Cover 9@9: Important year for Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) reacts after a catch for a first down during the second half against the Houston Texans on Sunday, October 8, 2023, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. 
Miguel Martinz/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) reacts after a catch for a first down during the second half against the Houston Texans on Sunday, October 8, 2023, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  Miguel Martinz/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

1. The no-spin zone: Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts was the first player selected by general manager Terry Fontenot.

Pitts had a fantastic rookie season followed by two not-so-spectacular campaigns.

You can blame part of that on the drop-off in quarterback play with the Falcons going from Matt Ryan to the Marcus Mariota/Desmond Ridder situation.

You can blame part of Pitts’ drop-off on injuries to his knee, hand and an undisclosed injury, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The quarterback issue has been addressed with the signing of Kirk Cousins in free agency. When he gets back healthy, that should solve the quarterback issue for at least the next two seasons and maybe three or four seasons.

With the offseason program having started Tuesday, Pitts needed to be the first one in the building getting ready for what will be a very important fourth season for him.

When asked by the AJC if this was a big season for Pitts, who was selected fourth overall in the 2021 draft, Fontenot did not want to single him out.

“Yeah, I think Kyle’s even said it, how excited he is,” Fontenot said. “It’s a big year for not just Kyle, but Kyle, Drake (London), Bijan (Robinson), go through our guys. Our offensive line. All those guys.”

Several players taken after Pitts are off to great starts to their careers in Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase, Detroit’s Penei Sewell and Dallas’ Micah Parsons.

Chase was taken fifth and has made three Pro Bowls. Sewell was taken seventh and has made two Pro Bowls and helped Detroit reach the NFC championship game last season. He also was named All-Pro last season.

Parsons was taken 12th and has been named to three Pro Bowls and was All-Pro twice while working under former Falcons coach Dan Quinn when he was the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.

We’re not going to get into whether the Falcons took the “best player available” today. We’ll have plenty of time for that before the coming draft, April 25-27 in Detroit.

We just want to keep the focus on Pitts and how this is an important year for him.

“There’s a lot of excitement right now for the right reasons,” Fontenot said. “Everyone’s champing at the bit, and it’s our job to do everything we can to make sure we put a winning product on the field, right?”

2. Winning product: The Falcons know they have to at least get on the other side of .500 after sixth consecutive losing seasons.

There also is a “playoffs or bust” feel to next season.

“It’s time for us to put together some winning seasons and get some of the sustained winning that we need,” Fontenot said. “So not only Kyle, really our entire building is excited right now for good reasons.”

3. Cousins’ timeline: Signing Cousins was huge for the Falcons.

Getting him healthy will be even bigger.

So, let’s review the timeline.

He was injured Oct. 28 and had surgery Nov. 1.

The recovery time is nine to 12 months. So, nine months would be early August, shortly after the start of training camp.

If he’s back by the 10th month, he’s ready to start the season. Back by the 11th month, then Taylor Heinicke gets called from the bullpen.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

4. April meetings underway: Fontenot noted that the team’s April meetings would start as the Falcons make their final push toward the draft.

“It’s all wide open,” Fontenot said. “Leading up to the draft. Sometimes there can be opportunities. There’s always, again, another wave of free agency after the draft and look even as we get into the season, early season, mid-season, you know, trades. It 24/7, 365.”

5. Offseason dates: The NFL released the dates for the Falcons’ voluntary offseason workout programs Friday.

The offseason program started Tuesday.

The Falcons can have two minicamps because they have a new coach in Raheem Morris.

The voluntary minicamp is April 22-24, right before the NFL draft, which is set for April 25-27.

The team’s OTAs dates: May 13-14, May 16, May 20-21, May 23, June 3-4 and June 6.

The mandatory minicamp is set for June 10-12.

The dates are subject to change at the discretion of the Falcons.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

6. Shaffer over Salyer: In 2022, the Falcons apparently took the wrong offensive linemen from Georgia. Our buddy Bill Shanks was quick to point this out on X/Twitter.

With Justin Shaffer, who played at Cedar Grove High, and Jamaree Salyer, of Pace Academy, on the board, the Falcons took Shaffer with the 190th pick.

Salyer went five picks later (195th) to the Chargers. Salyer started 14 of 17 games as a rookie and all 17 games last season.

Shaffer never got on the field with the Falcons in a regular-season game and was released March 28.

Shaffer was the first player from Georgia drafted by the Falcons since Akeem Dent in 2011 (third round).

A former All-SEC second-team player, Shaffer couldn’t crack the Falcons’ interior offensive line rotation. He was surpassed by Ryan Neuzil, an undrafted free agent from Appalachian State, free agent Kyle Hinton and Jovaughn Gwyn, who was drafted in the seventh round out of South Carolina in the 2023 draft.

Also, when they needed someone to step forward at left guard, the Falcons drafted Matthew Bergeron in the second round of the 2023 draft out of Syracuse.

Bergeron started all 17 games last season. Neuzil served as the backup guard and center. Also, Hinton started one game at right guard for Chris Lindstrom last season.

Salyer went in at left tackle for Chargers after Rashawn Slater suffered an injury in Week 4 of the 2022 season and he has stayed in the lineup. He moved to right guard in 2023 when Slater returned from injury.

7. Jersey numbers: Falcons wide receiver Darnell Mooney will wear jersey No. 1, wide receiver Rondale Moore No. 9 and wide receiver/returner Ray-Ray McCloud, No. 14.

8. Locals day: The Falcons’ locals day is set for April 12.

Nebraska running back Anthony Grant, who played at Buford High, has an invitation. Grant started his college career at Florida State and transferred to New Mexico Military Institute.

Cornerback Qwan’tez Stiggers, the CFL rookie of the year who didn’t play in college, has a conflict and will be on a personal visit. He played at B.E.S.T. Academy.

9. Offseason depth chart: Here’s the revised offseason depth chart without Shaffer and defensive lineman Ikenna Enechukwu, who was released on Tuesday:

OFFENSE

QB – Kirk Cousins, Taylor Heinicke

RB – Bijan Robinson, Tyler Allgeier, Avery Williams, Carlos Washington Jr.

FB – Tucker Fisk, Robert Burns

WR – Drake London, Josh Ali, Austin Mack

Slot WR – Rondale Moore, Ray-Ray McCloud

TE – Kyle Pitts, Charlie Woerner, John FitzPatrick

LT – Jake Matthews, Tyler Vrabel, Barry Wesley

LG – Matthew Bergeron, John Leglue

C – Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil, Jovaughn Gwyn

RG – Chris Lindstrom, Kyle Hinton

RT – Kaleb McGary, Storm Norton, Ryan Swoboda

WR – Darnell Mooney, KhaDarel Hodge, Chris Blair

DEFENSE 3-4 alignment

DE – Zach Harrison, Kentavius Street, Demone Harris

NT – David Onyemata, LaCale London, Tommy Togiai

DT – Grady Jarrett, Kentavius Street, Ta’Quon Graham, Willington Previlon

LOLB – Arnold Ebiketie, Ade Ogundeji

LILB – Kaden Elliss, Donavan Mutin, Milo Eifler

RILB – Troy Andersen, Nate Landman

ROLB – Lorenzo Carter, DeAngelo Malone

CB – A.J. Terrell

Nickel CB – Mike Hughes, Dee Alford

FS – Jessie Bates III, Micah Abernathy, Tre Tarpley III

SS – DeMarcco Hellams, Richie Grant, Lukas Denis

CB – Clark Phillips III, Natrone Brooks

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P/H – Bradley Pinion

LS – Liam McCullough

PR – Ray-Ray McCloud or Avery Williams

KOR – Ray-Ray McCloud or Avery Williams

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