Kyle Pitts transitions from promising rookie to focal point of Atlanta Falcons' offense

ATLANTA – The focal point of the Atlanta Falcons' offense stood with almost a full circle of media surrounding him Friday afternoon inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Kyle Pitts had just finished up practice and perhaps unknowingly walked into a different role than the tight end had a season ago.

With as much change as the franchise has had on offense this offseason – quarterback Matt Ryan in Indianapolis, an almost completely different receiver room and even his position group undergoing large-scale alterations -- Pitts has become a familiar face amongst unfamiliar faces in just his second year in the league.

That’s in the locker room and on the field, where everything has at least a tinge of prior experience.

“He’s not facing the unknown, right,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “... You see Kyle, you saw him as he progressed through last season, and I’ve said it many times, he’s just scratching the surface.”

Last year’s “surface” for the 2021 No. 4 overall pick was one of the best seasons a rookie tight end has ever put together -- 68 catches, 1,026 yards, one touchdown and a Pro Bowl appearance. He was only the second rookie tight end to eclipse 1,000 yards, joining Mike Ditka, the first tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

By season’s end, he emerged as the present, immediate and potentially even far future of the Falcons’ offense. At just 21 years old, he has reached that kind of status, perhaps even more so playing with a new quarterback in 2022 -- whether that’s veteran Marcus Mariota or rookie Desmond Ridder. Or, depending how this season goes, both.

That has shown in early practices, too. Pitts has been more comfortable showing his personality in team-created social media videos and after catching a touchdown pass in Thursday’s OTA from Mariota over Mike Ford, he celebrated by throwing the ball high into the air. A year ago, he might not have done that. Now. he appears to be opening up more as he learns his new teammates and as those players learn him.

He already has a new veteran teammate, tight end Anthony Firkser, saying he believes he can learn from what Pitts does and that playing with Pitts was a reason he chose to come to Atlanta in free agency -- along with his familiarity with Smith. He has an offense knowing it’ll lean on him and quarterbacks who won’t be able to help but look his way as the team completely revamps its other pass-catching positions.

And for Pitts himself, he’s in a different place than a year ago, when everything was unfamiliar.

“Just being able to mature a little more,” Pitts said. “I feel like I matured a little bit in my life, on the field, off the field, trying to have it all correlate to be the best player I can be.”

What does that look like, though?

Pitts said he felt like his rookie season was “a good start.” He spent part of the offseason working on his strength to become a more effective blocker, another sign he is committed to being a complete tight end while still being relied on as a primary pass-catcher. But the biggest difference to him isn’t physical.

“Just the mental side, that kind of helps you play faster,” Pitts said. “When you know what you’re doing, when you know what the defense is doing, just be able to be the best player you are.”

He has looked to Firkser for help too. Even though Firkser is newer to Atlanta than Pitts, he has logged more time with Smith and the offense. Firkser and Smith were together with the Tennessee Titans, where Smith was the tight ends coach in 2018 and offensive coordinator in 2019 and 2020.

Pitts joked he has asked Firkser questions “almost every other play” in an attempt to understand more nuance in Smith’s offense. Firkser, meanwhile, can pick up things from merely watching Pitts’ top-end talent as the two of them try to figure out how to work together as potentially Atlanta’s top two tight ends.

And in an offense where so much is new, having a player like Pitts can be an immediate comfort to either veteran quarterback Marcus Mariota or rookie Desmond Ridder. A year ago, he was the one learning everything. Now, he’s in a situation where he may end up being the one leading.

“That’s something I want to try and work towards, to be one of the top leaders on the team, on the offense as well,” Pitts said. “That’s something that this offseason I want to go into and watch behind Marcus and Jake [Matthews] and all the other vet guys to learn how to be a leader.

“I feel like I’m slowly starting to step in the shoes.”