Why Kyle Pitts could be in for a special second season with the Atlanta Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Kyle Pitts breaks off the line of scrimmage in the individual rep during an Atlanta Falcons training camp practice, stutter-steps for a second and then accelerates.

Mykal Walker, not slow for a linebacker, had no chance. By the time Walker recovered, Pitts was on his way to an easy reception. During training camp, Atlanta’s star tight end has done this to almost every defender.

He has dominated individual drills and shaken defenders in team periods leading to wide open catches and tossing the ball high in the air after every touchdown. For as good as Pitts was in his first year, when he became the first rookie tight end in 60 years to break 1,000 yards (he had 1,026), and was the first rookie tight end to make the Pro Bowl since 2002, it was clear there could be significant growth.

The talent was too evident. The skill of the No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 draft could overwhelm opponents at times last season -- and that was still with Pitts learning about the pro game.

“For a guy his size (6-6, 246), his catch radius, his length, his ability to get in-and-out of cuts, makes it easy on us,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said.

“Us” could be the quarterbacks. Pitts is adjusting to Mariota as his new quarterback after the team traded veteran Matt Ryan to Indianapolis in March. Could be his coaches, the other receivers or his fellow tight ends. Really anybody other than the defense trying to stop him.

While Pitts and Mariota are still learning each other, there’s potential for this fit in second-year coach Arthur Smith’s offense. In Tennessee, three of tight end Delanie Walker’s four best seasons were with Mariota at quarterback, including his only 1,000-yard season, in 2015.

But Pitts’ talent is scheme-agnostic. He’d be good anywhere and with anyone. Atlanta’s coaches saw that during Pitts’ rookie year, when Smith said multiple times he felt his tight end was only “scratching the surface” of what he could become.

Pitts knew it, too. He took the offseason and dug in on sharpening his route-running when he wasn’t learning to play golf. He’s more confident now, too.

“He’s a different breed this year,” Walker said. “His release this year ... it’s unbelievable.”

When Walker is defending a tight end and wants to press him, he tries to get physical. With Pitts, he can’t because Pitts is too fast off the line and also good with his hands. Where other tight ends have room for defenders to make mistakes so they can recover, Pitts doesn’t allow that.

If you miss with your hands, you’re done for on the play.

“So you have to be patient,” Walker said. “And with that timing like that, he’s able to manipulate the way you play him. He’s able to get that space, that separation when he needs it. That’s something I think he improved a whole lot from last year.”

When a defender is able to stick with him -- safeties Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins have, at times -- its notable and noticeable in practice. It’s clear Pitts is the best offensive player the Falcons have and maybe their best player, period.

All in the span of a year.

“The game,” Pitts said. “Has slowed down. Just a tad.”

Everything for Pitts has become a little bit more familiar. He’s more comfortable talking with the media -- last season, his answers were short and clipped -- and showing his personality. It might not seem like much, but it’s all part of the maturation process -- or, as Pitts said, “adulting.”

Somewhere – he wouldn’t divulge the location – Pitts has his goals written down that he looks at often. That he scored only one touchdown last season still appears to irk him. It’s part of his motivation, along with improving his leadership and the on-field progression he worked to create.

“What we asked him to do, especially at that position, we hoped there would be a leap in Year 2,” Smith said. “He had a good rookie year and I love the way he’s working. I like his mindset.”

Smith knows NFL history is peppered with players who look good in training camp only to fall away once games count. Yet there’s a cautious optimism there of what Pitts – still 21 years old – could become this season.

It includes his preparation. This season, he’s back to having his schedule in his locker – similar to the color-coded breakdown he had during his final year at Florida to help him remain organized and on-task – and he’s focused on keeping a strict regimen.

His last season at Florida, where he dominated the SEC and pushed himself into being a top-five pick, has never strayed far from his thoughts, either.

“I’ve been trying to take that step into a more mature role,” Pitts said. “And get back to how I was feeling when I was feeling like I was on top of the world.

“To get back to that feeling is something I’m trying.”

If the way Pitts has been moving, shaking defenders and progressing in his second camp is a good barometer, he's well on his way.