Kyle Pitts is going to be good as a rookie. He’s not only a supernatural sort of tight end with his athleticism and catch radius and speed, but he’s also landing with a team that picked him higher than any tight end has ever been picked before. The question with Pitts is whether he’ll be a useful, occasionally brilliant piece of the offense, a great player from the jump, or someone so good that he elevates this team with his mere presence and makes a bit of rookie history.
Consider this: Since 1961 when Mike Ditka did it in the pre-merger era, no rookie tight end has cleared the 1,000 yard mark. Indeed, no rookie tight end has made it over 900, and only three have cleared 800 in all that time, as NFL analyst Marcus Mosher outlines below. The standing record in the post-merger era is 894 yards, set by Jeremy Shockey back in 2002 and ultimately, his career high. It is difficult to be a rookie at any position in the NFL, but tight end seems particularly difficult, with veterans making it clear there’s a lot to pick up in terms of blocking, route running, and more generally how an offense functions.
Can Kyle Pitts make history?
Most receiving yards by a rookie tight end in NFL history: pic.twitter.com/JGVcScVwTx— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) May 10, 2021
All this means for Pitts is that he’s got 60 years of history to overcome if he wants to clear some magical round numbers as a rookie, and that he’ll have to adapt immediately. There are several reasons to believe that Pitts is going to be able to get within striking distance of Shockey, if not leave him in the dust entirely, but there are obviously no guarantees whatsoever that even a player as special as him can adjust to the league quickly enough to clear what is obviously a pretty arbitrary statistical threshold in the first place.
That said, it would be awesome if he did. It helps that Arthur Smith was a dedicated tight end guy as the Tennessee offensive coordinator, with Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser winding up 3rd and 4th on the team in targets last year. It helps that Pitts has stellar hands and the speed and strength to turn modest grabs into long gains. It helps that he has Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones on the same field—and hell, Hayden Hurst and Russell Gage—to take attention away from him and give him opportunities to take advantage of mismatches. It helps that he has Matt Ryan, who has made good use of tight ends Hall of Fame-caliber and Levine Toiloloesque in his long career.
The final and least cheerful note here is that if the Falcons do elect to trade Julio Jones—something I am not eager to continue contemplating but at least appears to be within the realm of possibility—there will be more targets for Pitts, increasing his chances of hitting this milestone. I’m hoping for at least one season featuring Julio, Calvin Ridley, and Pitts all together on the field, though, and it will make Pitts’ life easier if defenses have to worry about two top-flight receivers as well as him. The chief obstacle for Pitts blowing by Shockey in year one figures to his target share, as it’s tough to imagine Arthur Smith’s infatuation with the young tight end translating into a bigger share of the pie than Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
There are other records besides the big 1,000 yard mark that Pitts will have a legitimate shot at if he does prove to be a focal point of this offense. As Sports Talk ATL notes, Keith Jackson’s rookie record 81 receptions for a tight end in 1988 could be up for grabs. In addition, the team’s rookie touchdown receptions record set by Calvin Ridley back in 2018 could be up for grabs if Arthur Smith declares the red zone the Kyle Pitts zone, as he may be wont to do.
In all of this, it will help that Pitts is a scary matchup and a flawless fit for this roster, as our Will McFadden wrote recently. He’s a special player who the Falcons obviously did not draft at #4 to mothball for the 2021 season. And he’s a red zone nightmare for defenses, something the Falcons definitely need after spending the last two seasons spinning their tires inside the 20.
Highest conversion rates for WRs & TEs on RZ targets (2018-20)— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) May 10, 2021
min= 25+ targets
1 A. Thielen 48.9%
2 C. Ridley 45.7%
3 C. Godwin 43.2%
4 D. Adams 42.0%
5 TY Hilton 40.6%
1 Jonnu Smith 42.9%
2 E. Ebron 36.4%
3 M. Andrews 36.1%
4 A. Hooper 35.0%
5 J. Cook 34.3%
At the end of the day, Pitts is simply too talented to bet against, and he’ll likely at least flirt with some of these records if he’s healthy and as prominent a part of the offense as we expect. But at least for the 1,000 yard mark, he’ll be trying to do something that hasn’t happened in 60 years despite hundreds of tight ends trying for it, including most all of the most gifted players ever to grace the position. I’d put his odds of clearing 1,000 yards at something like 25% and his odds of topping Shockey a bit higher than that, bumping it up a bit if Julio is traded.
Kyle Pitts is more likely to make a big impact for this Falcons team than he is to make history, and while the latter would be nice, the former is what we really need.