Kyle Pitts played as a tight end at Florida and was drafted as a tight end by the Atlanta Falcons. But make no mistake – he is not a tight end. Pitts is a physical freak that was the Gators’ primary receiver for the last two years, and is the only tight end ever to be named as a Fred Biletnikoff finalist as the best receiver in the NCAA. Pitts was selected with the 1.04 pick in the draft as the highest slotted tight end in NFL history.
He’s a generational talent. Pitts is tight-end sized at 6-6 and 245 pounds but runs a wideout-like 4.44 40-time. That’s a size and speed ratio akin to Calvin Johnson. Last year, he was limited to eight games because of a concussion but still caught 12 touchdowns. He carries all the physical traits of an elite receiver, and expectations could not be higher, even though rookie tight ends are notoriously unproductive in their first season.
There’s no arguing the potential that Pitts carries, but what are reasonable expectations for him. Let’s consider the history of first-round tight ends over the last twenty years.
Not a lot of difference-makers for a fantasy team. The tight ends that were Top-10 picks were T.J. Hockenson, Eric Ebron, Vernon Davis, and Kellen Winslow.
Davis is probably the closest parallel to Pitts. He entered the league at 6-3, 250 pounds, and ran a 4.38 40-time. He only started for two years at Maryland and his best year was 51 catches for 871 yards and six touchdowns there. He was also a physical freak in terms of size and speed.
But what is realistic to expect from a rookie tight end, regardless of their pedigree or long-term potential? Fantasy leaguers know that the position seldom produces any fantasy-relevant starters until their second season at the earliest. Since Pitts enters the NFL as the highest drafted tight end, let’s see what were the top seasons ever produced by a rookie tight end.
There’s little commonality between NFL offenses from decades ago and now. The only recent rookie tight end that mattered was Evan Engram in 2017 when the Giants had almost every wide receiver injured and he was the only viable option. And he’s never come close to repeating what he did as a rookie.
Kyle Pitts is almost always the fifth tight end selected in fantasy drafts. Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, George Kittle, and Mark Andrews are typically selected first though T.J. Hockenson occasionally swaps out for Andrews. If Pitts can deliver equally to where he is currently being drafted, he’d turn in around what Mike Gesicki produced in 2020 – 53 catches for 703 yards and six touchdowns. T.J. Hockenson was also in the same area with 67 receptions for 723 yards and six scores. Both were taken as the first or second tight end drafted in 2019 and 2018 but didn’t do much as rookies.
Pitts is not limited by history of course, but it is relevant to forming expectations on a player that has never caught an NFL pass against an NFL defender in an NFL game.
The Atlanta Falcons
Pitts lands in Atlanta for a very nice situation. The Falcons struggled with their tight ends in 2020, but the Dan Quinn era ended in January when Arthur Smith became the new head coach, and he will call the plays. Smith was the offensive coordinator in Tennessee last year and his tight ends combined for 138 targets (No. 6), 94 catches (No. 6), 967 yards (No. 9), and 12 touchdowns (No. 3).
That was without using the most coveted rookie tight end in NFL history. Jonnu Smith had a career-high 41 catches for 448 yards and nine touchdowns. More notable is that the Falcons are under a new coaching regime and they spent their valuable 1.04 pick on Pitts.
They’ve lost Julio Jones, ironically to the Titans that HC Arthur Smith just left. While Russell Gage will step up to fill those shoes, he already did so much of last year. There’s no question that Pitts starts at tight end from Week 1 and that he will be a large part of the offense.
In minicamp, Pitts was the central focus for receiving. And while Arthur Smith’s offense was below average in passes and yardage last year, there is no Derrick Henry in Atlanta. The backfield contains no proven talent beyond journeyman Mike Davis. The Falcons will throw the ball just as much as they did in 2020 when they were around No. 5 in all passing categories.
Pitts is being drafted around the No. 5 or No. 6 tight end in most leagues, occasionally No. 4 by the optimist in the league. While he brings a set of enticing set of physical attributes, he is only 20 years old. He cannot even buy liquor until October 6. He started for two seasons at Maryland and was their best receiver but never caught more than 54 passes in either year.
There are plenty of reasons to expect his rookie year to be his worst as he learns the NFL. He is raw, young, and has to learn a new offense along with the rest of his team mates.
Pitts has been a touchdown magnet. He scored twelve times in eight games last year. He averaged 17.9 yards per catch even though he was the primary focus of the secondary in 2020.
More important than any other fantasy fact is that after the first three or four top fantasy tight ends, the rest don’t really matter. Last year, the difference between No. 4 Mark Andrews (112.1 points) and No. 12 Jared Cook (92.4 points) was only 19.7 points or about one point per game.
That means even if Pitts has a traditional down rookie year, it won’t kill you. And you can always add another tight end that can produce within the mediocrity of those ranked No. 5 and beyond. But Pitts was the highest drafted tight end for many reasons. And one of those is that he might do better than any rookie tight end has ever done.
And to throw just a bit more enticement, the Falcons have the No. 8 passing schedule strength for an easier slate of games than most.