no-contact jersey. If Mitchell can’t play, Wilson could be activated to help at running back alongside JaMycal Hasty and Trey Sermon.
While the Niners would prefer to give Wilson, who until this week had not played since May, more time to recover, he had a good week of practice and has accelerated the timeline a bit.
“That is only three practices, but he looked as good and ready as he could be,” Shanahan said. “So, from a health standpoint and everything, there’s no question on that. Ideally, in a perfect world, we could give him a couple more practices, too. But with Elijah being questionable and the way he looked this week, that’s why it’s an issue.”
Additionally, free safety Jimmie Ward (quad) is listed as out and defensive end Dee Ford (back) and receiver Deebo Samuel (calf) are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game.
Samuel, who is second in the NFL in receiving yards, played through his calf issue last weekend but felt worse for the wear this week, according to Shanahan. Samuel said the calf has improved as the week’s gone on.
“As days went by, it kind of gets better day by day, so we’ve just been taking it slow and just see how it goes,” Samuel said.
Ford cleared the concussion protocol that kept him out last week, but his persistent back issue flared up again this week.
“That’s never fully gone away,” Shanahan said. “That’s something he’ll deal with most likely forever. So, some of that is on again, off again.”
The 3-4 Niners will need as many of those players as possible against the Cardinals as they enter a pivotal stretch that also includes a game next week against the Rams.
“When you go against back-to-back 7-1 teams, it just kind of sets the stage for us,” Kittle said. “We’re either going to come out of those games with a winning record or in a hole. So, it definitely shapes the whole season from a playoff perspective. You try to look at it one game at a time, so we’re focusing on the Cardinals, but yeah, you definitely see the whole schedule and other games. You have got to be very tough, grimy, gritty games, and we’re going to do everything we can to prepare to win those games.”