One of the more settled position groups on the roster, tight end was looking pretty good for the Atlanta Falcons heading in to the 2022 NFL Draft. Although the team lost Hayden Hurst to free agency and veteran Lee Smith to retirement, the depth chart was in good shape with Kyle Pitts at the top and a solid TE3/4 candidate in former UDFA Parker Hesse.
Atlanta then added veteran Anthony Firkser to take over TE2 duties, which took the pressure off to find an instant-impact rookie across from Kyle Pitts. The Falcons instead opted to draft a blocking specialist late in sixth round, Georgia’s John FitzPatrick, to take over the Lee Smith role.
Now that the offseason dust has cleared, let’s take a closer look at Atlanta’s tight end room and the outlook for the 2022 season.
TE1: Kyle Pitts
2021 Stats: 68 receptions, 1026 yards (15.1 YPR), 1 TD | 80.3 overall PFF grade | 9.66 RAS
The most dynamic threat in the Falcons offense, Kyle Pitts had an electric rookie season which saw him break pretty much every tight end record on the books for Atlanta and nearly match the legendary rookie season of Mike Ditka. An elite height/weight/speed athlete with exceptional hands, Pitts absolutely looked the part of the next top TE in the NFL and was rewarded with a Pro Bowl selection.
The one area of his game where Pitts needs improvement is in the red zone, as he notched just one TD in 2021 and didn’t receive as many targets as expected. There were a multitude of reasons for this—Atlanta’s OL was horrid, there weren’t any other legitimate receiving threats for much of the season, and Pitts himself was adjusting to the more physical NFL game. There’s no reason to think Pitts won’t improve in this area, and when he does...watch out.
TE2: Anthony Firkser
2021 Stats: 34 receptions, 291 yards (8.6 YPR), 2 TD | 54.8 overall PFF grade | 5.07 RAS
The Falcons didn’t get much out of Hayden Hurst at TE2 in 2021—a mere 26 receptions for 221 yards (8.5 YPR) and 3 TD—which was disappointing when combined with his poor blocking and three fumbles. This year, Atlanta brought in former Titans starter Anthony Firkser—who has extensive experience with Arthur Smith—to fill the complementary role opposite Pitts.
While Firkser isn’t an impactful blocker, he does offer some H-back flexibility and has generally been a reliable and productive receiver in Smith’s offense. His numbers haven’t been eye-popping (he had a career year in 2020 with 39 receptions for 387 yards), but he’s a cheap, experienced veteran with upside. He’s also a familiar target for presumptive starting QB Marcus Mariota.
TE3/4 competition: Parker Hesse, John FitzPatrick, Daniel Helm
2021 Stats: 5 receptions, 43 yards (8.6 YPR) | 67.4 overall PFF grade | 5.94 RAS
A former UDFA defensive lineman, Parker Hesse converted to tight end under Arthur Smith in 2019. He stuck around on the practice squad through 2020 and signed a futures contract with the Titans in 2021, only to be waived after the draft. Atlanta scooped him up for a reunion with Smith, and Hesse managed to make the Falcons final roster as the TE4. While he was rotated on and off the practice squad, Hesse appeared in eight games and even managed a start late in the season.
Hesse certainly showed some promise as a blocker last season, as his PFF grade can attest. While he’s never going to be a dynamic receiving option, he does have good hands and can certainly function as a relief valve for the quarterback. He’s a favorite to make the roster once again.
2021 Stats (College): 6 receptions, 83 yards (13.8 YPR) | N/A RAS
Atlanta’s final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, John FitzPatrick comes to the Falcons with an impressive size profile and a reputation as a physical, nasty blocker. At 6’7, 250, FitzPatrick is a massive target in the passing game who has shown off reliable hands—though his targets have been quite limited due to the deep TE room at Georgia. We’ll see how quickly FitzPatrick can adjust to the NFL game, but he’s certainly a favorite for the roster as a blocking specialist with receiving upside.
2021 Stats: 1 reception, -1 yards (-1.0 YPR) | 59.9 overall PFF grade | 5.77 RAS
A former UDFA from the 2019 draft, Daniel Helm has bounced around quite a bit over his first few years in the NFL. Originally signed by the Chargers, Helm ended up spending most of the 2019 season on the 49ers practice squad. He’d then appear in five games for the 49ers in 2020, before signing with the Raiders in 2021. Helm played in 9 games for Las Vegas last season, including his first start. Primarily a blocking specialist, Helm’s experience should give him a leg up, especially for the practice squad.
Practice squad competition: Ryan Becker, Brayden Lenius
While either of the remaining tight ends could win a roster spot, it’ll be a tough mountain to climb. Most likely, these two are competing for a possible practice squad spot with the potential to be a game-day elevation or injury replacement throughout the season. That can be a path to a future on the active roster, as we’ve seen with Parker Hesse.
2021 Stats: N/A
A former UDFA from the 2020 draft, Ryan Becker signed with the Cardinals but was waived at final cuts. He then joined the Falcons for training camp in 2021, but wound up on IR. The team must have liked what they saw, as Becker returned on a futures contract for 2022. He’ll compete once again for a shot at the roster and practice squad.
2021 Stats: N/A | N/A RAS
A former wide receiver, Brayden Lenius went undrafted after the 2018 college football season and wound up drafted into the CFL. He spent 2019 and 2021 (2020 was cancelled due to COVID) with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and finished the 2021 season with 37 receptions for 471 yards and 4 TD. Lenius was granted his release in January 2022 to pursue an NFL career, and the Falcons signed him a few days later. He’s an intriguing developmental project as a receiving tight end.
This might be the best position group on Atlanta’s offense. There’s star power at the top in Kyle Pitts, who could take another step to solidify himself as one of the NFL’s best TEs. Behind Pitts, there’s a quality receiving TE2 in Anthony Firkser who has a history of proven production in the scheme. Then two quality depth pieces in Parker Hesse and sixth-round rookie John FitzPatrick. Daniel Helm could also be a potential sleeper for the roster due to his experience.
The quality and depth of the tight end room should hopefully be able to take some of the pressure off of the receiving corps and allow Arthur Smith to use more 12 and 13 personnel packages. That’s a good thing, with the Falcons relying a ton on rookie Drake London and the potential upside of players like Auden Tate, Damiere Byrd, and Olamide Zaccheaus. If Pitts takes a step forward, particularly in the red zone, Atlanta could have the best tight end situation in the NFC.