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NFL Draft

Kyle Pitts’ Projected Fantasy Output In Falcons’ New System

  • The Draft Network
  • May 18, 2021
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The Atlanta Falcons made history in the 2021 NFL Draft by making Kyle Pitts the highest-selected “tight end” ever; notice the air quotes around tight end. 

Pitts is less like a traditional tight end and more like a bigger wide receiver, not unlike the Las Vegas Raiders’ Darren Waller. Unlike Waller—who seems to be Pitts’ most common pro comparison—Pitts will not be tasked with catching almost every pass from his quarterback. After all, the Falcons didn’t really need Pitts; he was simply the best player available. 

Indeed, quarterback Matt Ryan has an embarrassment of riches with wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and now Pitts. While receiver Russell Gage and incumbent tight end Hayden Hurst shouldn’t be overlooked either, Pitts projects to eat into their roles more so than Jones’ and Ridley’s roles. Projection seems to be the name of the game in Atlanta. Former head coach Dan Quinn and interim head coach Raheem Morris are out, and the former Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith, is in. Smith’s arrival brings a new layer of uncertainty to the Falcons’ offense, but not in a bad way. By looking at Pitts’ past and projected usage, Smith’s tendencies from Tennessee, and a handful of other small factors, I can project an adequate floor and ceiling for Pitts’ first year. How can we expect him to perform in fantasy football?

What Pitts Can Do

There’s no getting around it: Pitts is a unique player. His measurables, provided via MockDraftabales, only echo his rare size and speed combo. 

It’s no wonder Pitts dominated at Florida last season. In seven games, Pitts caught 43 receptions for roughly 110 yards a game and 12 touchdowns—tied for third-most in Division I. But I’m more interested in the 65 passes he saw. Pitts caught 43 of them while being credited with zero drops; quarterback inconsistencies aside, that’s still a very good number. He averaged 8.12 targets a game, which includes the one-quarter Pitts played against Georgia before suffering a concussion. That would’ve been the third-highest rate among tight ends in the NFL last season. It’s no wonder Pitts saw the ball so much too. Dan Mullen’s offense threw about 39 passes a game—the 13th-highest rate among 130 eligible teams, per TeamRankings. Mullen trusted Pitts with being the focal point of the Gators’ offense, and Pitts can handle a heavy workload in the NFL. He was far and away the best offensive player on the field for the Gators in 2020, and he should be regarded as such in 2021 and beyond.

Where Pitts Fits

For all the praise Pitts deserves, figuring out his situation may be more important to forecasting his rookie-season success. Before I dive into the tendencies of Smith and his new offensive coordinator, Dave Ragone, I put more emphasis on targets over receptions because targets provide a greater opportunity at a more consistent rate. A player can go off for 20 points with only two receptions, 120 yards, and a touchdown. It’s a good performance, but if he was only targeted three times, then it’s not a sustainable performance; having consistent players allows you to build your lineup with a better idea of what exactly you’re getting. Again, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and sometimes you will need to bet on high-upside, low-floor players. But targets rarely fail to forecast a successful performance. Even better: A team’s pool of targets from a previous season tends to be a great indicator of how many targets will be up for grabs in the following season. Last year, Ryan threw 628 passes, yet only 605 of them were deemed as targets. If Quinn had remained Atlanta’s head coach, then you could expect a similar amount of passes this season—barring a drastic change in offensive philosophy.

That’s where the issue lies. There’s no true way of knowing how Smith’s offense will look from Quinn’s. With that said, we’ll look at Smith’s offenses from the last two seasons when he became the Titans’ offensive coordinator in 2019 as well as Ragone’s offense in Chicago last year; his only season as the team’s passing game coordinator. Hopefully, we’ll find some clues about their plans for Atlanta’s offense this season. But first, we need to look at what the Falcons are capable of doing. In 2020, the Dirk Koetter-led offense attempted 39.2 passes a game—the fourth-highest rate on the NFL. That’s plenty of targets to go around for Atlanta’s offensive arsenal. While Hurst didn’t see the ball nearly as much as Ridley, the team’s leading pass-catcher, Hurst did average a formidable 5.5 targets on 88 total. Interestingly enough, Hurst only started nine games despite logging action in all 16. His lack of relative involvement seems largely due to the offense Koetter was running. The Falcons implemented 11 personnel (which includes one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) 61% of the time, which was right around the league average, per Sharp Football Stats. Meanwhile, the team used 12 personnel (with one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers) just 15% of the time. Only eight other teams used 12 personnel less than the Falcons last season. 

This can help give us a better idea of how Smith’s offense in Tennessee can translate to Atlanta. Spoiler: Smith has a lot of work to do. Not only did the Titans pass the ball at the third-lowest rate (30.1 passes per game), but Tennessee actually ran more on early downs than any other team, per RBSDM. The differences in offensive strategy don’t end there though. The Titans were the leader in the clubhouse at using 12 personnel; they used that package 35% of the time. On the other hand, Smith implemented 11 personnel on just 38% of Tennessee’s plays—the second-lowest rate in the league. As you can see, comparing the Falcons' offense to the Titans’ offense is like comparing apples to oranges. 

Luckily for Pitts, Smith is a big fan of using his tight ends. With Smith as offensive coordinator, Tennessee tight ends saw 28.6% of the team’s total targets, good for the fourth-highest rate over those two years. It did help to have a capable tight end in Jonnu Smith. While Smith only saw 4.3 targets per game last season, he saw more passes than any player not named A.J. Brown and Corey Davis. Backup Anthony Firkser came in fourth with about three targets each game too. I don’t think anyone is comparing Smith or Firkser with Pitts. Pitts is built to be more of a wide receiver than a true tight end by today’s standards. However, it bodes very well for Pitts that his new head coach values the tight end position.

We can assume Smith will be the mastermind behind Atlanta’s offensive game plan, but Ragone’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked either. In a vacuum, Ragone—the Bears’ passing game coordinator in 2020—featured his tight ends on par with league averages. He favored them a bit less than Smith did and a bit more than Koetter did. This may open the door for a more pass-focused approach. It’s just that the Falcons’ personnel really doesn’t match what Smith did in Tennessee, which is something The Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak touched on last week. If Pitts is to be the game-breaking tight end-receiver hybrid he’s being touted as Smith will need to implement a whole new offense from the one we saw from him in Tennessee.

Where Other Tight Ends Compare

The final piece of the puzzle is comparing Pitts’ possibilities with the production of other top tight ends in fantasy. For context, here are the top target-getters among tight ends last season, followed by where they finished among tight ends in PPR leagues:

  • Darren Waller: 146 (TE2)
  • Travis Kelce: 144 (TE1)
  • Logan Thomas: 110 (TE3)
  • Evan Engram: 109 (TE15)
  • T.J. Hockenson: 101 (TE5)

George Kittle missed eight games, but he had the third-highest target-per-game rate among tight ends. Aside from Engram (whose drops have become a glaring issue), it’s safe to assume any tight end who sees 100 or more targets will finish as a high-end starter at the position. In fact, over the last five seasons, only two players with 100-plus targets didn’t finish as top-five fantasy tight ends: Dennis Pitta in 2016 and Jack Doyle in 2017. Pitta still finished eighth and Doyle finished sixth. If Pitts can see 100 targets, he’d be nearly guaranteed to be a top tight end in fantasy.

What All Of This Means

Even with Ridley and Jones in the fold, it’s possible Pitts can eclipse the golden 100-target mark. Multiple teams had at least two players see more than 100 targets last season, including the Kansas City Chiefs (Kelce and Tyreek Hill), Detroit Lions (Hockenson and Marvin Jones), and Washington Football Team (Thomas, Terry McLaurin, and J.D. McKissic). It’s foolish to believe Pitts can’t succeed with Ridley and Jones also eating up targets. There is room for two to get their fair share, potentially all three. It just all depends on the type of offense Smith implements. And there’s no way Smith would be naive enough to force the offense he ran in Tennessee upon Atlanta’s roster, right? You can’t force a square peg in a round hole.

Based on Pitts’ skill set, it’s only logical to assume he’d be treated like a Waller-type just as he was at Florida. While Waller is a common comparison for Pitts, don’t mistake this comparison for projection. Waller is the Raiders’ passing game. Pitts doesn’t have the luxury of being Ryan’s sole pass-catcher, yet. It’s certainly possible Pitts eventually overtakes an aging Jones as Atlanta’s WR2, especially with scattered trade rumors featuring the veteran wide receiver. But the Falcons would have to throw the ball at high rates to keep Ridley, Jones, and Pitts above the 100-target mark. And that mark isn’t even the end-all, be-all of receiving success. Pitts can have a good year without eclipsing 100 targets, though anything below 90 could keep him outside fantasy’s top-10 tight ends.

As of now, Pitts’s consensus average draft position (ADP) is TE9, per FantasyPros. I’d definitely have Pitts over Thomas, Noah Fant, and Dallas Goedert, all of whom are typically getting drafted before Pitts. The rookie is simply more talented than those three, who are still fine options in their own right. Pitts just seems to have a higher ceiling. As for his floor, there’s no reason he can’t eclipse Hurst’s 88 targets from last year. I’d also expect Pitts to steal some of Gage’s snaps too. Pitts can line up anywhere on the field, including the slot. You don’t spend the fourth pick on a player to just pigeonhole him in one role. 

Pitts’ Final Projection

A reasonable projection for Pitts in a 16-game season is 90 targets with legitimate upside to hit 100 targets. With a 17th game now in the cards, Pitts basically just needs to average more than six targets a game. His projection only gets better if Jones continues to deal with injuries; the 32-year-old receiver missed seven games last year. I can see Hurst and Gage losing a total of 3-4 targets per game with Ridley and Jones losing 2-3 combined. I’m no math guru, but that could be 5-7 targets a game for Pitts. Of course, it all depends on how often the Falcons throw the ball. I expect a decrease from last year’s 628 pass attempts, though it won’t be nearly as low as the Titans’ 485 attempts when Smith was calling the plays. 

Expect Atlanta to pound the rock more than they did in 2020 though. Even if the Falcons run the ball 5-6 more times each game, it’s still enough for Pitts to rack up targets. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say he does see at least six targets each game, which is the middle ground of my projected target loss for current Falcons’ skill players. That would be roughly 96 targets in a 17-game season, good for the sixth-most among tight ends in the NFL last year. Ironically, that would’ve been just the 12th-highest target rate. But do we really expect Pitts to see the ball less than Eric Ebron, Hunter Henry, Engram, Fant, and Zach Ertz this season?

For now, Pitts will be my TE6. I would currently take Kelce, Waller, Kittle, Hockenson, and Andrews ahead of Pitts, in that order. Thomas deserves consideration, though Pitts clearly has a higher upside. At the very best, I can see Pitts finishing behind Kelce, Waller, and Hockenson or Kittle. At the very worst, Pitts should still be a top-10 tight end, and he deserves to be drafted way ahead of his current ADP. While we don’t know exactly how Pitts will be used, all the signs point to a featured role in Atlanta’s new offense. I’d be shocked to see him finish outside of the top-six most targeted tight ends. Pitts’ situation may not be as good as Waller’s or Hockenson’s, but his unique skillset plus the premium Smith places on tight ends spells success for the rookie tight end. He’s a fantastic gamble at his current ADP, so snag him before his stock rises any higher.

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