Kyle Pitts still isn’t practicing. That’s not ideal for Falcons.

Tight end is returning from knee injury
Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts during warm-ups before a game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears  In Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.   (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts during warm-ups before a game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears In Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

I went to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday looking forward to seeing Kyle Pitts in action. It wasn’t a game, scrimmage or full-speed practice. The Falcons are still in shorts at this time of year. But full pads aren’t necessary for Pitts to show off the skills and athleticism that persuaded the Falcons to make him the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history.

How was Pitts moving nearly six months after season-ending knee surgery? Is he on his way back to being the dynamic pass-catcher of his rookie season after a frustrating year of injuries and diminished production? How will Pitts connect with Desmond Ridder, the designated starter at quarterback?

The answers to those questions will have to wait. Pitts isn’t practicing during this week’s minicamp. The soonest he’ll get to practice with the team is when training camp opens about six weeks from now. There’s no need to panic. There is reason to wonder about when Smith will be ready to ramp up for the season.

At the time of Pitts’ surgery, Falcons coach Arthur Smith said he wasn’t concerned that the injury would affect his preparation for the 2023 season. Smith reiterated the point two weeks ago. He sounded an optimistic note again on Tuesday.

“We feel good about where he’s at,” Smith said.

That’s about as forthcoming as Smith is going to be about injuries at this time of year. Coaches usually don’t offer injury details until NFL rules require them to do it. Also, Smith doesn’t want to publicly set a timetable that puts pressure on players to return from injury by a certain date.

We’ll see Pitts is ready for the start of training camp. The Falcons didn’t make him available for an interview on Tuesday. The team has typically been cautious with players recovering from injuries during the offseason. There’s no use in pushing Pitts in June.

Still, one major drawback to Pitts still not practicing is that he’s not getting any meaningful reps with Ridder. Pitts was already out for the season when Ridder took over from Marcus Mariota as the starter in Week 14. Ridder said he plans to get together with Pitts before the start of training camp, if possible.

“He’s on his own plan and once he’s ready to go and he gets the green light, we’re all game to go,” Ridder said.

Pitts hasn’t lived up to the hype around him when the Falcons drafted him. That probably wasn’t possible even under the best conditions. Pitts’ career has been stalled by circumstances mostly out of his control.

Pitts had a great rookie season after the Falcons selected him No. 4 overall out of Florida. He became just the second rookie tight end to total more than 1,000 yards receiving. The other one is Mike Ditka, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Pitts was voted to the Pro Bowl and there was great anticipation for even more in Year 2.

It didn’t happen. Pitts had just 28 catches for 356 yards and a touchdown in 2022. He was still getting targets. Pitts was the intended receiver on 110 of 1,006 plays in 2021 (10.9%) and 59 of 553 plays in 2022 (10.6%). Pitts’ dropped pass percentage as a rookie (5.5%) was bottom 50 in the league, according to Pro Football Reference. It was a little better (5.1%) in 2022.

The difference for Pitts in 2022 was he was playing in a run-heavy offense with a less accurate passer at quarterback. Mariota’s on-target throw percentage of 70.6% was second worst in the league in 2022, per Pro Football Reference. The Falcons passed on 61% of passes in 2021 with QB Matt Ryan. They passed on 45% of plays 2022 before Pitts suffered the season-ending knee injury.

There just weren’t as many passes available for Pitts to catch and fewer of them were on target. It’s possible the Falcons will pass more this season. It would help if Ridder is a more accurate passer than Mariota. He cleared that bar when he took over as the starter last season, but the sample size was small (115 passes) and Ridder didn’t throw deep much.

Pitts tore the MCL on Nov. 20 during the game against the Bears and had surgery 10 days later. Non-surgical treatments are usually “very effective” for treating MCL injuries, according to the Cleveland Clinic, but surgery might be a better option for professional athletes because of the severe stress they put on their knees. Recovery from MCL surgery typically takes 2-3 months, depending on the severity of the tear.

“You asked about Kyle physically (but) a lot of times I think what people forget is the mental part,” Smith said. “(There) is the mental rehab to get back out there. A lot of it is barriers or mental hurdles and everybody is different.”

Pitts shouldn’t rush back to the field. I’m always in favor of athletes taking as much time as they need to feel comfortable coming back from injuries. They are the people risking their health. This is especially true in the NFL, where injured players are routinely chewed up and spit out.

Selfishly, I would have liked to see Pitts getting in some work with the full squad this week. If the Falcons are going to improve their passing game, then Pitts will be a key part of the formula. That process can’t really start until Pitts gets back on the field with Ridder, even if they are in shorts.

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