Arthur Smith loves tight ends, and by extension, so do the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta is kicking that up a notch in 2023 by featuring three tight ends likely to have major roles in this Falcons offense, with Kyle Pitts set to become a dominant receiving threat, Parker Hesse figuring to get plenty of work as a blocker, and Jonnu Smith seeing mixed work.
With the talent on hand, Arthur Smith's inventive and tight end-friendly offense, and the lack of compelling wide receiver threats beyond Drake London, this position is the sleeping giant of the roster. It would not be stunning to see two tight end looks making up a huge percentage of the team’s offensive snaps, with Pitts’ versatility and Smith and Hesse’s useful skill set translating to some interesting looks for Atlanta. If Pitts blossoms into a true superstar this year thanks to improvement and circumstance and Jonnu Smith bounces back from a lackluster stint in New England, the team might boast one of the most potent tight end rooms in the entire NFL.
Let’s take a closer look at the position and how things are likely to shake out.
Starter: Kyle Pitts
After a rookie season that saw him break the rookie tight end yardage record, expectations were sky-high for Pitts’ 2022. Unfortunately for the player and the team, he didn't reach those heights.
The reasons he didn't reach it are why I'm not remotely down on Pitts. He was injured and missed the last several games of the season, but for all the nitpicking of his route running and effort on downfield balls at times, the reason he had a statistically unimpressive year is clear: Marcus Mariota couldn't get him the ball.
Per Pro Football Focus, 33 of Pitts’ 59 targets in 2022 were considered uncatchable by the 6’6” tight end with major hops and long arms, and that Pitts and Mariota connection was probably the single worst aspect of the quarterbacks 2022 season. Pitts got targets and remains a singular talent; he just needs the ball in his zip code.
Desmond Ridder isn't always the most accurate quarterback, but it's safe to say I expect his connection with Pitts to be far better by default. With improving blocking skills, the ability to line up anywhere and give defenders fits, and a third year of NFL experience loading, Pitts should he in line for his best year yet, especially in the red zone surrounded by other compelling weapons. There's not much more to say, because while Pitts had a down year, he still has the talent to be on of the NFL's best tight ends and most terrifying receiving threats. I expect the roster changes and the cosching staff’s priority to fully unlock that potential.
Key reserves: Jonnu Smith & Parker Hesse
We will look back at the Smith trade as a savvy move even if he plays a relatively minor role. Smith is a shorter tight end and a solid enough blocker who was a major catch and run threat for Arthur Smith's Titans offense for a couple of years. Jonnu averaged 6.8 yards after the catch over those two seasons and broke a tackle every six catches in 2019, serving as an outlet option near the line of scrimmage with an aptitude for picking up a ton of yards.
He's older now and coming off two lackluster years in New England, but Smith is reuniting with the coach who found a compelling role for him and will fly under the radar for defenses who also have to deal with Kyle Pitts, Drake London, Bijan Robinson, and Cordarrelle Patterson, among others. He should have no trouble picking up 40-50 productive targets this year.
Hesse, meanwhile, is only an occasional receiving threat. Where he shines is as a blocker, as he got a huge amount of run in 2021 and 2022 paving the way for the run game and graded out quite well doing so. Because he's easily the most talented and established blocker in this group for a team that is going to run a lot, Hesse will once again play a significant role on early downs in particular, likely sharing the field with London, Mack Hollins, and Pitts.
Roster hopefuls: Feleipe Franks, John FitzPatrick, Tucker Fisk
There are three potential options (John Raine was listed, but was released yesterday) on the roster at the moment for a potential fourth tight end spot.
Franks should be considered a strong bet for a spot, because he’s Smith’s pet project and has at least theoretical utility as an emergency quarterback. After two years working with this coaching staff and entering his second season as a full-time tight end, chances are that he’ll hold on to a spot if he’s made any progress at all.
FitzPatrick should be viewed as a real possibility for a spot, as well, especially if Franks is something like TE5/QB3. Last year’s sixth round pick out of Georgia, FitzPatrick came to the NFL with a reputation as an excellent blocker with at least a little pass-catching promise. If he’s looking good this summer after recovering from an injury that cost him the entire 2021 season, a practice squad at minimum seems like an inevitability.
Fisk is a roster hopeful who have been around for a little bit, having played both tight end and defensive end in college. His best path to a roster spot is built around special teams value and the ability to play versatile roles.
A MyCole Pruitt signing to round out the depth chart should surprise absolutely no one if nobody from this group stands out.
The Falcons have the makings of a terrific three-man group, with a few interesting options to round out the depth chart. We’re counting on Pitts and Jonnu Smith rebounding this year, but both feel like safe bets to do so, and Hesse will continue to play a vital role creating opportunities both in the passing game and the run game. Even if the fourth tight end winds up not being someone with a ton of upside this year, say, Franks or FitzPatrick as a continued development option, Atlanta’s in great shape here.
If things don’t break the right way, this will be a good group at worst. If they do and we get Kyle Pitts truly reaching his potential with Desmond Ridder under center, Atlanta’s tight end corps will be one of the most feared groups in the league. I’m betting pretty heavily on the latter, and that giant won’t be sleeping for long.