Falcons’ 2021 season review: wide receivers/tight ends

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts talks about making the Pro Bowl as a rookie in the NFL.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Editor’s note: This is the third of an eight-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ 2021 season under first-year coach Arthur Smith.

FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons made Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end of the modern era when they selected him with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 draft.

Pitts had a strong rookie season, as he caught 68 of a team-leading 110 targets for 1,026 yards and a touchdown. He was selected to the Pro Bowl and displayed that he’s going to be a major weapon on offense.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Falcons

After wide receiver Calvin Ridley left the team Oct. 31 to attend to his mental well-being, more was put on Pitts’ plate.

“I kind of do my best to not even think about anything in the area of pressure because that will kind of weigh you down mentally and physically,” Pitts said. “So just, you know, just roll with the punches, everything that happened and all the injuries that happened this year … this team kept fighting. Other people having to go to other positions. But I didn’t think it was nothing too difficult to weigh me down.”

On locker clean-out day, Pitts and the Falcons felt they’d built a strong bond over a tough 7-10 season.

“It was still a great vibe,” Pitts said. “We are still a team, a brotherhood. It was a close bond that we all had. A lot of rookies ending Year 1, guys just finishing the year out healthy. (There were) no negative vibes. It (was) all good.”

ExploreKyle Pitts made his rookie season look easy

Wide receiver Russell Gage, after being slowed by an ankle sprain, came on down the stretch. He caught 66 of 94 targets for 770 yards and four touchdowns. He made a spectacular touchdown catch in the San Francisco game Dec. 19.

Overall, I think I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished throughout the season,” Gage said. “There were ups and downs, personal goals that I reached and some I didn’t reach. Overall, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied, but I’m proud of what I accomplished. I can’t wait for this offseason to build and get ready for the next season.”

Gage is set to be an unrestricted free agent March 16.

“I love Atlanta,” Gage said. “I don’t know what the future holds for me, but this is a great organization. I definitely would love to be a part of it. It’s always going to have a special place in my heart because they are the ones who gave me an opportunity.”

Gage was drafted in the sixth round of the 2018 draft out of LSU. He’s caught 193 passes through four seasons for 2,065 yards and nine touchdowns.

We’ll see moving forward what Atlanta wants to do and go from there,” Gage said.

Gage has played out a four-year, $2.6 million contract that averaged $654,049 annually. He’s set up for a decent raises either with the Falcons or elsewhere.

My mom always says it’s good to have options and all of that,” Gage said. “I love Atlanta, I love it here. In my mind, they have first priority as far as I’m concerned for me. If those guys start talking, I’m going to talk back. They have a special place in my heart here, and I’m hoping the same on their end. (That’s) how I look at it.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was pleased with Gage’s play.

“I think Russ did a good job,” Ryan said. “I really do. I think battling through injury early in the year kind of takes a little bit of time to get your legs back underneath you. But second half of the season or last six weeks, whatever, I think he’s played well for us. Made a lot of plays and did a nice job. Had a bigger role for us, and I think stepped up and made a bunch of really good plays for us.”

Ryan would like for Gage to return.

“I love Russ as a teammate,” Ryan said. “I love how much he’s grown as a player during his time here. Also, I understand the nature of this league. It’s hard to predict how things are going to go.”

The Falcons didn’t pick up the $5.4 million fifth-year option for tight end Hayden Hurst. He appears headed for free agency, along with tight ends Lee Smith and Jaeden Graham.

Hurst had the eighth most targets on the team. He caught 26 of 31 targets for 221 yards and three touchdowns.

“Not exactly what I dreamed of in April,” said Hurst, a former first-round pick. “All I can do is do the best with my opportunities whenever they come. I showed that this year in flashes.”

Hurst sensed that he’d be moving on after two seasons with the Falcons.

“I just want an opportunity wherever it is,” Hurst said. “Here or wherever. I know the type of player that I am, what I can bring to the table and bring to a team. All I ask for is opportunities.”

He hasn’t completely ruled out returning to the Falcons.

“That’s up to Arthur and Terry,” Hurst said. “All I can do is show up and make the most of my opportunities, and I think that I showed that this year. I honestly have no idea.”

Despite not having his option not picked up, Hurst handled the tough situation like a professional. He didn’t act out like Takk McKinley did in 2020, which led to his release.

“It’s a business, I’ve learned that,” Hurst said. " All that I can control is what I put out on the field on Sundays. All the stuff whether my number gets called or doesn’t get called, I can control how I react to it and go out there and play for my teammates.”

Smith mostly was a blocking tight end, and Parker Hesse, a former defensive end at Iowa, made some contributions late in the season.

Tajae Sharpe and Olamide Zaccheaus basically split the No. 2 wide receiver spot. Christian Blake and rookie Frank Darby primarily helped on special teams.

The Falcons need help at wide receiver even if Ridley returns.

The Falcons are hoping that Darby, a sixth-round pick from Arizona State, can make some strides over the offseason. He played in 10 games and caught one of his four targets for 14 yards.

“Frank to me is energy,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. “It’s contagious. When you see him out there in practice, he’s running around and everything is full speed. He doesn’t know how to take anything half-speed. He’s always there with a smile on his face. He loves what he does. He brings a great work ethic. To me, that’s only going to help him moving forward.”

Atlanta Falcons’ position-by-position analysis:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Quarterbacks

Part 3: Wide Receivers/Tight ends

Part 4: Offensive line

Part 5: Defensive line

Part 6: Linebackers

Part 7: Defensive backs

Part 8: Special teams

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