The Atlanta Falcons placed second-year tight end Kyle Pitts on injured reserve Monday afternoon, one day after he injured his knee while aba hard hit over the middle during the team’s 27-24 victory against the Chicago Bears.
It’s a big blow to the Falcons, who remain in contention for the top spot in the NFC South heading into Thanksgiving weekend. They will now have to navigate the foreseeable future without one of their top offensive weapons, and perhaps the remainder of the season if reports of a needed surgery prove true. Pitts has been a big part of an admittedly minimized passing attack in Atlanta, and that’s been especially true recently.
Through 11 weeks, Pitts had 28 receptions for 356 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers don’t attest to the attention he still demands from opposing defenses, which benefits those around him, and his larger-than-expected role as a blocker in 2022.
“One thing about Kyle, while we’re so excited about Kyle and while I love working with the guy, he’s been such a huge impact on this team,” head coach Arthur Smith said Monday. “And I know the numbers aren’t as gaudy as they were as a rookie, he’s been playing through a lot and he’s a tough guy and he’s had a huge impact.”
Pitts’s absence will undoubtedly be felt in Atlanta, and there’s no real replacement option for a player of his caliber. While the team will likely turn to their depth at receiver to help fill in some of that missing production, they do also have some options at tight end who can now step up.
Here are the four guys currently on Atlanta’s roster at the tight end spot:
A mid-camp signing, Pruitt has been effective in very limited doses this season. His first catch of the season was a 2-yard touchdown against San Francisco that helped set the tone for that game. He’s now registered a catch in three straight games, bringing his total to four on the season for 31 yards. Pruitt has history with Arthur Smith dating back to their time together in Tennessee, but he was not heavily used as a receiver with the Titans.
Still, the Falcons and Marcus Mariota have shown a willingness to get him a look or two in recent weeks. With Pitts now on the sidelines, perhaps he’ll garner a few more.
“He’s a heavy-handed player, he’s got a great feel for space, he’s a natural athlete, played multiple sports in high school, smart player too,” Smith said of Pruitt.
Given his previous production as a receiver across five NFL seasons – four of which were with the Titans – it was possible to envision a year in which Firkser emerged as a dark-horse option for this offense when the team gathered for training camp. That hasn’t happened. Firkser started the year on the practice squad but was elevated and played in each of the first five games. He’s been inactive each week since, however, signaling that he doesn’t have a very large role with this squad.
This may be his opportunity. During his time in the NFL, Firkser has 109 receptions for 1,146 yards and five touchdowns. He’s got history with Marcus Mariota that stretches beyond this year, and he looked serviceable for Atlanta at the start of the season. He might be the best insurance policy for the Falcons at the position of all the players currently on the roster.
If Firkser is a safer bet, Franks is the bet-it-all-on-black option. One of the most fun players in Falcons training camp, Franks hasn’t yet carried over that promise into the regular season. It was always a longshot that he would sustain that beyond the preseason, and Franks hasn’t capitalized on any of his opportunities so far this year.
Franks is currently dealing with a calf injury, which has held him out of the previous two games. Assuming he can return sometime in the near future, the former college quarterback with tantalizing length and athleticism could possibly do the best impression of Pitts for Atlanta. How the rest of the season unfolds for Franks may have a lot to do with the direction it takes. Assuming Atlanta does want to learn about some of its younger unknowns once the playoffs become a more remote possibility, Franks could be very high on that list.
We thought Franks would be the Falcons’ main gadget player and utility man. Nope, it’s Parker Hesse. The former college defensive lineman has proven to be a wild card of sorts in Atlanta's offense because of his effectiveness as a blocker from multiple angles and starting points.
Perhaps it’s his background on the defensive line that helps him neutralize opponents as a blocker, but he’s been fairly effective in that area. Plus, he’s had a substantial role in many game plans this season, which signals how highly the coaching staff thinks of him. Finally, like Levin Toilolo and Patrick DiMarco before him, he’s a sneaky-good check-down option if used sparingly. Maybe he gets a larger role in Pitts’s absence, but Hesse had already carved out his niche in this offense.
“We got the right guys just like we had to do yesterday in the game,” Smith said. “I thought MyCole Pruitt and Parker played really well, and we have other options. We’ll see where Feleipe is at and Firkser. We’ll find a way, that’s what it is, everybody’s dealing with something around the league.”