Preparing for the Atlanta Falcons versus Chicago Bears contest this weekend confronts us with revisiting the Falcons’ choice to select tight end Kyle Pitts over quarterback Justin Fields with the fourth overall draft selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Given where both Pitts and Fields are in their respective careers midway through their second seasons adds additional context and fodder for discussion.
Fields has blossomed over the past month with the Bears, despite the team being on a three-game losing streak. But those losses aren’t quite on Fields, as the Bears have revamped the ways they’ve used Fields to feature his exceptional running abilities. Fields’ passer rating over the past five games stands at 96.3, which ranks 11th among NFL quarterbacks over that span, yet more impressively, he’s rushed for a league-high 555 yards.
The Bears have enhanced Fields’ passing ability thanks in part to their embrace of play-action passing. Over this five-game span, the Bears have dialed up play action on 41.5 percent of Fields’ dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus putting him third behind Tua Tagavailoa (53.4 percent) and the Falcons’ very own Marcus Mariota (44.2 percent). Prior to that point, only 25.3 percent of Fields’ dropbacks featured play action.
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Pitts’ production has been nothing but stagnant in 2022 with Mariota at the helm. He’s had just two games this year where he’s caught four or more passes, which also happen to be the only games in which he’s had more than 30 yards receiving. That comes on the heels of a near-historic rookie season where Pitts averaged four catches and over 60 yards per game.
In 2022 Pitts plays in a run-heavy Falcons offensive attack, but so does Fields. The Bears (59.6 percent) and Falcons (56.1 percent) are the top two teams in terms of the highest percentage of their offense being run plays. But clearly, Fields is more directly contributing to that success than Pitts. While the latter has proven a competent blocker, few envisioned that being his primary contribution to the Falcons’ offense when the team made him the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history. According to PFF, 49.5 percent of Pitts’ snaps this year have featured him as a blocker. The last time the Falcons had a starting tight end that spent roughly half his snaps blocking was Levine Toilolo (49.8 percent) back in 2014.
Pitts fit well with the 2021 vision of Falcons but things have since changed
The selection of Pitts at the time made a lot of sense given most expectations about the future of the Falcons' offense. Matt Ryan was still the team’s quarterback then and many had visions of him resurrecting his increasingly stagnant career under the play-calling of new head coach Arthur Smith while throwing to a bevy of unguardable weapons like Pitts, Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley.
Of course, those visions shriveled on the vine. Jones was traded a little more than a month after Pitts’ selection. Ridley stepped away from playing football by the midpoint of 2021 (and has since been traded), and Ryan wound up unceremoniously dumped this past offseason after the team flirted with controversy in their attempts to acquire quarterback Deshaun Watson. Now Pitts is stuck making do in a run-heavy offense that rarely seems to get him the ball, much to the chagrin of Falcon fans and fantasy football owners across the globe.
Recently Smith has only further upset that demographic with his renewed commitment to Mariota remaining the team’s starting quarterback. Given Mariota’s ugly performance in his most recent outing against the Carolina Panthers, it would appear less a commitment to the quarterback himself but rather a commitment to the style of offense that the Falcons currently employ. That is a style of offense based on their similarly high usage of the run game, a mobile quarterback, and play-action passing that is nearly identical to the Bears.
That might make one wonder if the Falcons would have been better off selecting Fields. Outside of his most recent game, Mariota has not been awful over the past month, but one can’t help but get a feeling of stagnation with him at the helm versus the feeling of optimism that surrounds Fields as he begins to take his next steps as a passer. There’s no doubt that Fields still has a lot of work ahead of him, but the future in Chicago seems a lot brighter.
A switch to Desmond Ridder could unlock Pitts’ potential
Perhaps the Falcons could share a more optimistic outlook by plugging in their young, promising quarterback Desmond Ridder but Smith has continually thrown cold water on those hopes for months. While a Ridder-led Falcons offense would likely still heavily rely on the run game, one would assume that’s only the starting point and eventually would see the offense evolve over time. That’s the assumption of youth whether or not it proves true in reality: That in time, skills will improve. Such an assumption cannot be made with Mariota, who is in the midst of his eighth NFL season.
At the very least, a Ridder-led Falcons would seemingly be better at getting Pitts the ball. According to SportsLine, Pitts has seen the highest percentage of off-target throws in his direction this year. This is why his catch rate went from an impressive 62 percent as a rookie with Ryan under center to an abysmal 46 percent now with Mariota. A switch to Ridder would give fans hope that the team’s unicorn of a tight end would more often resemble the mythical creature he’s reputed to be. Until the Falcon can find a competent passing quarterback, it appears that Pitts’ unique skillset will continue to be wasted by the team.
All this reaffirms one of my long-held beliefs that NFL decision-makers don’t have any grand plans for team-building years in the making but are just making it up as they go. If ahead of the 2021 Draft Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot had the foresight to see the 2022 Falcons sporting such a run-heavy attack, one doubts they would have deemed Pitts or any pass-catcher to be the “best player available.”
Hindsight tells us the current version of the Falcons' offense would probably look better with Fields under center than Mariota, and the team could have still wound up selecting wideout Drake London with their No. 1 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft under the auspices of giving Fields a weapon to fill the void left by the departures of Jones and Ridley. That would mirror how the Bears recently acquired wide receiver Chase Claypool at the trade deadline to fill a similar role.
It’s not uncommon in the NFL to see really talented receivers spend most of their careers playing with bad quarterbacks. But in the majority of those cases, those receivers still produce at a high clip. That isn’t the situation for Pitts currently in Atlanta, and we’re steadily approaching a day when “Free Kyle Pitts” becomes a globally trending topic and hashtag on social media.
Big game vs. Bears can quiet second-guessing of Pitts pick
This weekend that may be front and center for a lot of fans and fantasy football types, especially if a Fields-led Bears team beats the Falcons. Fortunately for the Falcons, that is not a forgone conclusion given the lackluster Bears' defense. Currently ranked 31st in Expected Points Added per pass play, those defensive struggles are the main contributor to why they’ve lost three consecutive games despite Fields’ improvements, having given up a league-worst 38.3 points per game over that span.
Therefore, Sunday’s game does represent a golden opportunity to shift the narrative for both Mariota and Pitts with the Bears’ pass defense is ripe for the picking. If the Falcons duo can’t feast against the Bears, then it’s unlikely it’ll happen at any point the rest of this season.
The fact is the Pitts selection won’t be fully vindicated or redeemed until the Falcons get better play out of their quarterback. That also applies to the Smith-Fontenot regime as a whole. It’s no secret that team success is heavily linked to stability at the quarterback position. Right now, it’s clear that Mariota is not providing that stability. It’s yet undetermined if Ridder would, but regardless of who it winds up being, the Falcons need to find that steadying force. Until then, we’ll continue to wonder what could have been if Fields had been the selection.
How did you view the selection of Pitts over Fields at the time it was made, and has that view changed in the 18 months since? Do you think Ridder is the solution to the Falcon quarterback concerns or should we be more patient with Mariota?