With Falcons, Kyle Pitts seeks to be latest, greatest tight end hybrid

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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The Falcons picked Florida tight end Kyle Pitts in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

There was once upon a time in Philadelphia a high school coach who sized up an incoming freshman named Kyle Pitts and told him there was no way he’d ever amount to much as a tight end. Stick to quarterbacking. Or search for a home on defense. Anything but what was really his one true position. Destiny has myriad enemies.

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Pitts, who not coincidentally finished at a different high school, is uncertain what became of this canny evaluator.

But, as Pitts stands today as the highest-drafted tight end ever – fourth overall by the Falcons, higher than Tony Gonzalez (13th pick) or Kellen Winslow (13th) or John Mackey (19th pick) or Antonio Gates (undrafted) or Travis Kelce (63rd pick) or Rob Gronkowski (42nd pick) – he would like to visit with the man again.

“I kinda want to go sit down with him and ask him what made him say that,” Pitts said Friday as he was making the rounds as the Falcons’ top draft pick. “Just to show him that I made it, now what do you have to say about it?”

But, then, referring to Pitts as a tight end is just a bit too limiting. It’s like classing a Swiss Army knife a screwdriver or Bob Dylan a harmonica player. You presumably have to call him something for the sake of clarity, but with a nearly 7-foot wingspan, a 33½-inch vertical leap and a 4.44 time in the 40, Pitts is putting considerable strain on the dimensions and preconceptions of the position.

“I wouldn’t say tight end,” Pitts said, “I would say hybrid. That’s the new word for the position now. You don’t know whether you’re outside, on the line, in the backfield. You can’t game plan for them. To have that freedom to move around, to be used in many different situations is pretty exciting.”

Pitts comes to the Falcons as the latest of a new mold of receiver – too big for cornerbacks to contend with, too fast for linebackers to stay with. And it’s they he takes the most delight in beating. “I just don’t like linebackers,” he said with a chuckle. “When I get a chance to go against them it’s OK, I gotta make something happen.”

As Gonzalez, a former Falcon and Kansas City Chief who is in the Hall of Fame, Gonzalez told the New York Times about trying to defend this new breed of tight end, “What you need is for someone like me to go play linebacker. But we don’t want to play linebacker; we want to score touchdowns.”

In defense of his long-ago, misguided high school coach, it wasn’t as if Pitts was marked for tight end greatness in the womb. When he arrived at Florida – determined to leave home and test himself against the vaunted SEC – he made no immediate splash. That offensive savant, Dan Mullen, got him all of three catches as a freshman.

Ah, but there was a smoldering pile of talent here ready to ignite. When the Gainesville Sun polled Gators players before the 2018 Peach Bowl who would be the breakout star next season, they unanimously pointed to Pitts.

“Who?” the pollsters wondered. They soon got their answer.

By the next season, then-Florida tight ends coach Larry Scott, now head coach at Howard, was informing Pitts: “Just because a guy’s on you doesn’t mean you’re not open. You’re always open.”

In basically two seasons of work, Pitts caught 100 passes for the Gators, for 18 touchdowns, averaging nearly 15 yards per catch.

In 2020 he missed three games because to a brutal, concussive hit by Georgia’s Lewis Cine, and still caught 43 passes for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 17.9 yards per reception was two yards better than the average for the Heisman Trophy winner, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith. And there were no hollow receptions: 39 of his 43 catches were for either a first down or a touchdown.

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Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (84) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on a 15-yard pass reception during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Credit: AP

Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (84) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on a 15-yard pass reception during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Credit: AP

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Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (84) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on a 15-yard pass reception during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Just as Mullen was inventive in getting Pitts into beneficial matchups – 19 of his receptions last season came from the tight end alignment, 12 from the slot, 12 as a wideout – the Falcons new guy Arthur Smith is reputed to be similarly inclined. Round peg meet round hole.

“(Smith) is pretty tight end-biased. I’m pretty happy going to an offense like that, stepping into this new endeavor in my life,” a grateful Pitts said.

“I guess I do have a little bias towards tight ends, but really he was the best player we felt was available. He checked every box,” Smith said.

Pitts already has a lunch date set up this weekend with his new quarterback, Matt Ryan. And he seems to think highly of his chances to improve by association, working alongside the likes of Ryan and Julio Jones. “I’m just going to be a sponge in the beginning, learning from those guys who are going to be Hall of Famers,” he said, already buttering up his teammates. “To be drafted to their team, to be able to learn from them, see how they go about the game, see how they win, how they go about their business is something I can’t wait to see.”

He also arrives with a certain level of comfort with the Atlanta area. Skipping the Gators’ bowl game, his final college encounter was in the 52-46 SEC Championship game loss to Alabama inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium (to which he contributed 7 catches, 129 receiving yards and a touchdown). One of his best friends is Georgia defensive back Mark Webb – they played together at Archbishop Wood High School in Philadelphia. Pitts spent offseason time working out with Webb in Athens and in Atlanta. So, he has the traffic patterns down, at least.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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Falcons GM Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith are happy to have added tight end Kyle Pitts in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Incidentally, while in Athens, did he happen to run into Cine and was there a summit on that vicious hit that knocked out both guys last season? “Nah, I know that was just a football play. I wasn’t holding anything against him,” Pitts said, displaying a forgiving side.

His father is an Amtrak conductor, who also did a pretty good job keeping his two kids in line. Both of Pitts’ parents were highly involved in the finished product, an advantage he would rank up there with his physical blessings.

Sure, he had occasion this week to think about the odd coach who might have stood in the way. But more important, Pitts appreciated those who paved the way.

“I told my parents I appreciated them for holding me out of some of those parties I wanted to go to,” Pitts said. “They saw some of my friends I grew up with and knew they weren’t going to benefit me in the future. My parents were a guiding light for me.”

For he has important work to do now.

“I’m excited to transition to see how the NFL is different from college. I’m always eager to see how I match up against other great people,” he said.

And as he told the media, in no uncertain terms, during his post-Pro Day interview in Gainesville: “I want to start out at a high level (in the NFL) and keep increasing every year, being able to do other things other tight ends aren’t doing which would make me special. I feel at the end of the day with all the preparation I’ll be the best to ever do it.”