Hype is an interesting thing. In the case of NFL draft prospects, it can set wild expectations in the minds of people who have never seen the player in question actually perform on the fild. There was perhaps no player who received more hype throughout the 2021 NFL Draft process than Kyle Pitts.
The Falcons find themselves at 5-7 and on the fringe of the playoff conversation. This is not where many expected them to be, and yet it still feels slightly underwhelming. Pitts’s performance undoubtedly plays into that blasé feeling. He was touted as a generational Atlas, capable of carrying Atlanta on his shoulders.
Through 13 weeks, Pitts has just two 100-yard games to his name. Those came in back-to-back weeks – a 119-yard, one-touchdown game against the New York Jets, and a 163-yard outburst against the Miami Dolphins. Since Week 7, Pitts has not reached 65 receiving yards and will go long stretches in games without catching a pass.
This piece isn’t meant to give Pitts a pass for his production thus far, because I frankly think he’s capable of more and will point out my reasons why, but it’s supposed to help put into context the rookie’s season and how valuable he’s been in some less recognized aspects of the game.
However, let’s start with some of the stats people care about. Although he has just two 100-yard games, which really isn’t bad for a rookie, Pitts is 27th among all NFL players with 709 receiving yards. Among tight ends, that places him third behind only Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews. Sure, he has only one touchdown this season, but that is largely a byproduct of the offense and not really a reflection of his ability.
Oh, and if we’re talking about players like Kelce, Andrews and let’s say, George Kittle, how about a quick comparison? Well, Kelce played literally one snap during his rookie season and topped 100 yards just once during his first full season of action. Andrews maxed out at 83 receiving yards as a rookie, and Kittle nailed 100 yards exactly in the final game of his debut season. So, by their standards, Pitts is doing just fine.
Not to mention that Pitts is currently on pace for 1,004 yards as a rookie. It’s not quite the record-setting pace needed to beat Mike Ditka’s rookie mark of 1,076 yards, but that’s easily within reach. And honestly, the fact that a non-record-breaking season seems like a letdown just further proves my point about expectations for this young man.
Realistically, tight ends have one of the most complicated positions on a football field to pick up. Why? Well, they are involved in a little bit of everything. I remember a conversation with former NFL tight end, head coach and Falcons tight end coach Mike Mularkey about Austin Hooper. His insight into the position was that it is so intricate because of the need to understand run-blocking assignments and route combinations.
When NFL quarterbacks come to the line, they generally have a couple of calls that they can turn to depending on a defensive look. Well, for a tight end, they are likely heavily involved whether it be a run play (setting the edge) or a pass play (potentially a primary read). That’s double the workload on a young player, which is why it takes time for tight ends to develop into real threats. Remember Hooper’s progression? He went from 271 yards as a rookie to 787 yards and a second-straight Pro Bowl in 2019 – his final year in Atlanta.
Plus, Pitts has been dealing with the entirety of an opposing defense’s attention throughout all of this. Without Calvin Ridley around to draw some eyeballs, Pitts is facing an uphill battle. Despite that, Pitts ranks seventh among all tight ends with a Pro Football Focus grade of 76.3. He’s been solid across all facets of his game, and the Falcons have asked him to do a lot this year.
Now, that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. For starters, teams haven’t been absolutely selling out to stop Pitts like many, myself included, have been suggesting. Sure, teams probably have some contingencies in place to slow Pitts down if he gets doing, but does this look like he’s absolutely off-limits?
The answer is no, which speaks to what is perhaps a bigger issue. For as obvious as it is that Pitts is the most gifted offensive weapon the Falcons have, they aren’t treating him as such. Perhaps that has more to do with Matt Ryan at quarterback wanting to grow more comfortable with his new target or perhaps it is a byproduct of the offense’s willingness to let Pitts be the decoy.
Defenses aren’t entirely selling out to stop him, but the Falcons aren’t making them pay for not doing so. So is Pitts not the world-beater he was predicted to be? It’s pretty clear that he’s good – the plays he does make prove this to be true – but the Falcons aren’t giving him a superstar load to carry. He’s on pace to top Julio Jones’s rookie mark of 959 yards, mind you, but this also comes with one extra game. Still, that’s a great pace to be on.
Pitts’s one touchdown is another number one can’t help but grimace at, but that is another stat that is largely reflective of the offense. I mean, this has to be a throw to the guy with a 7-foot wingspan, right? (It was not).
That’s not on Pitts, though. I have my thoughts about his route-running and urgency, but these are things that typically get sorted out during a player’s first or second offseason. Pitts is doing a lot of things really well as a rookie, and he – like Matt Ryan – entered a fairly difficult situation. But his versatility as a player is really unlocking a lot of what this offense wants to do.
Oh, and the run game that has really gotten going the last few weeks? Yeah, he’s a part of that success too, whether he’s blocking a defensive end or a corner.
There are five games left for the Falcons, and while it would be awesome to see Pitts add another 100-yard game or two to his resume, he has done more than enough as a first-year guy. Let’s not forget that he really is putting a record number within reach.
The offseason conversation was dominated by Pitts, which isn’t necessarily fair to the player. He’s been humble thus far and done everything asked of him, even if it feels like there is untapped potential. The exciting part is that the season isn’t done yet. And while the rookie wall exists, Pitts still feels like the player of breaking through it.