One of the more fun draft debates to have emerged in recent weeks is whether (insert team picking in the top 10) should draft tight end Kyle Pitts.
The central crux of that debate is this: Is a tight end – even one viewed as a generational prospect like Pitts – impactful enough for a team to warrant one of the most coveted spots in an NFL Draft? The Atlanta Falcons, by way of a 4-12 season, find themselves very much in the midst of this conversation.
What’s particularly difficult for Falcons fans right now at this juncture of draft season is that a new regime is in place, which means two things. One, there is no history to draw upon for forming a hypothesis of what they might do in the near future. Two, the current decision-makers don’t have any prior connection with much of the roster and aren’t emotionally tied to certain players.
Atlanta traded a second-round pick to Baltimore for tight end Hayden Hurst before the 2020 season, a move many people were excited and still remain excited about. However, that wasn’t this group of decision-makers who did that. And while Hurst still has untapped upside with this team, he’s entering the last year of his contract, and the one thing we do know about Fontenot is his draft philosophy: Take the best player on the board.
“When you’re able to fill some needs in free agency, then in the draft it allows you to really have the discipline to really take the best players on the board,” Fontenot told Falcons analyst Dave Archer in a recent interview. “So I think that’s the first aspect … It’s all human nature, and we have the needs in the back of our minds, but we have to make sure we’re disciplined in that area.”
All of this points to one thing: Tight end is absolutely on the table for Atlanta, because all positions should be on the table for Atlanta.
Now let’s focus in on Pitts for a second.
Outside of Trevor Lawrence, is there a prospect in this draft with a higher approval rating? Here are just a few statements from draft analysts:
“While the player comparison for the purposes of this scouting report is Darren Waller, Pitts may have the traits and talent to create mismatches similar to those created by Calvin Johnson and Tyreek Hill.” – Lance Zierlein, NFL.com
“Pitts is an athletic mismatch nightmare and touchdown maker who can line up anywhere in the formation and beat coverage.” – Danny Kelly, The Ringer
“A scheme versatile TE who is a mismatch all over the field, Pitts is a true playmaker that has the ability to be elite at the next level.” – Everett Glaze, The Falcoholic
It would not be a surprise to learn after the draft that Pitts was the No. 2 player on many teams’ boards. But, depending on how the teams in front of Atlanta approach their drafts, the Falcons could realistically find themselves in a position to pick someone widely expected to become a generational player.
This is where things circle back to Fontenot’s draft strategy and mesh with the head coach’s past. Tight end is a versatile position by nature, and teams can approach the usage of the position in numerous ways as well. A tight end coach by trade for years before he became an offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith has tended to favor the position as a play-caller.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Tennessee Titans ran 373 plays out of a 12 personnel grouping (one running back, two tight ends) last season, more than any other team in the NFL. Currently, the Falcons have three tight ends on the roster: Hurst, Jaeden Graham and Lee Smith. An argument could be made that there’s room for another starter in that group.
In two-tight end sets, the Falcons could roll out Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst and Kyle Pitts. That’s a good bit of offensive firepower in a personnel grouping historically associated with running the ball. Atlanta could also have many different combinations by throwing Russell Gage into that mix, given his speed and strong year in 2020.
So, not only is it within Fontenot’s philosophical wheelhouse to grab one of the elite players in this year’s draft, but it also actually makes sense from a schematic standpoint. But let’s put Pitts aside. For the same reasons, tight end won’t be off the table for Atlanta in the rest of the draft.
It’s been clear from the start that Fontenot wants to add the most talent he possibly can to this Falcons roster, regardless of the position. With Hurst entering the last year of his contract, the Falcons may find themselves in a spot on Day 2 or 3 where there’s a tight end on the board they really like. If that’s the case, there’s a reasonable chance they take him, because again, this is about grabbing the best player available and securing a long-term contributor.
That’s no indictment on Hurst or a message for his future with the team. It’s simply a new way of doing business for an organization that had a massive overhaul with the front office and coaching staff. Fans should be ready for anything and excited because of that simple fact.