FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The biggest challenge for Kyle Pitts this season hasn't been an opposing linebacker, learning a scheme or even matching up with Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore, one of the NFL's best coverage players.
To understand what has been hardest for Pitts, the Atlanta Falcons' Pro Bowl rookie tight end, to adjust to, look toward the end of every day. After practice is over and meetings have subsided and Pitts has arrived home.
Nah, the biggest adjustment for Pitts is one so many people in the world can relate to: Figuring out how to get enough sleep.
"You get tied up and then when you get home, you're doing things and you just may go to sleep sometimes at 10, sometimes at nine," Pitts said. "Just try to be, keep it on a schedule. That's been pretty hard for me, staying on a good sleep schedule."
In college at Florida, Pitts created a color-coded chart to map out his days to make sure he was getting everything accomplished. But there was more flexibility, too. Between football and classes, there were pockets in the day to take naps. To recharge.
In the NFL, with so much of every day regimented in meetings, practice, film and recovery, those opportunities for midday siestas have disappeared. So Pitts had to change. When he got home from work for the day, he tried to find a way to wind down. By 10 each night, he made sure he was in bed, trying to fall asleep by 10:30 or 10:45 after putting the phone down and watching television to help push him toward REM cycles.
"I have to get my eight hours every night," Pitts said. "It's important to me. I learned it early and I'm still learning."
That could be said for every facet of what Pitts has done this year. Every week, every game has taught him something as he traversed through an almost-unprecedented rookie season. He made sure to try and take a piece from each opponent he faced. For example, matching up against Gilmore on Halloween showed him what it was like to face one of the league's best. Against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, he saw a different wrinkle for how coverage played toward him, "so I learned a different defense."
Even when the numbers were sluggish as opponents schemed to take him out of the Atlanta offense, there were smaller nuances coaches and players were seeing him improve. How he run blocked. Some of his route-running. How he came out of cuts on different routes and how the geometry of varying angles could create separation.
How he released off the line of scrimmage -- evident again Sunday when he beat Detroit cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu in the first few steps of a deep route leading to a 35-yard reception.
"We've moved him in a lot of different spots and asked him to do a lot of different things," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "I think mastering all those different spots where he's going is a work in progress, but he's gotten a lot better.
"But I think those two things coming out of the top of routes and releases are probably the two things that go unnoticed, maybe, but where he's continuing to grow and improve."
Those subtleties made a difference. Helped create the smallest separation Pitts needs to thrive. Ryan already trusts him -- he started making mental notes of the things he might be able to try with Pitts as early as training camp -- and he has become his top option with 101 targets, 64 receptions and 949 yards.
And, in some ways, those numbers have gone underappreciated because of a few factors. First, Pitts has only one touchdown -- and in a lot of cases, touchdowns bring attention from the general populace. Second, the expectations that were on Pitts, the No. 4 pick of this year's draft, were astronomical. Third, his production came in parts for much of the season before the consistent barrage of big plays the last three weeks.
"Things can get lost like that because there was so much hype to start out with," Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. "And it does kind of jade your thought process there. You're saying, 'All right, he's supposed to do that.'
"Well, it's not easy."
But it is what Pitts has managed to do. And he has done it in the vision many in the NFL had for him coming out of Florida. Lions coach Dan Campbell, a former NFL tight end, said his team had many discussions about Pitts during the draft process (they were picking seventh) and how Smith has used him is similar to how Detroit envisioned him had he landed there.
As much as the Falcons have used Cordarrelle Patterson everywhere as an offensive option, Pitts has been similar. He has run at least 55 routes from six different spots in Atlanta's offense: Fifty-five lined up as a tight end on the left; 68 in the slot to the left; 72 wide to the right; 80 as a tight end on the right; 80 wide to the left and 86 in the slot to the right.
His targets have been evenly distributed as well, with no spot seeing fewer than 12 (tight end right) or more than 23 (wide right). Between Patterson and Pitts, Campbell said there are times opponents might say, "Man, what are they in? What are they doing?" It's the matchup conundrum Smith loves to create with his players.
And it also has shown how different the position is -- and what it has evolved into. When Campbell entered the NFL in 1999, players like Pitts didn't necessarily exist. Or at least they weren't playing tight end. They were, more often than not, big outside receivers.
"You know what's funny, when I first came into the league, there's a chance that he, just by his stature, they might have tried to put him as a tight end," Campbell said. "And there wasn't a ton of people trying to use guys like they are nowadays so there's a chance, well, this guy, you try to put him with his hand in the ground and block 290-pound defensive ends and that's not something he's going to excel at over and over.
"But, man, when you let him stand up and you let him release a little bit and do things he's really good at, that's when he's really rare."
Pitts' rarity is showing even more as the Falcons' season has unfolded. He became the first rookie tight end to make the Pro Bowl since Jeremy Shockey in 2002. His 949 yards are third among tight ends in the NFL this year -- and tied with Las Vegas' Hunter Renfrow for No. 20 overall in the league. His 64 catches are sixth in the league at his position.
Last week, he set the franchise record for single-season receiving yards for a tight end, passing the 930 yards from Tony Gonzalez in 2012.
"It means a lot to me because I personally think he's the best ever," Pitts said. "So just someone that, looking at the tight ends and all the tight ends that came before me, he was one of the people that I liked watching from the older days.
"It was pretty special."
And there's the possibility of more special to come for Pitts. He's second all-time in receiving yards for a rookie tight end, behind just Mike Ditka, who had 1,076 yards in 1961. And he's tied with Evan Engram for third all-time in receptions by a rookie tight end – 17 away from Keith Jackson's 81 catches in 1988.
While he'll have the benefit of more games (Ditka played 14 games as a rookie; Jackson 16) there's a chance -- more likely in yards than in receptions -- Pitts could set both those marks. If he hits his average of 63.27 yards in Weeks 17 and 18, he'll be essentially there, although receptions would take higher-than-average production.
Even just reaching 1,000 yards -- Pitts marveled Sunday at how many that is after he had 1,492 yards over three seasons at Florida -- would be a big accomplishment for him and something some of the best tight ends in history -- including Gonzalez and Shockey -- didn't do as a rookie.
It's something Pitts said would be "awesome," but six months ago, it's not something he could have even imagined in his first year.
"I would never have thought of a 1,000 yards," Pitts said. "That's a lot of yards. In college, as a tight end, I was just content with what I was doing, but always striving to do my best. But 1,000?
"I was like, 'Ehh, that might be a little tough.'"
And now, it might just end up happening.