Can Kyle Pitts Make Rookie TE History? (Fantasy Football)

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The Atlanta Falcons drafted Kyle Pitts with the 4th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, making Pitts the highest-drafted tight end ever. Along with being the highest-drafted tight end ever, he may be the most hyped tight end prospect ever, and with that comes some lofty expectations for his rookie season. It’s known that tight ends typically struggle in their rookie season in the NFL, but will Pitts be able to defy the trend and help fantasy managers right away in 2021? Let’s look at how rookie tight ends have fared before and what we may expect from Pitts this year. All fantasy points and fantasy finishes will be referencing half-point PPR scoring.

Rookie Tight End History

Looking back at every tight ends rookie season since the year 2000 will show you how unlikely it is for a rookie tight end to make a meaningful impact in fantasy football. I have three separate charts that I created to see some of the biggest names and how they finished in their rookie season. Below will be the first chart, which shows the top-5 rookie seasons since 2000 for a rookie tight end.

Player Draft Capital Receptions Receiving Yards Touchdowns Fantasy Points
Evan Engram 1.23 64 722 6 141.6
Jeremy Shockey 1.14 74 894 2 134.4
Rob Gronkowski 2.10 42 546 10 133.6
John Carlson 2.07 55 627 5 120.2
Aaron Hernandez 4.15 45 563 6 119.5

In the second chart, you will see tight ends since 2000 with top-10 draft capital and how their rookie season went. Even those with high draft capital don’t quite live up to expectations in year 1.

Player Draft Capital Receptions Receiving Yards Touchdowns Fantasy Points
Vernon Davis 1.06 20 265 3 53
T.J. Hockenson 1.08 32 367 2 64.7
Eric Ebron 1.10 25 248 1 43.3

Below will be a chart of some other notable tight ends who have been at the top of fantasy scoring for their position. Travis Kelce and Darren Waller are both excluded. Travis Kelce didn’t play right away and suffered a knee injury in his rookie season that kept him from playing at all. Kelce had an excellent 2nd year in the league, though, with 67 receptions for 862 yards and 5 touchdowns, finishing with 143.7 fantasy points. Darren Waller was excluded because he was drafted as a wide receiver, and it was a long stretch before Waller turned his career around.

Player Draft Capital Receptions Receiving Yards Touchdowns Fantasy Points
Zach Ertz 2.03 36 469 4 88.9
George Kittle 5.02 43 515 2 85
Mark Andrews 3.22 34 552 3 90.2
The Talent

Kyle Pitts dominated at Florida in arguably the toughest conference in college football, the SEC. Pitts is 6’6″ and 240 lbs but has 4.44 speed and runs routes like a wide receiver. To visualize Pitts, think Mike Evans, but faster, slightly bigger, and getting to play the tight end position at the next level. To go more in-depth on Kyle Pitts, be sure to check out his rookie profile.

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Coaching Changes

The Atlanta Falcons made some coaching changes for 2021, hiring Arthur Smith, former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, as the new head coach. It’s no secret that the Titans loved to run the ball, as they had the 2nd most rushing attempts and ranked 30th in pass attempts in 2020. The Falcons were 4th in pass attempts and 19th in rushing attempts. With Smith’s history with the Titans, will he come in and change the Atlanta offense?

Arthur Smith came out and said that he wants to play to the team’s strengths. Now, it’s evident that the Falcons don’t have a Derrick Henry type running back to hand the ball off to, so it’s more likely that those strengths will be through the air. Sure, Mike Davis or whoever has the job during the season may get a fair share of handoffs, but most wouldn’t consider that to be the team’s strength. Below is a quote from an article by Jason Butt, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, quoting Arthur Smith on playing to the team’s strengths.

“There’s a lot of factors in there, and we have a foundation, but we are not going to be rigid,” Smith said. “We are going to play the strength of our roster. And there’s a constant evolution. The whole thing is you’re constantly trying to improve your football team, and I’m constantly trying to improve myself as a coach. So we will have a foundation upfront and there are core beliefs we have in terms of running the football. But we are not going to be rigid. We’ll be flexible and adapt and play to the strengths of our roster.”

In that same article, new offensive coordinator Dave Ragone defined what he thought a balanced attack in the NFL looks like between running and passing. This quote is another reason that I believe they won’t change up the offense too much. See the full quote below.

“People talk about balance. I think that word sometimes gets out of whack in terms of what exactly that means,” Ragone said. “I think to me, balance, in general with the run and pass, is the defense not necessarily knowing what’s going on on first and second down. Obviously in the NFL, third down is a pass down. But first and second down, if you have the ability to go in where a defense may not necessarily know if it’s a run, a (play-action pass), a naked (bootleg), a quick (throw), I think then you have the advantage, and to me, that’s the ultimate balance (to be able) to help the quarterback.”

The Situation

Another critical component to Pitts’ upside is his landing spot and draft capital. As mentioned before, the Atlanta Falcons made Kyle Pitts the highest-drafted tight end ever in the 2021 NFL Draft. Julio Jones trade rumors began shortly after the draft, which eventually came to fruition as they traded Jones to the Titans. Trading Jones immediately frees up a significant role in the Falcons passing game. Assuming that Calvin Ridley takes over as the team’s 1st option, Kyle Pitts may emerge as the team’s 2nd option.

As mentioned on the Fantasy Footballers NFC South Breakdown show, there may be 2TE sets where Hayden Hurst is on the field. The Falcons didn’t pick up Hurts’ fifth-year option, making him a free agent after this season; however, he could limit Pitts’ target share ceiling in 2021. It’s also likely that Pitts lines up as a wide receiver in some sets though. Other than Hurst, Pitts’ competition for targets will be from Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus. This lack of talent as competition for targets is why it is understandable to think Pitts will thrive in his rookie season, as no rookie tight end has before, because of the opportunity and volume to go along with his talent, which is a recipe for fantasy success.

The Risk

Since the year 2000, no rookie tight end has surpassed 150 fantasy points. I chose 150 fantasy points because a couple of players came close to that threshold, but nobody has been able to do it. The chart is somewhat of a “ceiling” situation; however, I am not saying that this is Pitts ceiling. I will have more on his potential ceiling later. The chart below shows what 150 fantasy points would get you from the previous six seasons.

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Year Fantasy Finish Point Difference from TE1
2020 TE4 110.3
2019 TE7 55.8
2018 TE6 93.1
2017 TE4 42.8
2016 TE6 30.5
2015 TE9 69.6

So hypothetically, if Pitts has 150 fantasy points in 2021 and has the best fantasy season by a rookie tight end ever, he will likely finish as the TE4 at best. He could score 150 fantasy points and still not be in the top-6, depending on how Mark Andrews and T.J. Hockenson finish this season. Mark Andrews was 4th in points per game in 2020 but only played 14 games, finishing as the TE5. Hockenson is in his 3rd season now and has almost no competition for targets in Detroit. Although there was a downgrade at QB, he is a top-5 tight-end candidate in 2021.

When you are drafting a player early, you are expecting near-elite production. When drafting a player in the middle rounds, you are looking for value and players that may outperform their ADP. As of writing this article, The Ultimate Draft Kit has Kyle Pitts ADP currently set at 6.05 (TE5), right after Mark Andrews and right before T.J. Hockenson. When drafting Pitts as the TE5, that is a risky bet, especially with Andrews and Hockenson around. For Pitts to pay off at his ADP, he needs to at least keep up with those two guys.

If you select Pitts at his current ADP, you are likely selecting him over players such as Cooper Kupp, Tee Higgins, Brandon Aiyuk, Diontae Johnson, and Tyler Lockett. All of these receivers have upside that you will be passing on, hoping that Pitts, at a minimum, performs well enough to justify his ADP. Passing on a WR or RB depth piece could hurt your team in the long run if Pitts doesn’t hit and finishes towards the back half of the top-12 tight ends.

The average difference between the TE1 and the 150 fantasy points mark over the last six seasons would be 67 points or 4.2 points per game. So if Kyle Pitts records the most fantasy points in a rookie season by a tight end since 2000 and hits 150 points, will that make an impact?

Courtney Culbreath/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

In a recent article about elite tight ends, I wrote about the difference between the TE3 and TE12 in 2020. Robert Tonyan had 150.6 fantasy points, 32.3 points higher than the TE12. There wasn’t a huge difference in scoring when it came to TE3-TE12. Since these tight ends were similar in scoring, it may be less risky to go ahead and draft a depth piece in the 5th or 6th round instead of Pitts. Then you can draft someone like Dallas Goedert, Noah Fant, Jonnu Smith, Mike Gesicki, Tyler Higbee, or even last year’s TE3, Robert Tonyan.

The Reward

The reward for drafting Kyle Pitts could be league-winning upside at a thin position for fantasy purposes. I wrote about how an elite tight end can help you win, and Pitts does have the potential to enter into that elite status. If you can snag an elite or near-elite producing tight end in the late 5th or early 6th round, that is a great pick. The road to an elite tight end season would require a heavy target share with many touchdowns. Due to the lack of talent other than Calvin Ridley, Pitts may get both.

In 2020, Matt Ryan had 626 attempts (1st in NFL) for 4,581 yards and 26 touchdowns. Per Pro-Football-Reference, there were 605 passing targets for Atlanta receivers in 2020. For the sake of comparing, let’s say Ryan hits those numbers again in 2021, without including the extra game; what might Pitts’ upside be? Calvin Ridley will likely get the bulk of targets, yards, and touchdowns. If Ridley hits 150 targets for 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns, that leaves 455 targets, 3,181 yards, and 16 touchdowns up for grabs.

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For Kyle Pitts to put up an elite-like fantasy season for the tight end position, he would likely need to score 180+ fantasy points. For reference, George Kittle had 180 fantasy points in 2019 and finished as the TE2 with a stat line of 107 targets, 85 receptions, 1,053 yards, and five touchdowns. If we used that stat line for Pitts with the number from Matt Ryan in 2020, that would be a 17.7% target share. That target share, along with the yardage and touchdowns, isn’t crazy or unreasonable for arguably the most hyped tight-end prospect in the history of the NFL.

Even if the Falcons run a more balanced offensive scheme, as previously mentioned, and Matt Ryan doesn’t have as many attempts, that stat line is still attainable. Even if there were 575 attempts, 107 targets would be an 18.6% target share. With the lack of competition for targets, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Pitts get a target share of 20% or more.

Conclusion

In my opinion, there is a lot more risk than reward when it comes to drafting Kyle Pitts in 2021; however, if there were a player that could defy expectations and put up big numbers in his rookie season, it would be Pitts. Hopefully, this article will give you what you need when making the tough decision on drafting Pitts or not.

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