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Falcons post-draft roster preview: Tight end edition

Is this position the new cornerstone of the Atlanta offense?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Rookie Minicamp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When the Falcons brought in Arthur Smith to helm the team, fans instantly began to wonder if he would institute a tight-end heavy offensive scheme in Atlanta. Those questions were seemingly answered when the team used their #4 pick in the draft to take tight end Kyle Pitts. With Hayden Hurst returning for his second year with the Falcons, Atlanta may have a formidable receiving duo at the position...at least in 2021.

Let’s take a look at what the position group currently looks like.


Starting options

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Pitts

2020 Stats (college): 8 games, 43 receptions, 770 yards, 17.9 yards per reception, 12 touchdowns

Contract Status: Expected to sign 4-year rookie contract with a 5th year option

He’s been called a unicorn. A generational talent. Someone who could redefine the position. He has yet to take a single snap in the NFL, but the hype around Pitts is through the roof and for good reason. He has the size of a tight end. The catch radius of the side of a barn. The speed of a top end receiver and incredibly reliable hands. He’s a great route runner and appears to be an incredibly hard worker.

If Pitts taps into his full potential, he could legitimately be among the best tight ends in the NFL in a short period of time. He still needs to improve his blocking, but that’s not why he was drafted. Arthur Smith will undoubtedly use him all over the field and as a traditional inline tight end, lined up wide, and even, as he’s suggested, in the backfield. If he hits that potential, Atlanta will have found a future All-Pro who could very well be on of the top receivers in the league, regardless of position.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Hayden Hurst

2020 Stats: 16 games, 88 targets, 56 receptions, 571 yards, 10.2 yards per reception, 6 touchdowns

Contract Status: Under contract through 2021

When former GM Thomas Dimitroff let Austin Hooper walk in 2020, he traded a 2nd round pick to grab Hurst to replace him. Under Dirk Koetter, Hurst turned in mixed results. He appeared to be a capable receiver, but he and Ryan couldn’t connect consistently, with a few notable third down and red zone misses.

The Falcons declined his fifth year option, which makes one wonder if Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot are not as high on his potential as the last regime was. Regardless, he is here for 2021 and the team will try to maximize his contributions this season. Hurst remains an athletic, useful pass catching threat, and how he’ll complement Pitts will be one of the big things to watch early in the season.

Key Reserves

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Lee Smith

2020 Stats (Bills): 10 games, 6 targets, 4 receptions, 35 yards, 8.8 yards per reception, 2 touchdowns

Contract Status: Signed through 2021

Getting Smith was one of the first moves the new regime made, which indicates how important the position will be to this offense going forward. Lee Smith is exclusively an inline blocking tight end who has a stellar reputation in that regard. The hope is he will help in the running game, in mentoring Kyle Pitts and just generally being a strong leader in the locker room. If he has more than 10 receptions in 2021, we will all be surprised. If he does his typically stellar working blocking, we’ll be less surprised.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jaeden Graham

2020 Stats: 16 games, 5 targets, 3 receptions, 25 yards, 8.3 yards per reception, 0 touchdowns

Contract Status: Signed through 2021

After a promising rookie year in 2019, Dirk Koetter seemingly forgot that Graham existed in 2020. The undrafted free agent out of Yale may be on the fringes of making the roster, but if the team can rekindle his 2019 potential, he could be a decent 3rd receiving option behind Pitts and Hurst.

Ryan Becker

2020 Stats: N/A

Contract status: Signed through 2021

Becker the Blocker will try to latch on as...you guessed it...a blocking tight end. It’s always possible he could beat out Lee Smith for the role, but if not, he may be looking at a practice squad spot.

Outlook

Long-term, just having Pitts should be excellent. This year, Atlanta will have Hurst on hand while Pitts gets up to speed, and Smith should be a productive blocker. Long-term, it’s just Pitts under contract, but if he’s as good as we hope he is, that’ll be a fantastic start. This offense’s fortunes will depend a lot on just how quickly Pitts gets going.