Falcons cornerback Casey Hayward: ‘Sky is the limit’ for tight end Kyle Pitts

Falcons veteran cornerback Casey Hayward has been teammates with some stellar tight ends over the past decade. He played with Jermichael Finley in Green Bay, Antonio Gates with the Chargers and Darren Waller with the Raiders.

Hayward believes his newest tight-end teammate, Kyle Pitts, belongs in the same conversation entering his second season.

“He has a chance to be elite,” Hayward said Friday. “He’s really good. I’ve been around some really, really good tight ends. … He has the potential to be one of those guys. I think going into Year 2, the sky is the limit for him.”

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Pitts, 21, gained 1,026 receiving yards last season, making him the first rookie tight end to cross the 1,000-yard threshold since Mike Ditka in 1961. He set the Falcons’ single-season records for yards by a rookie and a tight end, besting Julio Jones’ and Tony Gonzalez’s high marks.

That Pitts unseated two franchise icons in the record books during his first season is a testament to his rare ability. The Falcons selected him fourth overall, making him the highest drafted tight end in NFL history, after he scorched SEC defenses at Florida. He was expected to immediately produce as a top-tier player, and he delivered.

Pitts is a terror for opposing defenses, possessing menacing physical traits. He’s simply too big and too fast for most defenders. His size-speed combination, along with his comfort at hauling in contested catches, essentially puts him in a favorable position against any linebacker or defensive back.

“He has a different speed than most tight ends,” Hayward said. “Wide receiver speed. He doesn’t really drop balls or anything like that. And he’s still savvy with his routes.” When asked to compare Waller and Pitts, Hayward acknowledged Waller is “probably” a bit faster while Pitts “has a bit more wiggle.”

There haven’t been many positives written about the Falcons as training camp began this week. The outside consensus is that this rebuilding team is destined for a top-five choice in the next draft. But Pitts is an unquestioned bright spot, a pillar on which the next high-powered Falcons offense will be built.

Pitts feels more comfortable this July than in his rookie camp, knowing what to expect. He thinks he’s a smarter player, having experienced the tactics defenses will use trying to neutralize him, and a stronger individual thanks to a consistent regimen. He also believes he’s a more refined route runner, an area he emphasized in the offseason.

“The game has slowed down just a tad,” Pitts said with a smile and laugh. “Just a little bit slower than last year. I’m more confident, knowing the game and seeing different defenses.”

Despite his age, Pitts has emerged as a leader of the offense. He takes pride in assuming that role, becoming one of the go-to voices in the locker room who sets the example for others.

“It’s something that comes with adulting and maturing,” he said, adding he uses more of an encouraging style of leadership rather than the rah-rah tougher form that’s common in the NFL.

Pitts has statistical goals for himself this season – he had only one touchdown a season ago, so that’s an obvious area for improvement – but he wouldn’t share those publicly. “That’s confidential,” he said.

Expect quarterback Marcus Mariota (and Desmond Ridder if/when he plays) to try his best to help Pitts reach the undisclosed numbers. Pitts’ involvement is paramount to any hopes the Falcons have of exceeding expectations. Look at Waller: the last full season he played (2020), he and fellow tight end Travis Kelce tied for sixth in the NFL with 145 targets. Baltimore’s Mark Andrews led tight ends with 153 targets last season, followed by Kelce (134).

Pitts had 68 catches on 110 targets. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if both numbers go up considerably, even if the Falcons boast a rejuvenated running game. Pitts is the Falcons’ most talented player, and having him for the long term will give them reason for optimism on even their toughest days.