The master plan to develop Falcons’ prized rookie Kyle Pitts

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons tight ends coach Justin Peelle talks about Kyle Pitts, the former Florida tight end selected by the Falcons in the 2021 NFL draft.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons tight end coach Justin Peelle could give one of those TED talks on playing the position.

A former All-Academic player at Oregon, Peelle carved out a niche in the NFL and played for 10 seasons, including three with the Falcons (2008-10).

Over his career, Peelle, who will mentor Falcons prized rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, played alongside greats Antonio Gates in San Diego (2002-05) and Tony Gonzalez with the Falcons (2009-10).

After his career was over, Peelle went into coaching and has been with the Eagles. He was their assistant tight ends coach from 2013-14 and was the tight ends coach from 2015-20. He helped turn tight end Zach Ertz into a three-time Pro Bowler and picked up a Super Bowl LII ring after the Eagles’ stunning 41-33 victory over New England on Feb. 4, 2018.

He’ll draw from his experiences to attempt to pull out all of Pitts’ immense potential.

When discussing Gonzalez with Pitts, he’ll point to his work ethic.

“That was the one thing when I met him when I was here, just how tirelessly he worked at the simple fundamentals,” Peelle said. “He has his route-technique stuff that he would do before every practice, catching the balls and things like that. Then watching film was really impressive to me.”

Gonzalez went into the Hall of Fame in 2019, while Gates, an eight-time Pro Bowler, becomes eligible in 2023.

Gates entered the league in 2003 and Peelle in 2002. He can rely stories about how Gates, who was an undrafted basketball player from Kent State, broke into the league.

Ertz, who played at Stanford, was selected in the second round of the 2013 draft.

“I coached Zach for eight years, and Zach had the same thing that I was just talking about with Tony is the work ethic,” Peelle said. “He would always strive to get better, always trying to improve his game.“

Peelle will have a chance to get started with Pitts at the rookie minicamp that starts Thursday and runs through Sunday. He’s studied all of his film during the pre-draft season.

“You saw a couple of times where he would get the No. 1 defender,” Peelle said. “Against Alabama a couple of times, (cornerback Patrick) Surtain was out there on him. Against South Carolina (Jaycee Horn) lined up against him. Then they would roll coverage to him here and there.”

Pitts was a marked man in the SEC.

“Teams were very much aware of where he was and what he was able to do,” Peelle said.

Florida’s coaches spoke highly of Pitts.

“His desire to do well at the position,” Peelle said is the point they stressed. “His willingness to work. His willingness to improve. Just really who the young man was. You can see the skill set on film.”

Pitts and his coaches would sit down and watch coverages and go over different defensive fronts for his blocking assignments.

The Falcons bypassed former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell to pick Pitts fourth overall. Sewell went three picks later and Fields, who started career at Georgia and played at Harrison High, went 11th to the Bears.

“We had very high grades on him even in the previous years,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said of Pitts. “The entire time, like A to Z, he checked all the boxes.”

Peelle saw constant improvement in Pitts’ play.

“What was most impressive for me was the growth that he had from (age) 19 to 20,” Peelle said. “You could see the improvement, and he still has a long ways to go. That’s not a knock. He’s only 20 years old. You could see some areas not from 19 to 20, but from Game 1 (last season) to when he played Alabama in the SEC Championship game. You could just see that he got better.”

Pitts finished his career at Florida with 100 catches for 1,492 yards (14.9 average) and 18 touchdowns. He became Florida’s all-time leader for receiving yards by a tight end and ranked second in career receptions at the position.

“You could see that he has really good ball skills and that he extends to catch the ball,” Peelle said. “A lot of people don’t do that, they’ll let it get into them. He’s got good body control. He can kind of go up, twist and turn and adjust to balls off his frame.”

Early during his career at Florida, Pitts would stay after practice and run routes with the wide receivers.

“It was late nights,” Pitts said. “It was a lot of the older guys that were mentors to me – Van Jefferson, Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain – those are the guys that took me under their wing. When I was playing receiver, we did a lot of nights at the indoor (facility) where we were just grinding with cone work, and I feel that helped me a lot.”

“When I went back to tight end, I could use some of those moves and you don’t really see a tight end using receiver moves some time, so they gave me an edge. I feel like that helped me a lot this year.”

The Falcons also like Pitts’ personality.

“Once you get to know the kid, it’s his personality, his humbleness, (and) he’s got a quiet confidence,” Peelle said. “All of that wrapped up into one is what you’re excited to work with.”

Pitts knows that he must improve his blocking.

“It’s technique, it’s getting stronger, it’s committing to it,” Peelle said. “It’s really an attitude and a mindset. He’s willing to do it and there are times on tape when they asked him to do it on third-and-1 against I believe was against Missouri is the one that sticks out. There was a fourth and-1, and he does a really nice job. He had one against Georgia as well.”

Falcons coach Arthur Smith had four tight ends play more than 200 snaps last season with the Titans. So, the plan is to get Pitts ready to play from Game 1.

“It just kind of instilling that in him, and that’s how we are going to operate, and he’s open to it,” Peelle said. “(We) haven’t had any push back during any of the interviews or anything like that. He’s open to it, and he knows he needs to get better at it, and he will work to get better at it.”

Smith was not shy when he was asked if he expected Pitts to be the opening day starter.

“Yeah, I mean, sure,” Smith said. “He’s going to play. That’s the anticipation. He’s going to have to earn those reps. The way we’ll play in multiple personnel groups. ... We anticipate he should have a big role for us.”

Peelle can’t wait to get started with Pitts.

“When you see a player that constantly gets better throughout their time, that’s exciting,” Peelle said.

AJC’S POSITION-BY-POSITION NFL DRAFT SERIES

QUARTERBACKS: How far will Justin Fields drop in draft? | Top 10 QBs

RUNNING BACKS: Plenty of prospects to pick from | Top 10 RBs

WIDE RECEIVERS: Draft deep with talent | Top 10 WRs

TIGHT ENDS: Ability to create mismatches is key | Top 10 TEs

OFFENSIVE TACKLES: A ‘nasty’ bunch | Top 10 OTs

OFFENSIVE GUARDS/CENTERS: The men in the middle | Top 10 C/OGs

END RUSHERS: Pass on this draft stock | Top 10 DEs

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: One star among lackluster block | Top 10 DTs

LINEBACKERS: Deep class for position | Top 10 LBs

CORNERBACKS: Plethora of options for first two rounds | Top 10 CBs

SAFETIES: Falcons likely will add position player | Top 10 Safeties

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