Fantasy Football: Kyle Pitts Is in a Perfect Situation to Shine as a Rookie
Despite the warnings of history, the Atlanta Falcons took the plunge and spent the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on tight end Kyle Pitts. They chose not to draft a potential quarterback of the future in Justin Fields. Nor did they upgrade their offensive line with Penei Sewell. Instead, they made Pitts the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history.
On the surface, it may have seemed that the Falcons had no screaming need to add to their tight end room in the NFL Draft. After all, last year Hayden Hurst was top 10 among all tight ends with 56 receptions, and his 571 receiving yards were good for 14th-most at the position. But it would take an analyst with great generosity of spirit, or one related to Hurst, to describe him as a big playmaker. He averaged 10.2 yards per reception and a fairly ordinary 6.6 yards per target. In fact, among the 26 tight ends with at least 50 targets last season, Hurst ranked seventh-worst in Target Success Rate (I.e., the percentage of targets leading to increases in Net Expected Points).
An Ideal Environment to Flourish
Pitts is a far more dynamic athlete than Hurst, and likely a far better receiver. But the two should be able to co-exist in 2021 at the very least.
The Falcons' new head coach, Arthur Smith, is a former tight ends coach himself and comes with a history of heavy tight end deployment during his tenure as the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans. No team lined up with two tight ends on the field in 2020 more than the Titans, who went with 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers) on 35% of their offensive plays, according to Sharp Football Stats. The Titans also targeted their tight ends on 29% of their passes last season (which was tied for fourth-highest), with players like Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser the beneficiaries. Neither of these players can claim to be the athlete that Pitts is.
All parties should also benefit from the departure of Julio Jones. Jones is now a member of the Titans. His absence, allied to that of several other players, leaves the Falcons without 195 targets from last season, which is tied for the fifth-most vacated targets in the league.
Calvin Ridley will no doubt see a bump in his workload. However, that should leave plenty for Pitts as the de facto second option in the receiving game. Even if Hurst fully replicates his 2020 volume production, that still should leave plenty of opportunities for Pitts, as those vacated targets will have to go somewhere.
There is a chance the Falcons will want to run the ball in 2021. This was the M.O. of the Titans when Smith was calling the plays -- they had the third-lowest pass-to-run ratio in 2020. However, Smith had the benefit of the bulldozing presence of Derrick Henry in Tennessee, a player who on his day makes establishing the run almost a pleasure for his team. Meanwhile, the Falcons averaged just 95.6 rushing yards per game last season, and with Todd Gurley and Ito Smith no longer on the books and no significant additions made in the NFL Draft, the team looks like they'll be riding with Mike Davis as their lead back heading into 2021.
While Davis is a nice player, he's hardly anywhere close to the caliber of a Derrick Henry. Among the 47 backs with at least 100 totes in 2020, Davis ranked 32nd in Rushing NEP per carry and 29th in Rushing Success Rate (I.e., the percentage of carries that lead to positive NEP for a team’s offense).
The Falcons will likely be taking to the air quite often in the coming year, even if they don't want to.
The Historical Argument
The elephant in the room, and quite a hefty one, as elephants tend to be, is that history is not on the side of Pitts and the Falcons. Productive rookie tight ends have not been plentiful in NFL history. One tight end has eclipsed the 1,000 receiving yards mark in his rookie season since the NFL was formed. That was Mike Ditka who gained 1,076 yards in 1961. Since the dawn of the 21st century, only 12 tight ends have managed 500 yards or more in their first seasons.
We can't say just because it is uncommon for rookie tight ends to fire then Pitts definitely won't. The circumstances seem to be right for him to emerge as a playmaker from day one. A porous defense, a complete lack of proven playmakers in the receiving corps beyond Ridley, and a far-from-impressive ground game. These are all factors in Pitts's favor, as is the fact that he was the highest draft tight end in league history.
Pitts is currently the TE4 in ADP over in NFC drafts. Only Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Darren Waller are being taken ahead of him. Our projections have him at the TE5, behind the big three and Mark Andrews. numberFire's models have the rookie amassing 77.5 receptions, 889.2 yards, and 6.8 scores. When adjusted for 16 games, that projection would have had him finish as the TE3 in half-PPR leagues last season.
It sounds crazy, but we could finally see a genuine fantasy superstar rookie at the tight end spot.