The Falcons got their guy at pick Number 4 when they made Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end in NFL history. Make no mistake about it, however, Pitts is only a tight end in name. In truth, he will be lining up as a dynamic pass catcher for the vast majority of his snaps in the NFL.
With the addition of one of the most anticipated TEs in recent memory, we turn our attention to what his impact may be in the realm of fantasy football this upcoming season.
The Falcons have their unicorn, and they will be one of the most intriguing offenses to watch for avid fantasy players ahead of August and September drafts.
Let’s go through each of Atlanta’s fantasy relevant players who will be most impacted by this selection. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s also assume that Julio Jones will be an Atlanta Falcon this fall.
The fantasy tight end position is, for the most part, a barren wasteland which is in desperate need of an influx of talent. It goes Travis Kelce (truly elite), Darren Waller and George Kittle (who missed most of last season) and then everyone else. It’s so bad that Hayden Hurst actually finished as the TE10 in PPR leagues last season despite a merely solid year statistically.
There is an adjustment period that takes place for rookie TEs, so I would tamper expectations on Pitts being a potential top 5 tight end in fantasy right away. No rookie TEs finished in the top 25 at the position in scoring last season. However, none of them were nearly as talented as the man out of Florida.
Pitts should be a premier red zone target for Matt Ryan this season (he had the highest PFF red zone receiving grade in Division 1 last year), and he will be utilized by one of the most modern and analytical play callers in the game in Arthur Smith, who also has a background working with tight ends. That alone makes him worth a mid round pick in redraft leagues, and I would take him top 3 overall in dynasty drafts given what the potential is in the coming years.
Jones had a rough 2020 season where he battled a lingering hamstring injury which became an issue in Week 2 and never really went away. He missed seven games (the most since 2013) and was forced out of a couple more early. When he did play Julio was effective, generating a 16-game pace of 1,400+ receiving yards once again.
Given his advanced age (he will be 32 this season) and history battling nagging injuries (despite almost always playing through them), Jones will be a player I avoid in fantasy drafts this year. Calvin Ridley has proven his worth as someone worthy of extra targets and Pitts, whom the team didn’t invest the 4th overall pick into for no reason, will get his looks as the featured TE in Smith’s offense. Despite the fact, it will still be Jones who receives most of the double teams and the attention of the opposing team’s best cornerback.
The name value may push Julio in the upper 2nd round range in many leagues, but I wouldn’t even look at him until at least the 3rd round given the extra competition for looks and questions regarding health.
Ridley stepped into the role of WR1 last season, in the absence of Julio for most of the year, and absolutely flourished with the monster target share, finishing as the overall WR5 in PPR leagues and overall WR4 in standard scoring leagues. Given his ascension and the fact that he’s now in the middle of his prime, Ridley will be the WR to own in Atlanta’s offense.
Pitts will likely have a negative impact on the Alabama alum’s overall fantasy outlook this season, however, purely because of the red zone looks he will steal. Ridley was third in the NFL in overall red zone targets a year ago with 26, and I would expect that number to be lower this season because of Pitts’ presence. That should also negatively impact the seven red zone touchdowns he tallied in 2020.
I would absolutely still take Ridley ahead of Jones in fantasy drafts this year, but I would probably take him closer to the end of the 2nd round at this point, whereas I would have been more comfortable with him in the early to mid 2nd round before the Pitts pick became official.
The biggest beneficiary of this selection is without a doubt the man who will be throwing the ball to what is now arguably the most talented receiving corps in the NFL. Ryan flew under the radar last season, but because of his durability and continued high passing volume, he finished as a QB1 in NFL.com scoring fantasy leagues (defined as one of the top 12 players at his position — he was the overall QB12).
A healthier Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley taking another jump going into year 4, the addition of a nightmare mismatch weapon at tight end and more efficient play calling will help Ryan flourish in 2021. I would expect his touchdown count to be in the 30-35 range given the weapons at his disposal. Arthur Smith helped make a less talented Ryan Tannehill into the overall QB7 last year (Tannehill accounted for 40 total touchdowns).
Ryan will be one of the more boring names in fantasy drafts this year, but that’s perfect for fantasy managers looking to wait on a reliable quarterback as part of their draft strategy. Remember, a play action style play calling system is what Ryan had MVP-like success in in the past, and no offensive coordinator calls play action more than Arthur Smith.
I wouldn’t expect Hurst to completely fall into fantasy irrelevance, but this draft selection will clearly hurt his value. Hurst had six red zone receptions a year ago and five of them went for touchdowns. He won’t be nearly as frequently targeted in the red zone with Kyle Pitts now in the lineup.
The reason why I don’t think Hurst will completely disappear is because Smith loves running two tight end sets, and that should give Hurst the opportunity to see the field pretty often, Given that he’s not a great blocker, Hurst will most likely be running a route when he’s in.
I wouldn’t take anything more than a final round flier on Hayden Hurst in hopes of him being able to completely exploit his matchups against linebackers and to get Matt Ryan’s attention while doing so, but the target share just won’t be there to justify anything more.