Fantasy Court: The Case Against Kyle Pitts
Check out where Andy, Mike, and Jason have Kyle Pitts ranked.
Your honor, Kyle Pitts is a generational talent. No tight end has ever been selected higher in the NFL draft, and has already shown that he is an excellent professional football player. He is arguably the dynasty TE1, and to suggest otherwise would be absurd. What is not absurd – indeed, what is perfectly reasonable – is to suggest that the fantasy community is conflating future production with Pitts’ outlook for this upcoming year. The expectations are too high.
Questions remain about the young player’s touchdown upside and, perhaps more saliently, the quality of the team around him. Fantasy managers should avoid Kyle Pitts at his ADP – the TE3 off the board – at all costs.
Every 2021 Kyle Pitts manager knows the pain of what I am about to summarize. Last year, Pitts hauled in 1,026 receiving yards, an astounding mark for a rookie and the third highest yardage total at the position (behind only Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews). Unfortunately, while Andrews and Kelce both found the end zone 9 times, Pitts scored just once.
The result: Kyle Pitts ended the season as the TE7 after being drafted as the TE4, which was a path that at least one analyst saw coming. I recall Jason describing the situation as follows: Pitts’ ADP means that he would not just have to break, but irrevocably shatter, all of the rookie TE records to return on value. Ultimately, while Pitts’ had an incredible performance by rookie standards, it wasn’t insane enough to actually match his ADP.
His ‘fantasy value added’, from a wins above replacement standpoint, was even worse. Because of a lack of TDs and, in turn, boom games, he didn’t often actually help your lineup when you started him. Ultimately, Pitts finished inside the top-8 at the position just three times. George Kittle played three fewer games, but had eight top-8, and six top-5, weekly finishes. This is a much more favorable fantasy profile because, when he was active and started in your lineup, he more often helped your team win.
Now, one year later, we are in the full throes of deja vu: Pitts is going as the TE3, a late third rounder in ADP. The main argument in his favor is, naturally, positive touchdown regression. On balance, this is reasonable. Scoring just one TD given all of Pitts’ production last year is ridiculous, and we certainly expect him to reach the end zone more often in 2022. I’ve discussed how receiving touchdowns are very non-sticky, especially for tight ends. However, for Pitts to live up to his ADP, that regression would have to be massive. Generally, we think of ‘positive regression’ as a player scoring a couple more times over a season. How about four more times? Five more? Six?
Last year, even with all of the yardage, if Kyle Pitts had scored four more times (for a total of 5 TDs) he still would have finished as the TE4. That means he would have had to increase his touchdown output by five (six total TDs) just to return value at the TE3. I ran the numbers and, among all tight ends since 1999 who played 10+ games in a season, only 6.8% of them increased their TD output year over year by 5 or more. What’s more, 75% do not even see a 3+ bump in TDs!
Therefore, while we would expect some solid positive regression, it’s probably unreasonable to expect regression large enough to make Pitts elite at the position. A much more promising regression story is that of D.J. Moore, who scored just 4 TDs last year (again). If DJM had scored thrice more (7 total), he would have finished as the WR13, higher than his current ADP of WR18. This is the sort of story I would prefer to target: a reasonable amount of positive regression leads to a fantasy finish better than a player’s ADP, versus significant positive regression being required to just return on value.
The expectations are, again, too high for Mr. Pitts. The simple truth is that, to be an elite, top-3 tight end, you have to score a lot of touchdowns. Top-3 TEs averaged 9.5 TDs a year over the past two seasons, and it’s far-fetched to believe that Pitts will regress upwards that much in just one season.
The Atlanta Falcons, put simply, are going to be bad this year. Their projected win total is among the worst in the NFL, in line with teams like the Houston Texans. Combine this with the elite incoming 2023 QB class, and it’s safe to say that the Falcons are going to be tanking this season.
This doesn’t bode well for the fantasy options in Atlanta, especially Kyle Pitts: nine of the top ten TEs last year (with Pitts being the exception) were on playoff teams. It is possible – albeit less likely – to have great fantasy production on a bad team, as Brandin Cooks demonstrated. What really concerns me, though, is the quarterback situation for the Falcons, who just traded away aging franchise legend Matt Ryan.
Marcus Mariota, who is entering his 8th year in the league (time sure does fly), currently projects to be the starting QB on Week 1. The last time we saw Mariota play close to a full season was in 2018, when he threw just 11 touchdowns in 14 games. Does that bode well for Kyle Pitts‘ touchdown regression? Now, you might be noting that Mariota was playing for the Tennessee Titans, a run-heavy offense, and thus didn’t have the opportunity to throw more. Unfortunately, Arthur Smith, the current coach of the Falcons, is the former Titans offensive coordinator.
Now, there is a good chance that Desmond Ridder, a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft, gets meaningful time this season, especially since the Falcons will want to see what they have in the rookie. While I actually like Ridder’s long-term prospects, it would be even worse news for Kyle Pitts‘ this season. Rookie QBs usually have a tough time: highly touted picks like Trevor Lawerence and Zach Wilson tossed 11 and 9 TDs, respectively. The picture is even less rosy for a worse prospect who would be taking the helm mid-season.
Finally, as if it wasn’t bad enough to be on a tanking team with subpar QB play, Kyle Pitts will likely have more competition for targets this season. Russell Gage, the team’s 2nd leading WR, has departed for greener pastures in Tampa Bay, but the Falcons drafted Drake London 8th overall and will almost certainly provide him with a plethora of opportunities. Cordarrelle Patterson, the 3rd leading receiver, is also returning. This could be bad news for Pitts’ 20.3% target share, which was 6th at the position according to PlayerProfiler.
The Kitchen Sink
If you’re not yet convinced that Pitts is a dubious pick in the late third round, I have a few more points for you to peruse. He posted 6.2 fantasy PPG against the NFC South last year, and will have five fantasy games with these same matchups again in 2022 (six if your league plays in Week 18). He also registered a full 17 game season last year compared to some of the other top TEs: Kelce (16), Kittle (14) and even Dawson Knox (15). If Pitts has to miss time this year – which the Falcons, who will likely be tanking, are likely to encourage if there is any injury risk – the uphill battle of achieving his ADP becomes even steeper.
Further, we know that rookie tight ends, like quarterbacks, usually have a difficult time in fantasy. This is the opposite of WRs and RBs, who often find immediate success. Tight end’s slow career start can even be multi-year: Travis Kelce wasn’t the TE1 until his third year, ending as the TE7 and TE8 before that (AKA, exactly how I expect Pitts to evolve). Darren Waller took five years to crack the top 3. George Kittle and Rob Gronkowski did become elite fantasy options in their second year, but they were also in much better offensive schemes.
Finally, the competition at the tight end position is just as stiff as it was last year. The elites – Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews and maybe even Dalton Schultz – don’t appear to be going anywhere. All three are playing in the same system and will probably be soaking up more targets, thanks to the departures of Tyreek Hill, Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown and Amari Cooper. This is different from the WR position, where Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill‘s offseason movements may have opened up an easier path to the top of the pile.
Kyle Pitts has a legendary career ahead of him, and will someday enter the pantheon of all-time fantasy tight ends with the likes of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. My claim, your honor, is only that he won’t take the next step just yet. Unrealistic regression, a team crumbling around him and a myriad of other factors stand in the way of Kyle Pitts returning value at his ADP. Look elsewhere when the late-third rolls around.