The 2021 season is right around the corner with just under a week before kickoff. Football fans will have their first opportunity to see the newly drafted players face an NFL-caliber competition. Many prospects are expected to flourish in their rookie season–with good reason–but expectations for one highly touted rookie should be tempered to start the year. That would be first-round pick Kyle Pitts of the Atlanta Falcons.
Pitts is the highest graded tight end prospect of all time. The Falcons invested the fourth overall pick in Pitts making him the highest-drafted tight end in the history of football. Pitts is both a physical and athletic freak for the position. He stands at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds with an 83 ⅜-inch wingspan. His wingspan is the longest wingspan over the last 20 years of any WR or TE who’s entered the NFL. Combine that with a 4.44 40-yard dash, 129-inch broad jump, and 33 ½-inch vertical jump–you get a matchup nightmare. He was one of the best pure pass-catchers in this year’s rookie class and his athletic tools give him the makeup of a dominant player in the league. He showed off his tremendous talent with the Florida Gators in 2020 averaging over 96 yards per game and finishing the campaign with 12 touchdowns in just eight games.
However, there are reasons why Pitts’ expectations should be tempered as he enters the NFL and his rookie season–22 reasons why. Since 2000 there have been 23 tight ends selected in the first round of NFL drafts. Of this group only one has made a Pro Bowl, Jeremy Shockey of the New York Giants in 2002, who happens to also be the only tight end of this group who eclipsed 750 receiving yards his first season in the NFL. One area of Pitts’ game that he needs to improve is his run blocking. He wasn’t an elite blocker in college and will struggle to block NFL-level linebackers and defensive ends. New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith is going to want to run the football–the former Titans offensive coordinator ran the ball 52.8% of the time in 2020–run blocking will be necessary in this offense.
Since 2000, first-round tight ends have combined to average the following stats:
*Note: For the Tight End average calculations above, Ben Watson was the only first-round tight end whose stats were not on the list because he played just one game his rookie season. All other tight ends used in this data set played at least 10 games during their rookie season.
- Snap Percentage (for first-round TEs since 2012): 26%
- Games Played: 13.68
- Games Started: 8.50
- Targets: 54.91
- Receptions: 32.82
- Receiving Yards: 375.77
- Yards per Reception: 11.45
- Touchdowns: 2.59
- First Downs: 18.82
- Catch Percentage: 50%
- Approximate Value: 3.09
For players who were drafted using first-round draft capital, these stats are underwhelming. The leap from college to the NFL for the tight-end position is one of the hardest ones to make for first-year players. Pitts has the talent but the adjustment from college to the NFL could take time for Pitts despite his plethora of talent. A slow start to the 2021 season or the entire 2021 season shouldn’t be surprising. I love Kyle Pitts’ potential, but the historically underwhelming first seasons by former first-round tight ends are why Kyle Pitts’ expectations should be tempered.