Comb through the annals of the NFL and you will find tons of big-name tight ends to grace the league – and the Atlanta Falcons are hoping that by the time he hangs up his cleats, Kyle Pitts is able to join them. By adding a bonafide weapon for Matt Ryan, both Pitts and Calvin Ridley are going to be looked to early and often this season in their quest to help replace franchise cornerstone, Julio Jones.
With Pitts earning a huge amount of media attention during his final collegiate season at the University of Florida and during the pre-draft process, it was only a question of how early in the first round he would go, a rarity for a player that plays the position of tight end. With two Iowa Hawkeye prospects in TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant being first-round selections in last year’s draft, the idea that taking tight ends early has apparently become common knowledge amongst teams.
But placing too many and too heavy of expectations on the former Gator can derail his optimistic professional career, stopping it before it even begins. With the Falcons caught in between a rebuild and being competitive, they will be yet again looking at the top of the NFC South division from at or near the bottom of the standings, making the development of Pitts even more important than their 17-game performance this season.
Being easily able to project Pitts to fill the no. 2 target role in this offense behind Ridley is fine and dandy, but pigeon-holing the TE into a predefined role certainly is an easy way towards capping his ceiling, something that the Falcons cannot afford to do. If seeing Pitts more as an offensive weapon than a simple tight end, then Ryan and company should be able to have another viable top-notch weapon to take advantage of moving forward.
59 receptions / 779 yards / 5 TDs / 3 fumbles
Realistically, both Mike Ditka’s 1961 rookie TE receiving yardage record (1,076) and Keith Jackson’s 1988 rookie TE reception record (81) are safe from being touched by Pitts. However, discrediting this kind of breakout rookie campaign from the UF product just due to not setting league records is incredibly short-sighted, especially with the generally unfair expectations that have been put on his shoulders at such an early stage of his professional career.
With these projections, Pitts replicates (almost to the exact numbers) of what Jones produced in the 2020 season, boding well for the type of role that can be expected for him right out of the gate. Odds are that the Falcons will be playing from behind often this year, especially with how hotly contested their own division will be, which will only help drive up both the snap counts and routes run for Pitts.
His exposure to Ryan and his playstyle is going to vary drastically from his days playing down in the swamp, but for all the right reasons. Ryan has been around the block quite a few times during his career, and his prior work with Tony Gonzalez and others certainly will help instill a sense of confidence in Pitts heading into his first season.
Fitting into the vacancy left by Jones is a great way to acclimate Pitts to this offense, even if he will split time between standing up and lining up on the line, ready to carry out blocking assignments. Atlanta is at the point where they should be focused on personnel development more than anything, and with their rushing attack currently being led by journeyman Mike Davis, the odds are heavily in the favor of this team resuming its pass-happy attack with Ridley at the helm, giving Pitts the chance to showcase his skills early and often.
Things won’t happen overnight for Pitts and the Falcons, yet catching almost 60 balls for nearly 800 yards and 5 scores is a hell of a start. By giving Ryan another trustworthy target, he is able to potentially replicate some of his MVP-like play from earlier in his career, while establishing a rapport with the rookie that hopefully will last for many years.
Year one for Pitts will be put under a microscope, especially as he is one of the most talked-about tight ends coming out of a draft in recent memory. By aiming to replace the role that Jones had, the Falcons are able to move forward with replicating their offensive success, just with a higher ceiling and a healthier roster.
Expectations for Pitts are high, and rightfully so, but expecting him to break records right out of the gate is not a realistic look for the rookie – but he certainly has the skills to do so. By pairing the rookie with Ridley, this team can take that needed next step to re-establishing their offensive attack.