In almost any way one could spin it, Kyle Pitts is having an outstanding rookie season. But, with the benefit of hindsight, was he worth the fourth-overall pick in this year’s draft?
There truly is a lot for Pitts to hang his helmet on as his first regular season comes to a close. His 102-yard performance on Sunday afternoon led all Atlanta Falcons receivers and gave him the franchise record in single-season receiving yards by a tight end (949… and counting). It also has made him second all-time in rookie season receiving yards and third all-time in rookie receptions by a tight end. If he tallies 18 more catches and 128 yards in the next two weeks, he’ll have both records—that’s all without mentioning that he also earned a Pro Bowl nod. The last rookie tight end named to a Pro Bowl was the New York Giants’ Jeremy Shockey in 2002.
So, why the “almost” in that first sentence? Well, as dangerous as Pitts has been seemingly everywhere on the field, he hasn’t been a threat in the end zone. With two games remaining this season, Pitts has just one touchdown catch—and that was 11 weeks ago.
Not scoring touchdowns isn’t inherently the fault of the pass-catcher. After all, to catch a touchdown pass, someone has to throw it, and quarterback Matt Ryan deserves some of the blame. Entering Sunday, Ryan was on pace to have his worst passer rating this season since 2015. Against the Detroit Lions, Ryan extended his streak of games with fewer than 300 passing yards and one or fewer passing touchdowns to seven straight.
Part of Ryan’s issues are with a struggling offensive line and defenses that have taken away the short, quick passes he was thriving on earlier in the season. Even so, he still deserves some of the blame. The 37-year-old isn’t performing well enough to inspire confidence that he can be the answer for Atlanta much longer.
Therein lies the biggest question mark about drafting Pitts fourth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. If the Falcons need a better answer at quarterback than an aging Ryan, why didn’t they address that problem in this draft? They were in a prime position to take one, even after Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance were off the board by the fourth pick. I mean, the opportunity to bring Justin Fields back home to Georgia was right there. Mac Jones was also available if they didn’t like Fields’ fit.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, there isn’t really a perfect answer to their 2021 draft strategy conundrum. On one hand, it’s very hard to knock them for taking a guy like Pitts, who’s already proven he belongs as an NFL tight end. He is a 2021 Pro Bowler as a rookie, after all. At the same time, his lack of scores this season could suggest an issue at quarterback.
Atlanta already knew the clock was ticking under center with just two years left on the contract of a 37-year-old signal-caller. The time to find a replacement would have been in a 2021 draft class full of young quarterback talent. Instead, the Falcons are in a bit of a quarterback purgatory. Ryan isn’t a long-term answer, and from what we’ve seen of Josh Rosen and Feleipe Franks this season… they’re not either.
So, was Pitts worth that fourth-overall pick? In a vacuum, that’s an easy “yes.” He’s been an incredible addition to the Falcons’ offense with his high levels of production as a pass-catcher. There are two games left in the season and he’s already having one of the greatest seasons by a rookie tight end of all time. It’s the context that complicates things. Long-term, the Falcons could be alright if they find Ryan’s successor under center in the next couple of years. If they don’t, passing on a quarterback to take Pitts in a QB-stacked draft class will come back to haunt them.