Hitting is good and all but we really need guys that can cover. Looks like they put a premium on that with the pickups. Harmon made a lot of picks in his highlights. In fact i think they were all picks 🤣
Julio Jones. Calvin Ridley. Kyle Pitts.
These are the players that new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith must figure out how to deploy for the 2021 season (as long as Jones isn’t traded).
What an immense burden to put on a first-year coach.
Or not. This is exactly the sort of burden Smith would want to have. If the Falcons are going to maximize the last few years of Matt Ryan’s tenure with the team, Smith is going to have to immediately get this offense back on track. With the amount of offensive firepower the Falcons have, that’s certainly a manageable task.
Jones and Ridley have pretty clear roles in this offense: Just continue to be two of the best wideouts in the game.
Pitts’ fit with this offense isn’t as clear right now and it will force Smith to drastically adjust how he uses tight ends compared to his time as offensive coordinator with the Titans.
Integrating a talent like Pitts into the offense shouldn’t be too difficult — he’s a special player — but it will still require a change to the offense that earned Smith his promotion to head coach.
So it’s worth looking at the challenges ahead …
How Arthur Smith used a star tight end in the past
Newly signed Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith was the primary tight end for Arthur Smith during his tenure as the Titans offensive coordinator. Jonnu Smith was able to pick up big plays in chunks, averaging 8.1 yards per target during the two years that Arthur Smith was dialing up plays in Tennessee.
That timespan includes a season where Jonnu Smith averaged 10 yards per target during the 2019 season. Those are impressive numbers, especially for a tight end, and it should inspire confidence that Arthur Smith can find a role for Kyle Pitts in the Falcons offense rather easily.
However, this isn’t a swap for swap in terms of how Pitts will be used. Jonnu Smith was used more as a short area receiving threat with the ability to create chunk plays after the catch, almost like a running back.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Jonnu Smith was 26th in intended air yards (378) and 14th in yards after the catch (243) among the 35 tight ends to record at least 40 targets last season. Among that sample, Jonnu Smith was 34th in average depth of target (5.7).
Pitts, meanwhile, had an average depth of target of 12.8 at Florida — more than double. He did his damage in a completely different way.
The question now is: Was Arthur Smith using Jonnu Smith that way because that’s a staple of his overall offensive scheme, or was he adjusting to the player?
When he gets the ball in his hands, it’s easy to see why Arthur Smith dialed up easy, quick passing concepts that allowed Jonnu Smith’s athleticism to shine.
Not many tight ends have the same level of acceleration and a natural ability to carry the ball. Arthur Smith deliberately chose plays that would let Jonnu Smith make plays after the catch. The Titans game against the Bills last season had a few examples of Smith making plays after the catch.
Jonnu Smith is a nice weapon to have, and probably is a bit better down the field than given credit for, but he is not Kyle Pitts. And you don’t draft Kyle Pitts at No. 4 if you’re going to ask him to only do what Jonnu Smith did.
Pitts has the talent to be the best tight end in the league and projects as a dominant vertical threat who can be used in a variety of ways.
(Note: ISO here refers to when a TE is alone on a side of the formation, so those numbers could overlap with in-line and wide snaps.)
The addition of Pitts is going to require Arthur Smith to expand his usage of tight ends in his offense.
Kyle Pitts is a totally different beast
Even though a tight end typically isn’t the best use of the fourth-overall pick, Pitts might be special enough to warrant being taken that high. Pitts was simply a force of destruction during his final season at Florida, catching 12 touchdowns on just 43 receptions.
Pitts’ vertical ability down the field is something that Arthur Smith hasn’t had in his offense over the past couple seasons. It does appear to be something that Arthur Smith wants in his offense, however. He didn’t mind giving Jonnu Smith contested catches even though that’s not the strongest part of his game.
Pitts is someone that will be able to unlock that portion of the playbook. He should immediately be expected to be a positive performer in the seam and on riskier, contested catches down the field.
Yeah, that’ll do. It’s not just Pitts’ freakish athleticism that makes him a valuable downfield threat, he’s got great instincts as a pass catcher as well. He’ll contort his body in all types of ways to keep the ball away from defenders as he lands.
And he certainly has experience running some of the more deceptive play action concepts that Arthur Smith and other play action-heavy playcallers use in the NFL.
What makes Pitts this unicorn of a prospect is that he’s unusually good in the short area of the field, as well. Those shorter passes that Arthur Smith loved to use Jonnu Smith on? Pitts can carve defenses up on slants and screens as well.
Not only does Pitts have rare efficiency with his movements, he’s also strong and explosive after the catch.
Pitts is a player that’s perfectly fine working within the constraints that were previously placed upon Jonnu Smith with the Titans.
But that’s doing a disservice to the type of talent that Pitts is — and would put a ceiling on his potential rookie year impact. Pitts can be a player that’s still effective with an average depth of target of six yards, but he can do so much more.
Pitts will have to fight for targets with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but the caliber of player that he is will be apparent early in his NFL career. He’s even pretty solid in the run game and pass protection as a blocker. Pitts obviously is going to make his mark in this league as a pass catcher, but he did rank third in the draft class among tight ends in Sports Info Solutions’ Total Points Rating Per Block metric.
Weirdly enough, Pitts has pretty good technique in pass protection and is willing to, at the very least, scrap it out with a defensive lineman and give himself a chance to win using his length and athleticism.
Pitts is pretty good at this football thing.
What does this mean for how the Falcons offense will operate?
No disrespect to Hayden Hurst, who carved out a nice role in the Falcons’ offense after being traded from the Ravens, but he’s not Kyle Pitts. He’s all but guaranteed to see a drop in targets after setting a career-high with 88 targets in 2020.
However, Hurst’s presence does give the Falcons a strong 12 personnel package for the time being. With Pitts ability to split out and play wide receiver from time to time, the Falcons can put defenses in a pickle by utilizing their packages with two tight ends on the field.
Last year, the Titans were fourth in the number of dropbacks with two tight ends on the field (193), according to Sports Info Solutions. The Falcons ranked 16th (106 dropbacks), but they didn’t really have a need to get a second tight end on the field last season considering their personnel.
Where the two tight end packages will really factor in and provide an extra boost is in the redzone. On redzone packages with two tight ends on the field, the Titans generated .377 Points Earned per play, good for seventh in the league. The Falcons ranked 17th in that category last season (.199).
Interestingly enough, most of the Titans passes in that scenario didn’t go to tight ends. Of the 19 passes that the Titans threw in the redzone with two tight ends on the field, only seven went towards tight ends.
Still, the Falcons can use Pitts and Hurst to open up opportunities for Jones and Ridley in the redzone. The targets that were being created for Corey Davis and A.J. Brown will now be opened up for two receivers who are better players. Expect the Falcons to be much more pass-heavy than the Titans were in 2020 (not having a Derrick Henry also plays into this).
The addition of Pitts opens a lot of offensive possibilities for the Falcons in 2021, he just needs to be managed correctly.
Can Pitts truly be the missing piece?
As the draft approached, I wrote that the Falcons faced a franchise-defining decision with their pick. They could have opted to secure a QB of the future in Justin Fields. They could have traded back to grab more draft capital to be used for a rebuild.
Or they could go all in, select Pitts and hope that Arthur Smith could use him to create a truly dynamic offense capable of challenging the Buccaneers for superiority in the NFC South.
So how good can the Falcons actually be this year?
If, and this is a huge if knowing how the Falcons generally grapple with luck, Pitts and Arthur Smith can get up to speed with each other in a hurry, the Falcons have a chance to get back to being an elite offense.
What are teams supposed to do when Julio Jones is isolated on one side of the field and they still have to deal with Ridley and Pitts on the other side. Or really, any shuffling of those players in trips formations that will leave one of them isolated in single coverage.
Pitts will need some time to adjust to the speed and the physicality of the NFL, but once he gets going he’s going to be a menace.
The Falcons defense is likely going to hold them back from being a legitimate playoff team, but the offense should be an absolute blast to watch again. Sometimes fun is just good enough.
The Falcons still have long-term questions — it seems unlikely they’ll be in position to truly tank and have another high first-round pick, meaning they’ll need to find Matt Ryan’s replacement later in the draft — and it may turn out that picking Pitts was ultimately the wrong move if Fields becomes a star and Pitts tops out as just a very good tight end.
All that will be sorted in the future, though. For now, we’re just lucky that the most unique offensive prospect in the draft ended up with a coach who appears to know how to use him in creative ways.
The Kyle Pitts era is here.
I get the impression that the new staff is going to treat training camp as an open competition for every position other than QB. The braintrust did well to get a playmaker on the edge and fortify the OL. Hopefully, we can keep Julio. If Coach can scheme up the line and talent, teams would be stupid to put a safety in the box. If everything works out, who's to say we don't have a UDFA hungry enough to be the next Arian Foster?
NBC Sports Edge ranks Falcons UDFA class as #1 in the league
Atlanta badly needs an infusion of young talent, and hopefully this undrafted free agent class will provide it.
By Dave Choate May 12, 2021, 10:00am EDT
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Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Atlanta will be bringing 20 undrafted free agents to camp this year, and given that much of the roster is in flux and the Falcons couldn’t rub two nickels together and start a fire in a kiln, they’ll likely end up with several of those players making the roster and practice squad. The good news for Atlanta is that they also seem to have chosen their talent wisely.
That’s at least the good word from Thor Nystrom, a college football and NFL Draft analyst with SportsEdge, which you may known better as the former RotoWorld. Nystrom actually ranks Atlanta’s UDFA haul as the best in the entire NFL for 2021,
The biggest names in this haul were Javian Hawkins (a 5th rounder per Nystrom’s rankings), as well as Erroll Thompson and Feleipe Franks (7th rounders), though he had 13 ranked prospects out of the list of 20. But it’s the fact that this is a class filled with interesting talent, as Nystrom says, that makes it intriguing.
It’s worth remembering for Hawkins in particular that teams have been finding plenty of success recently with undrafted backs, with James Robinson, Phillip Lindsay, and Austin Ekeler meriting mention from Nystrom over the past few years. This team has generally found a spot on the roster for at least 1-2 undrafted players, with former UDFAs like Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Matt Gono and Olamide Zaccheaus potentially set for real roles 2021. Players like Thompson, Franks (especially Franks), intriguing guard Bryce Hargrove safety Marcus Murphy likely won’t be impact players right away, but they’re landing with a team that has immediate depth concerns almost everywhere and a long-term need for talent they can develop. It would not be at all surprising if this group wound up yielding 3-5 legitimate contributors, with Hawkins seemingly having the best chance to get something approaching starter’s snaps in the near future if he can live up to his potential.
Nystrom will be joining Falcoholic Live tonight to talk about the Falcons draft haul and his undrafted free agent rankings, so tune in for that if you’re interested in learning more or have questions about his rankings.