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2023 Falcons roster review: Surprise and disappointment at tight end

Atlanta boasted a pair of effective receiving tight ends, but the better player was not the one we all expected.

Indianapolis Colts v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons under Arthur Smith were in love with the tight end position, and 2023 was no exception. The team ran a ton of two tight end sets, made a point of trading for Jonnu Smith to pair with Kyle Pitts, and if not for an injury to Felipe Franks may well have subjected us to some remarkable three tight end formations with Pitts, Smith, and Franks. It should have led to huge production.

Instead, there’s a slightly bitter aftertaste after 2023. Pitts and Smith were among the 20 or so most productive tight ends in the NFL as pass catchers, which means the Falcons got a lot of catches out of the group. Between Pitts recovering from injury and the drag poor quarterbacking placed on the whole team, though, there’s a sense that the Falcons could have gotten much more out of tight end than they did.

Is that fair? Let’s talk about that, as well as the uncertain long-term outlook for the tight end position.

Key players

TE Kyle Pitts

This was supposed to be a rebound year for Pitts, the hyper-gifted tight end who saw his rookie year promise evaporate in 2022 with poor quarterbacking and injury dooming him to limited production. Pitts did play a full season and enjoyed improved production, but poor quarterbacking and recovery from injury still impacted his 2023.

As we learned after the season was over, Pitts’ recovery from injury was even more significant than expected, and he was battling through that all year trying to regain his 2021 form. In light of that, the production he did enjoy looks more impressive, and Pitts was 11th in the NFL in tight end targets (86), 16th in receptions (53), 11th in yardage (667), and tied for 18th in touchdowns (3). Couple that with the level of quarterback play he was enduring and Pitts had a fine season, even if the production is well short of what both Pitts himself and fans were hoping for.

Expectations have bedeviled Pitts ever since he arrived in the NFL, because when you take a tight end higher than any tight end has ever been taken before, you expect greatness, not merely top 15 finishes in many statistical categories. That will be the case until Pitts delivers on that promise—if he does—but it shouldn’t prevent us from acknowledging that he’s making at least small strides as a blocker and has proven to be a reliable receiving option.

The question long-term is whether the Falcons can truly unlock Pitts’ full potential and whether he’ll be here beyond the next season or two, but a healthy Pitts will hopefully deliver a fantastic 2024 season.

TE Jonnu Smith

I told many incredulous Patriots fans before the season that Jonnu Smith was going to revive his career in Atlanta after two lackluster seasons in New England, simply because I was betting on his natural talent and Arthur Smith’s clear understanding of how to maximize the veteran tight end. For once in my life, I was right.

Smith didn’t exactly shine in Pro Football Focus’s eyes, as he was ranked the 57th-best tight end in the NFL, but he was 19th at the position in targets (69) and receptions (50), 15th in yardage (582), and tied for 18th in touchdowns with Pitts (3), which means he was statistically a top 20 tight end as Atlanta’s second fiddle. The Falcons were the only team in the NFL that ran with 12 personnel as their primary grouping, as my colleague Will McFadden noted recently, and that meant tons of opportunities for Smith.

There were some frustrating drops in there and an inexplicable goal line pass, but otherwise Smith was one of the team’s most dependable contributors. He was 24th in the NFL among all receivers, tight ends, and running backs in terms of average yards after the catch, and had the highest passer rating on passes to him of any receiving option with over 20 targets. Desmond Ridder in particular found a rapport with Smith that worked, and Smith rewarded him with consistently productive targets. The team’s lack of capable, healthy receivers certainly helped Smith’s production, but he played well overall and was one of the few bright spots in a pretty miserable offense.

TE MyCole Pruitt

There were moments for Parker Hesse and there was a tiny role for John FitzPatrick, but Pruitt was effectively the team’s third tight end. He managed nine grabs on 11 targets for 110 yards and a touchdown, and was customarily strong in pass protection even with a couple of weak games mixed in. There were a small handful of truly frustrating penalties along the way for Pruitt, but with the advantage of a little distance from those, it’s hard to argue that Pruitt was anything but a capable third option for Atlanta.

Overall performance: Solid

We now know that Kyle Pitts was certainly hampered by his recovery from injury all year long, which impacted his production and the outlook for this position group overall. Still, Pitts was a useful receiving option and Smith was too, with Pruitt chipping in when called upon. The team heavily leveraged their tight ends and saw solid production from doing so.

Given the expectations for Pitts and just how heavily the Falcons utilized their tight ends, it’s hard not to feel like they should have gotten more out of this group, but that likely only would have happened if the Falcons had more competent quarterback play.

Outlook: Uncertain

Pitts has a fifth-year option coming up the team may not pick up. Jonnu Smith has an expensive year coming up without the coach who loves him running the team. MyCole Pruitt and Parker Hesse also are Arthur Smith guys and free agents, and John FitzPatrick couldn’t get much run even with the coaching staff that drafted him. The Feleipe Franks project is likely over with Smith’s departure, as well.

That leaves Pitts and FitzPatrick as the only two tight ends certain to be on the roster this coming season, and even then, it’s at least within the realm of possibility that the Falcons could move him for draft picks or a different player. It would be a wildly disappointing end to Pitts’ career in Atlanta, but there simply are no sure things at tight end for this team right now. That’s especially true, again, with the position likely to experience some sort of depreciation in value with tight end enthusiast Smith headed to the Steelers and Zac Robinson joining up as the new offensive coordinator.

The bright side of this is that Kyle Pitts should be fully healthy now that he’ll be nearly two years removed from a serious MCL and PCL injury that clearly impacted him in 2023, even if the team was maddeningly squirrelly about that all year long. I think we’ve sort of forgotten what a healthy Pitts with solid quarterbacking can do, but his rookie season gave us a look at just how talented he is. Fifth year option or not, PItts has a chance to show everyone why the Falcons felt so comfortable picking him at #4 in the 2021 NFL Draft, and a resurgence will mean very good things for this offense. Hell, if FitzPatrick is the second or even third tight end, he should get a chance to show off his blocking skills and might be able to make at least a small impact as a receiver, which is not nothing for a sixth round selection.

But it is difficult to be certain about much of anything right now. Jonnu Smith’s contract may well push him off the team as the Falcons look for cap relief, Pruitt, Hesse, and Franks are possibly-to-probably gone, and we don’t know quite what to expect from Pitts or FitzPatrick. I’m hoping Pitts can revive a once-promising career here in 2024 and that FitzPatrick will be a useful player, but with so much uncertainty, seeing will be believing for this unsettled group.