Sat, 08 May 2021

Steve Wyche

In researching Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, who the Falcons took No. 4 overall, I couldn't help thinking about a late December 2020 game I covered between the Raiders and Dolphins.

Las Vegas tight end Darren Waller showed, repeatedly, that he was the best player on the field that game (and others). If Pitts develops and is coached the way that is being projected, he could be equally, if not more impactful for Atlanta.

The Dolphins had defensive back Eric Rowe shadow Waller because Rowe had fared well doing so against other tight ends. Not so much against Waller.

Waller's size advantage, speed, and just outright Bad-Manness were too much to handle, even on the intermediate and deep routes when there was safety help or when Rowe had him fairly locked up.

Waller had five catches for 112 yards in a game Miami rallied to win, but all I could think was, "Why aren't they throwing to Waller every play? He's unstoppable."

Now, I'm not Gold-Jacketing Pitts or even putting in the same area code as Waller.

Like new Falcons head Coach Arthur Smith said, Pitts is not a "finished product." He has a lot to learn and he soon will play against the sport's elite. But what he can add to an offense that has so many pieces and whose play designer and play-caller is so creative, should lead to potential excitement.

With wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, along with tight end Hayden Hurst and a run game that must improve to make the engine run, defenses should have choices to make.

What the NFL has shown us over the past two seasons is teams prefer to prevent explosive plays (15-to-20-plus yards) in the passing game and let offenses have at it with underneath and intermediate routes.

It's one reason why the Chiefs got caught in the Super Bowl when Rob Gronkowski slipped free for eight- and 17-yard touchdowns on Tampa's first two scores.

Now I am hoping you didn't just blow through something I mentioned three sentences ago. That being the need for the run game to work well to make the whole thing work.

No matter how many receiving threats or options you have, if you aren't two-pronged on offense, you've just allowed defenses to forget about studying geometry so they could focus on subtraction.

Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone are going to base the passing game off the run game. It's how this system is built. The Falcons must improve their offensive line, but Smith told me they feel most of the players up front, especially the tackles, are very equipped to execute what will be asked of them in the running game.

Another way to help the ground attack is with tight end play, which is where Pitts and Hurst could help. Pitts isn't a liability as a blocker. He might not be as dominant as San Francisco's George Kittle, but he will mix it up. An assistant at Florida told me he is strong at the point of attack but practices maniacally to get better.

That practice ethic and the understanding that he has work to do to help the team function better was one of the many attractive attributes that prompted the Falcons to bypass quarterback Justin Fields or trade back and make Pitts the highest-drafted tight end ever.

To note, this also is a franchise that in the 2000s has been fortunate to field some excellent tight ends.

There was Alge Crumpler, who was Michael Vick's go-to guy to move the chains and put points on the scoreboard. Of course, there also was Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, who caught 35 touchdowns in his five seasons with Matt Ryan.

It's also way too soon to gloss over the potential contributions of Hurst, simply because the Falcons used the No. 4 pick on Pitts. Hurst had 56 catches and six touchdowns in his first season with Atlanta after starting his career in Baltimore. With Arthur Smith's play designs and attention being paid to Pitts, Hurst could end up being the biggest beneficiary.

In Smith's final season as the Titans offensive coordinator, it is stunning how the run game benefitted the passing game and vice versa and how so many individual players flourished harmoniously.

Running back Derek Henry had 2027 rushing yards and 397 touches (including receptions). Wide receiver A.J. Brown had 70 catches for 1075 yards. Wideout Corey Davis had 65 catches for 984 yards. Tight ends Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser combined for 80 catches and nine touchdowns.

With Pitts, there is no reason why Atlanta's offensive individual talent, if it meshes, can't live that type of balanced life.

Regardless of what is said from Smith and Fontenot in the next few weeks and months, Pitts will be under some pressure to deliver early and provide all the matchup advantages that make defense squirm.

It's why Fontenot and Smith, in their first time running a draft, banked on him and showed the team's followers the groundwork of their philosophy in building their type of team.

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