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What's next for the NFL Tight End? That's up to Kyle Pitts...
Go Long catches up with the Falcons' athletic freak of a tight end, a man who is following the footsteps of all who came before him. He's the one who could take the TE position to a new level.
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This liftoff is six decades in the making. No way does Kyle Pitts have a chance to rocket-blast the tight end position into a new galaxy without the pioneers before him.
Innovation takes generations.
Mike Ditka arrived first. He founded the position itself on bludgeoning collisions from every contour of the football field. Clothesline Ditka? He’d blindside you. He interpreted the mere attempt at a tackle as a personal insult. When Kellen Winslow strutted into the San Diego Chargers’ locker room a decade later, fullback Hank Bauer wondered if the team had signed a player from the Los Angeles Lakers. If Dan Reeves doesn’t turn a wide receiver from Savannah State into a tight end, well, we never hear of Shannon Sharpe. He flames out after a season or two. Further, his drive in the weight proved legendary.
And the man most responsible for evolving the position is Tony Gonzalez. His rise may stun you in “The Blood and Guts.” A self-described “p-ssy,” Gonzalez was relentlessly bullied as a kid and learned to crush the fear within by standing up to his perpetrators. On to college, he needed to crush a new fear — a subconscious fear — of pouring everything he has into a sport and everything not being enough. Amid another night of partying at Cal, atop the Berkeley Hills, he watched airplanes fly in and out of Oakland. (“Dude,” he told himself. “Wake the f--k up. You are a f--king idiot right now. Why are you wasting this opportunity?”) That turning point propelled him to the NFL. His first OC, Jimmy Raye, understood his rare gifts and fed the tight end. Often. But Gonzalez wasn’t exactly featured schematically after that staff was fired. This “Greatest Show on Turf” spinoff prioritized wide receivers, not tight ends. Once Dick Vermeil’s staff departed, Gonzalez then caught passes from a string of abysmal quarterbacks… headed to Atlanta… and, yes, had an epic clash with Mike Mularkey.
The Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator wanted Gonzalez to be a blocker. And, woo boy, did they clash. Everything came to a head when the OC wouldn’t call a play to get Gonzalez his 1,000th catch.
Inside the locker room, Gonzalez says he was ready to throw haymakers.
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Looking back, it boggles the mind that any coach would do anything but feed Gonzalez repeatedly. On a D-I basketball court, he gave up five inches to stars like Ed O’Bannon and Tim Thomas. But the severe height discrepancy at power forward forced Gonzalez to deftly time up his rebounds and torque his body at juuust the right angle to shoot a jumper. It fed a muscle memory. So, on a football field? Against puny DBs and shorter linebackers? He dominated. No one could compete with Gonzalez at the ball’s highest point.
The power forward too short for the NBA was just right for the NFL.
An entirely new physical specimen was welcomed.
Suddenly, Antonio Gates makes eight Pro Bowls despite playing zero downs of college football. Jimmy Graham takes the league by storm. (h/t to Go Long Podcast co-host Jim Monos for scouting Graham in his Saints days.)
Rob Gronkowski is the best of all worlds.
Travis Kelce… and George Kittle… and Darren Waller… and Mark Andrews take flight.
Which brings us to this natural question: What’s next for the NFL Tight End? Through my “Blood and Guts” radio tour this week, that’s been the question asked more than any other, so I figured it was best to seek an answer right here at Go Long, to talk to that player who’s undeniably next: the Atlanta Falcons’ fourth overall pick in 2021, Kyle Pitts. Of course, every team craves their own version of Kittle, a tight end who’ll both plant a defender’s face into the dirt on a run play and rumble 70 yards to the end zone on a pass play. He’s the best tight end today and a major reason why San Francisco’s run game is so consistently dominant. But good luck searching for such a tight end in college. Your best bet is to draft an athlete and coach him up as a blocker. And even the legends who poke fun at Pitts’ blocking know their position has never seen anything like this before.
There’s no denying the line from Winslow to Sharpe to Gonzalez to Graham to the explosion of athletic tight ends today that has produced Kyle Pitts, the freakiest of all tight end freaks.
Think of the position in these terms. No longer do NBA teams plant centers on the block. The era of Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal dribbling one… two… three times before making a move near the rim has given way to 7-footers hoisting threes. Evolve or die. GMs and coaches lacking an athletic tight end better be hunting for one, or they’ll be fired. Pitts is the only rookie tight end since Ditka to eclipse 1,000 yards. His blocking is a major work in progress and, this 2022 season, he’s been quiet. Still, Pitts’ blend of size (6 foot 6, 250 pounds) and speed (4.44 in the 40) and athleticism give him a realistic chance to be the next legend at the position.
He’s a very soft-spoken guy.
Even then, Pitts said ahead of his draft that he’ll be “the best to ever do it.” And that’s a comment he won’t be backing down from any time soon.
He starts at home. Pitts wasn’t installing roofs on top of homes from age 7 to age 20 like Ben Coates, nor did he have a pack of wild boars for brothers like Rob Gronkowski. Yet like both greats, he followed the guidance of a dedicated father determined to get the absolute most out of his son. A desire to be the best ever is rooted in his Philly upbringing. With Kelly Pitts. Son can still remember the drives home from Pop Warner games. That soon, Kelly would tell him he’s got a real shot to be something special. “And the only way you’re going to get there,” he’d say, “is if you put the work in.” So, his boy did. Pitts prided himself on his work ethic.
There was no singular source of motivation from Pitts’ childhood. Both parents were in the household. He had an older sister. Their family didn’t struggle financially or endure everlasting trauma like Dallas Clark holding his dying mother in his arms or Jimmy Graham fighting for his life in a group home.
To Pitts, it’s simple.
“I always put my head down and work as hard as I can to be the best tight end, the best player,” Pitts says. “As you come up, everybody’s good. So, you have to find a way to separate yourself.
“The hard work was something where nothing was ever given. We were taught to go out and work. In football, that was something they never had to tell me to do. That was something I loved to do, so anything dealing with football growing up, I never complained or pouted about it. That’s why I stuck with this.”
Unless you’re a young Rob Gronkowski adoring the hell-on-wheels that was Jeremy Shockey, the best ever don’t exactly choose tight end. Rather, the position chooses you.
You have a very specific set of skills — you’re mowing the field at Kinnick Stadium, selling the campus newspaper, nearly blowing your appendix, more “Rudy” than Rudy himself like Clark — and nature runs its course. Eventually, Kirk Ferentz identifies very specific traits in Clark and moves his try-hard linebacker buried on the depth chart to tight end. Elsewhere, Greg Olsen was a running back his whole life, sprouted to 6 foot 4 and his father — the head coach at Wayne Hills High in New Jersey — realized his future was at tight end.
This was the case for Pitts. Dad stepped in.
Pitts played running back, cornerback and was even a quarterback into high school. That is, until he transferred to Archbishop Wood his junior year in 2016. Back then, he’d watch Monday Night Football with his Dad each week and it always seemed like a tight end was the star of the show. Dallas’ Jason Witten, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, etc., all had similar body types. Once more, Kelly Pitts spoke up. He told his son he’s not a quarterback. Only, this time, he offered an alternative — tight end. Dad was wise enough to see that all of these hybrids were changing the sport. Son could catch. Son could run. He just needed to learn how to block a little.
Finally, Kyle Pitts relented. He could get down with this. He watched as many tight ends as he could with Dad showing him clips from past greats like Gonzalez to current tight ends like Tennessee’s Delanie Walker and Detroit’s Eric Ebron.
“Tight ends at the time,” Kyle says, “I had the perception of, ‘They just block. They’re big. They’re fat.’ That’s what I thought back then. Now, every tight end can run … I was athletic myself so I felt like I could mirror them if not be better. So, I’d watch what they do, take stuff out of their game, add it to mine.”
From there, Pitts truly learned the position his sophomore year at Florida. That 2019 season, he finished with 54 receptions for 649 yards with five touchdowns. He didn’t look like the other tight ends in the SEC and, frankly, he admits he didn’t feel like a true tight end himself. So into the 2020 offseason, through the pandemic, Pitts made a point to “mentally lock in.” With the world shut down, Pitts transformed his body. That’s another theme at this position — thou must eat, and eat, and eat to transform into a tight end. Before heading to Arizona, Gronk added weight by pounding footlongs at Subway with every conceivable dressing and topped the meal off every time with two cookies. Clark beefed up from 203 to 245 at Iowa. Kittle actually got sick from downing so many protein shakes at Iowa. Pitts is heavier than he appears.
“I took it upon myself,” Pitts says. “Physically, I was doing everything and getting strong through the whole pandemic. That was something going into my third year where I wanted to answer all questions and become a complete tight end so I could be drafted as the first pass catcher off the board. That was near and dear to me.”
“It’s simple. Go get it. There are people out there working just as hard, if not harder. So you have to find a way to be the best person you can be and the best player you can be. Be a complete player. That’s something I tell myself often.”
The powers that be in the NFL began to notice.
That 2020 season was Justin Peelle’s last as the tight ends coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.
One Saturday, Peelle was folding laundry at his home while Florida vs. Georgia played in the background. He wasn’t watching too closely, but couldn’t help but notice an eye-popping play from No. 84 for the Gators. It stopped him in his tracks. Immediately, Peelle texted longtime NFL tight end Trey Burton, who previously played for Peelle in Philly for four seasons. A Florida alum, Burton promised his old coach that he would become well-acquainted with Pitts very, very soon. That season, Pitts finished with 43 grabs for 770 yards — good for a whopping 17.9 yards per reception — with 12 touchdowns. Peelle was named the Atlanta Falcons tight ends coach and, with the fourth overall pick, those Falcons made Pitts the highest-drafted tight end ever. A team with needs everywhere chose Pitts over LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Oregon tackle Penei Sewell and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence new GM Terry Fontenot had spent his entire NFL career with the Saints where head coach Sean Payton absolutely valued the tight end position.)
You’d be hard-pressed to find another position coach with a better seat for the evolution of the position than Peelle. Through his 10 seasons as a tight end in the NFL, he played alongside Antonio Gates (San Diego) and Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta). He also spent the 2011 season in San Francisco, where Vernon Davis supplied the game-winning touchdown in a wild playoff win over Graham’s Saints. As a coach, he worked with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert.
If anyone can put Pitts’ potential into context, it’s him.
“He’s impressive,” Peelle says. “He’s big. Obviously, he’s extremely athletic. So it started there and as I’ve been around him the last year and a half or so, he’s got a really good drive. He wants to be great. He works at it. And he’s progressing. Again, he’s so young where he has a lot of time to grow. He’s 22. His best football is still in front of him.”
A strong point. Historically, it takes two or three years for tight ends to get rolling. The mental and physical toll is immense and can send you to a dark place. While leading the NFL in drops his second season, Gonzalez fell into a deep depression. He’d lock himself in his room and rip through Jack and Cokes. (“A lot of drinking,” Gonzalez says in Blood and Guts, “a lot of self-loathing. A lot of self-doubt.”)
Maybe that’s what should give people hope. Right now, Pitts is not in the fetal position through what’s been an average Year 2 of his own. Through five healthy games, he has only 13 receptions on 25 targets. Peelle says the tight end hasn’t griped behind the scenes — at all. If anything, he’s been more dedicated than ever to improve as a blocker. Peelle is correct to note that all tight ends go through a stretch like this, too. “However we can win?” Peelle adds. “That’s always been his attitude. He has never said a thing to me about wanting the ball.” Defenses are making a conscious effort to shade coverage Pitts’ direction and it’s safe to say the Falcons’ quarterback play has been up and down.
Pitts’ Grade-A athleticism has not had a chance to flourish.
This is the challenge now: Learn a very difficult position while defenses simultaneously do everything in their power to take you away.
If there’s one common thread in all 15 tight ends profiled in “Blood and Guts,” it’s an indomitable drive. That’s a trait Kyle Pitts possesses in high supply.
“With the position in general, you’re usually outmanned, right?” Peelle says. “We’re asking them to block players who are bigger, more physical than them. And to run routes against — in theory — DBs and safeties who are better athletes. In order to succeed at the position, you’ve got to have a certain drive, a certain want-to. A competitiveness. Tony was very much like that. Kyle is the same way. All the really good ones I’ve been around have that competitive drive. I can’t pinpoint and say he does this or does that. But when you’re around it, you see it.”
Pitts remembers scoring three touchdowns the first game of his final season at Florida and refusing to celebrate the occasion. More than anything, he wanted to show the world it was no fluke. He watched film of that 51-35 Florida win, noticed plenty of bad plays and only told himself: “Put your head down. Be a household name at the end of the year.” Quickly, Pitts got into the habit of writing personal goals on sticky notes in college.
This current slump won’t last long.
“I feel like I’m still learning,” Pitts says. “I’m learning a lot, day by day. I’m just trying to add new tools to my toolbox. There’s something I’m going to do each day, each game, each season. Watching my peers and seeing how they operate. I can use some of their techniques — add them to my game. … It’s a steady grind. Each game, you’re going against a different defender who brings something different to the table. It’s up to you to switch up your game as well and find a way to win.”
He knows many are skeptical he’ll ever be able to venture into the trenches.
“To that person, I’d say I’m a total different person from Year 1 to Year 2. I’ve seen myself get stronger. Added body weight. So, I’m heavier. I’m working toward being a complete player. The blocking game is something I’m working toward to be a complete player.”
By no means is this a traditional tight end in any sense. Don’t expect many power plays called off his hip, yet even Gonzalez, Sharpe and Graham carved out niches as blockers. When Mike Shanahan convinced Sharpe to dedicate himself to blocking, the Broncos won two Super Bowls. Terrell Davis had one of the best three-year stretches for any running back ever. Ex-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to point out that Graham had a nasty edge to him — he’d crack back on a linebacker with the best in the business. Pitts can find a role. Peelle notes that, at 250 pounds, this tight end has a strong lower body. There simply aren’t many complete tight ends in college. Anywhere. These days, NFL scouts and coaches must project who has a willingness to block — and Peelle sees that want-to in Pitts.
Adds Peelle: “His ability to get on people quickly at the line of scrimmage is like something I’ve never see.”
Of course, it’s what Pitts does in the secondary that gives him a realistic chance to be one of the greats.
He can contort his body at downright weird angles to haul in passes. He cradles bombs over the shoulder like an MLB outfielder. He can burn No. 1 cornerbacks.
None of this is normal.
“His athletic ability is unbelievable,” Peelle says. “I love Tony to death but, when I was with him (in Atlanta), he wasn’t the athlete that Kyle is. They’re different. When I was with Tony, he was more established. Tony knew how to get open. He knew how to manipulate people. Kyle now is still learning how to do those things. It takes time. It takes experience. You’re talking about a guy that’s in the Hall of Fame vs. a guy who’s played 19, 20 games. So, it’s a little bit different in that aspect. But the length that they have. The ability to extend to catch the football. Body defenders. Kyle is on his way. He’s working at it. His best ball is still in front of him.”
There is one major difference between Pitts and those colorful tight ends spearheading “TE U” down in Nashville.
He is… quiet. Very quiet. Not nearly as in-your-face as the bombastic Kittle and Gronk and Travis Kelce.
After long completions, you’ll hardly see any personality. Pitts will pull off an impossible stunt and barely react. Peelle chuckles thinking back to one play particularly.
Pitts calls himself an old soul who enjoys jazz and blues music. Boney James and Brian Culbertson are on his playlist. The music’s soothing. Chances are, he’s not getting crunk with Waka Flocka Flame on a cruise bearing his name a la Gronk. If there’s a tight end he finds himself emulating, it’s Sharpe. Not the Sharpe all of America sees on “Undisputed” with Skip Bayless these days — the Sharpe who’s cut like a Greek god. Denver and Baltimore teammates were in awe of Sharpe’s training routine in Atlanta. That’s the sort of obsession Pitts aims for as a pro.
How special can he be? Peelle genuinely believes it’s up to him.
“Everybody knows he’s got all the gifts,” Peelle says. “It’ll be fun to watch.”
Perhaps ex-Falcon Lee Smith is right. All tight ends would love it if Pitts is the player who, once and for all, smashes the position’s pay scale. The NFL Tight End is the most underpaid player in sports.
One thing’s for certain. Drive won’t be an issue.
“I would say it comes from within,” says Pitts. “It’s not an underlying thing that happened in my life that made me want to work and be the best. It’s myself. I want to be the best.”
Make sure to snare your copy of “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football.” Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a signed bookplate. Thanks, all!
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