Written by: Bo Knows (Twitter//https://twitter.com/bo_mcbigtime)
Ask any eight-year-old girl about unicorns and it won’t take long before she’s pouring out an emotional monologue from the most vibrant meadows of her imagination. Are they real? My daughter flicked a strand of auburn hair from her face, almost as if she was pausing for dramatic effect, before exhaling her measured response. “Yes, they are real…but they are so rare that people don’t believe in them.”
According to folklore, a unicorn is “an extremely wild woodland creature; a symbol of purity and grace.” Not simply a majestic white horse, the unicorn’s signature frontal horn is believed to heal illness and render poisoned water potable. I have never personally seen a unicorn in real life, but if looking through the lens of a third-grader, I would hate to miss even a fleeting glimpse of one in a fantasy world.
We have never before seen a football player quite like Kyle Pitts. It is natural to suppress our idealisms when they stray from the nurturing conformity of the consensus, but it’s impossible to draw a drink of water from the reverberant murmurs from shouting down the well. The textbooks tell us that all of the young white horses are the same. A great few of them blossom into brilliant and memorable beings, but are still, by definition, just horses. There are no unicorns with magical horns that light up the world from day one if you ask the steady current of rubber stamp-wielding conformists. I can see the unicorn.
Kyle Pitts is the most special football prospect at any position in the last 10 years. I believe he will be the unicorn that will singlehandedly collapse the pay gap between the diamond-encrusted wide receivers and the lunch pale-toting tight ends. This debate was at its peak with Jimmy Graham and the Saints, when Graham rightfully demanded wide receiver money. He was a wide receiver in those days, logging far more snaps out wide and in the slot than in the traditional in-line spot. A mere “TE” next to his name on paper cost Graham tens of millions of dollars. The 6’6” rookie from Florida will sign his first extension in a few years as a wide receiver. Pitts is primed to shed his positional designation like a butterfly sheds its chrysalis.
Most of the pro-Pitts argument is demurred by its largely anecdotal vision of his potential in the NFL. There is, however, a plethora of empirical evidence to suggest that the fourth overall pick is primed to shatter all expectations and contribute as a fantasy league winner from the moment he puts on his Falcons helmet.
Starting with Pitts’ sophomore season in 2019, there were already rumblings of his gifts making an impact in the rugged Southeastern Conference. His 54 receptions for 649 yards and five touchdowns would have put him squarely in contention for the coveted Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end, but he did not qualify because he didn’t log enough snaps at the tight end position.
The hardworking kid from a Philadelphia working-class family came into the 2020 season hellbent on improving his run blocking to become a more well-rounded prospect. Even though Gators coach Dan Mullens employed Pitts as a wide receiver a good amount again last year, we saw Pitts flourish from all over the field. His most common position was at an H-back or wing, where he would set the edge on run plays and have easier releases into the secondary on routes because he was off the line of scrimmage. There were also snaps from the traditional in-line tight end position, where Pitts was equally dominant in every facet. As a wideout, there wasn’t a defensive player in the nation that could handle Pitts one-on-one.
The Gators came off a wild, pandemic-afflicted offseason to face Ole Miss. The nation was officially introduced to Pitts in the most massive way possible. Kyle Pitts was completely unstoppable, logging eight receptions for 170 yards and four touchdowns. Each time he was targeted, everyone collectively bruised their chins from their jaw hitting the floor. That game would have been enough to put him in the top five picks if it had been his only appearance last season. It wasn’t. The very next Saturday, he fought through double teams to the tune of four receptions for 57 yards and two touchdowns. It would have been three had he squeezed into a smaller shoe size, as his gorgeous fade route in the back corner of the end zone that roasted the coverage into an over-the-shoulder hands catch was nullified for the tip of his cleat landing on the chalk.
Kyle Pitts only played in eight games, all in the SEC, and compiled 43 grabs for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even more impressive was that in the game against Georgia, he put up two catches for 59 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, but was lifted from the game after taking the brunt of a vicious targeting penalty. After a couple of weeks off, Pitts returned to destroy Kentucky with five catches for 99 yards and three more touchdowns. To culminate his college career, the junior receiver went up against eventual national champion Alabama and helped the Gators give the Crimson Tide their toughest test of the season with seven receptions for 129 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. That touchdown cemented Pitts as the top receiving prospect in the class for me, outright punking a few NFL-level defensive backs in the process.
With no NFL Scouting Combine in 2020, there would be no nationally televised audition for the draft class to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other prospects and showcase their talents on the same field. Individual schools put together the usual pro days with their pro prospects in front of more eyeballs than ever before. The measurables for Kyle Pitts were expected to be good, but they were actually downright absurd. At 6’6” and 245 pounds, you picture a good-sized tight end with some versatility. When you add a record 84” wing-span and correlating catch radius, the prospect is seen as someone who could be looked upon as a red-zone target with good touchdown upside. Then you watch him run. A 4.44-second 40-yard dash puts a wide receiver among the fastest at the position, but in a different galaxy for a full-sized tight end. Even the tight end record 4.43 time by Darren Waller pales in comparison because Waller was a wide receiver prospect and is three inches shorter than Pitts. Additionally, Kyle Pitts is also an exemplary route runner who creates a ton of space for someone who wouldn’t need as much with his frame and catch radius. To reiterate, we have never seen a football player quite like Kyle Pitts.
For all the college accolades and eye-popping physical traits, there needed to be a perfect storm for Kyle Pitts to inspire the kind of polarizing rookie season projection that I am planting my flag on. He would need to be selected by a team that didn’t need a traditional tight end, has a high expected passing volume, and will use an athlete in whichever position necessary to exploit an individual matchup.
The Jaguars, Jets, and 49ers were locked into getting their future franchise quarterbacks. The Atlanta Falcons were left with a myriad of potential options at the fourth pick. They could have also picked a quarterback, with Matt Ryan aging and approaching another contract renewal. They could have used the pick on a traditional wide receiver like LSU stud, Jamarr Chase. They could have selected a defensive player to address their most glaring weakness for as long as anyone can remember. The Falcons could have leveraged the immense value of the fourth overall pick to trade back and acquire multiple first-round picks in return. Instead, the Falcons extended Ryan and ignored the fact that they had a former first-round tight end, Hayden Hurst, on the team. They took Kyle Pitts with the knowledge that they were very unlikely to retain future Hall of Fame receiver, Julio Jones. Pitts was selected as the earliest tight end to come off the board in the history of the league, but there was little doubt in my mind that Atlanta had a vision for Pitts that doesn’t include much traditional work in the trenches at all.
From the moment the pick was announced, I was all-in on Kyle Pitts. The landing spot was a best-case scenario, and when Julio Jones was predictably traded away to Tennessee, the perfect storm I had fantasized about had reached its final form and threatened a torrential downpour of potentially unfathomable rookie production. I was convinced that the 2021 Atlanta Falcons were primed to weaponize their young prospect to the fullest extent possible and unleash him upon the league in a blitz of hellfire and weekly features on “You Got Moss’d.”
The Pitts rookie breakout narrative is also supported by the presence of new head coach Arthur Smith, the Offensive Coordinator for the Tennessee Titans last season. The Titans ran a ton of 12 personnel, which means that two tight ends were in the formation. Their best blocking tight end, Jonnu Smith, in this case, received most of the snaps in the traditional in-line position. Anthony Firkser was then employed as a slot receiver on 70% of his snaps and saw a great deal of target volume, especially in the red zone. In fact, the Titans were among the league leaders in target share to the “tight end” position. They also weaponized their best athlete, AJ Brown, moving him all over the formation to exploit matchups and showcase his portfolio of elite skills.
I envision Kyle Pitts as a mix between Brown and Firkser, where he is moved all over the field to create the types of matchup nightmares that trigger crippling anxiety for defensive coordinators. Hurst will be on the field as the more traditional tight end and is more than capable in that role as the polished veteran. Calvin Ridley is an elite wide receiver but doesn’t necessarily need to step into the X receiver role vacated by Julio Jones. Matt Ryan is facing another “good problem to have,” with multiple receivers putting incredible stress on the secondary every play. Russell Gage is also primed to step up his game and become more than just a slot receiver. Mike Davis and company in the backfield can make this offense more versatile, but I don’t expect this running game to be above average. This is partially due to Davis’ limitations as a three-down back, but also indicates the nagging worry that the Atlanta defense will once again be giving up a barrage of points.
Once again, the Falcons will be airing it out to stay in games. I project Matt Ryan for over 600 pass attempts again in 2021, completing around 400 of them. If 150 targets go to Ridley (about nine per game), the question will be whether Gage or Pitts is the next one in the pecking order. In terms of sheer volume, Gage should see close to 100 targets again this season, as he is someone Ryan trusts. The Pitts effect should reduce Hayden Hurst from his 88 targets to around 70, leaving about 120 targets for Pitts (seven per game). Elite tight ends Travis Kelce and Darren Waller converted over 72% of their targets into receptions last season. Although I do regard Pitts as someone with that potential, let’s say he comes in at an even 70% for a rookie discount. Lastly, let’s look at touchdowns. This is easily Kyle Pitts’ most dominant category. The dude is literally a touchdown printing press. I don’t think it’s possible a healthy Kyle Pitts will score less than 10 touchdowns in his rookie season. That is the number one reason Pitts was the fourth overall pick. Atlanta struggled to punch it into the end zone, so they got the guy who does it better than anyone. Pitts’ contested catch rate is absurd. He matches his size, speed, and route running with incredible leaping ability, body control, and strong hands. I project 11 touchdowns for Kyle Pitts in his rookie season.
To round all of this together, Kyle Pitts is slated to annihilate every rookie “tight end” record in the books in 2021. Keith Jackson’s 81 receptions in 1988 will fall. Mike Ditka’s 1,076 receiving yards in 1961 will move aside. Pitts will join Ditka and Rob Gronkowski as the only tight ends to eclipse 10 touchdowns in their rookie season. My official projection is 84 receptions for 1100 yards and 11 touchdowns. In PPR formats, this equates to 260 fantasy points for the unicorn. I actually believe this is a middling projection, with the potential to go even higher.
Someone like me, who predicts a ridiculously outlandish rookie season for a tight end, will face a great deal of scrutiny. The position requires a notoriously difficult duality of blocking and receiving challenges, rendering many promising rookies ineffective. Targeting a highly touted prospect well ahead of his average draft position is risky business. Winning fantasy leagues requires this type of risk. Maybe not on this player, but somewhere. If this is my Waterloo, then so be it because it could also be my Normandy. Kyle Pitts is already my dynasty TE1. The argument here is to consider him as a top-four tight end in redraft this year, as well. The rookie tight end fear depresses Pitts’ value as a viable option, so wouldn’t it be incredibly valuable to grab him as a sleeper to climb the massive tier cliff to join Kelce, Kittle, and Waller and dominate the scarcest position in the game? I submit that you should believe in unicorns, even if you’ve never seen one in person.