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Falcons training camp preview: Tight end

With two weeks to go until the start of Falcons training camp, we take a closer look at Atlanta’s tight ends. One of the strongest positions on offense, the team added top draft pick Kyle Pitts to an already solid depth chart.

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

With just over two weeks to go until the start of the Falcons’ 2021 training camp, it’s time to take a closer look at each of the position groups on the roster. We’ll go through each one, noting the potential starters and the competition for depth roles. We continue our look at Atlanta’s offense with tight end, where Atlanta added an impact player in rookie Kyle Pitts to an already solid depth chart.

OFFENSE: QB | RB | TE

THE TOP THREE: Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst, Lee Smith

Kyle Pitts

6’6, 245 | 2020 Stats (College): 43 receptions for 770 yards (17.9 YPR) and 12 receiving TDs

The Falcons selected Kyle Pitts as the crown jewel of the 2021 class, making him the highest-drafted tight end of all-time in the process. There’s no question that Pitts is a special player: pop on his game tape and every catch looks like a highlight reel. He was an absolutely dominant force in college football due to his absurd athleticism, incredible size, and spectacular hands. Pitts also brings solid blocking chops to the table, though he’s a much better weapon in the passing game. It’ll be up to Arthur Smith and the Falcons to get the most out of Pitts, and it’ll be up to Pitts to avoid the slow start that plagues most rookie tight ends.

Hayden Hurst

6’4, 245 | 2020 Stats: 56 receptions for 571 yards (10.2 YPR) and 6 receiving TDs

Atlanta chose not to re-sign Austin Hooper heading into 2020, instead trading a second-round pick for Hayden Hurst. I’d say the value on the trade remains heavily skewed towards the Ravens at this point, as the Falcons declined Hurst’s fifth-year option and he had a good-not-great 2020 season. However, there’s still a chance for Hurst to prove himself under a new, tight end-friendly coaching staff.

Normally, the addition of a player like Kyle Pitts would mean the end of relevance for the TE2, but not in Arthur Smith’s offense. Smith ran 12 personnel (2-TE sets) at the highest rate of any team in the NFL in 2020, and could do it even more in Atlanta this season. Hurst is likely to be the secondary receiving option opposite Pitts, and should still see a high volume of snaps on a weekly basis.

Lee Smith

6’6, 265 | 2020 Stats: 4 receptions for 35 yards (8.8 YPR) and 2 TD

The Falcons didn’t just bring in a top tight end in the draft—they also quietly added one of the NFL’s best blockers in veteran Lee Smith. In a largely unheralded trade, Atlanta sent a 7th-rounder to the Bills to acquire the services of Smith, who put up a very good 79.0 PFF grade in 2020. Smith is entering his age 34 season and is a strong run and pass blocker who can be trusted in-line. He’s never put up big numbers as a receiver, but he is sure-handed, catching 83% of his targets throughout his career. Notably, two of his 4 receptions last season went for TDs—and we know how Smith loves to use his TEs creatively. Expect Smith to be the primary blocking option in TE packages.

THE TE4 BATTLE: Ryan Becker, Jaeden Graham, Parker Hesse

Ryan Becker

6’5, 248 | 2020 Stats: N/A

There’s not much out there on former UDFA Ryan Becker, who spent his college career at SMU and never registered more than 9 receptions in a season. Becker was signed by the Cardinals as a UDFA in 2020, but was cut after training camp. He does have solid size for the position at 6’5, 248, but it would seem to be an uphill battle for him to surpass either Jaeden Graham or Parker Hesse on the depth chart.

Jaeden Graham

6’4, 250 | 2020 Stats: 3 receptions for 25 yards (8.3 YPR)

Another holdover from the previous regime who could have a chance to stick on the roster in 2021, Jaeden Graham has consistently flashed in preseason but has struggled to make it on the field in the regular season. Graham has played best as a receiver, but has failed to make much of an impact as a blocker. Unlocking that part of his game will be key to earning the TE4 job, and perhaps even TE2/3 in future years. He’s also been a solid special teams player, with 9 special teams tackles over the previous two seasons.

Parker Hesse

6’3, 260 | 2020 Stats: N/A

Signing a UDFA with no NFL stats to his name wouldn’t normally provoke much discussion, but the signing of Parker Hesse is unique. For one, Hesse clearly has the eye of Arthur Smith—he was signed as a UDFA by the Titans in 2020, placed on the practice squad, and then brought back on a futures deal for 2021. When Tennessee cut Hesse in May, Smith pounced on the opportunity to bring him to Atlanta after only a few days. Hesse actually played defensive end for most of his college career, transitioning back to tight end in Tennessee. He’s a good special teams player with above-average athleticism, so he’s got a chance to stick if he can prove himself in camp.