Throughout every evaluation, every meeting and scouting session, Florida tight end Kyle Pitts kept making an impression. The Atlanta Falcons never gave much of a hint about how high their interest was in Pitts, but on Thursday night at the NFL draft in Cleveland, they showed exactly how much they really valued him.
The Falcons made history by selecting Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick.
It marks the earliest a tight end has been drafted in the common draft era (since 1967).
"[We] coveted that player for a long time, his skill set, the talent is clear and what he's going to bring on the field and he's also a tremendous young man," Atlanta general manager Terry Fontenot said. "Every exposure, every opportunity to spend time with him and talk with him and all the research, he's got high character, so exactly what we want to build this program on."
Pitts said he felt his pre-draft meetings with the Falcons went well, saying that the conversations about football were productive and that he felt there was a clear role for him in new head coach Arthur Smith's tight-end-friendly scheme.
But Pitts also said it wasn't until his phone rang that he truly understood how much Atlanta wanted him on its team, turning him into a history-making selection.
"I'm definitely humbled and it's a dream come true to even get drafted and to be top five," Pitts said. "That's something special, and the first tight end ever [taken] that high -- I don't even know how to put it into words. I'm just elated with joy. I can't even put into words how excited I am."
A tight end has been drafted No. 5 overall twice: Mike Ditka (Chicago, 1961) and Riley Odoms (Denver, 1972). Ditka is the only tight end taken in the top 10 to reach the Hall of Fame.
In more recent years, San Francisco took Vernon Davis No. 6 overall in 2006, Kellen Winslow II went No. 6 to Cleveland in 2004, and Detroit took T.J. Hockenson at No. 8 in 2019 and Eric Ebron at No. 10 in 2014.
Pitts becomes the second tight end to be taken in the first round by the Falcons in their history, joining Junior Miller, who went No. 7 overall in 1980. It's the highest Atlanta has ever taken a pass-catcher, too, just ahead of Julio Jones at No. 6 in 2011.
The 6-foot-6 and 246-pound Pitts should fit immediately in Smith's offense. The Philadelphia native is a player Smith can use in line as a typical tight end, but he can also line up in the slot or even out wide to create positional mismatches.
"He's a unique player," Smith said. "And we'll get him in here, get him started and let his role grow. We think we can play him in multiple spots and view him as an offensive weapon.
"I guess I do have a little bias toward tight ends but, really, he was the best player we felt was available and he checked every box."
Smith said he envisions Pitts having "a big role for us" and that he's going to play but will have to earn the reps he does receive.
Atlanta did take calls about trading down out of the No. 4 pick, but Fontenot said none of the conversations ever got too serious. For him to trade out of that spot, Fontenot said Atlanta was looking for compensation that was "significant this year and in next year's draft." When that didn't materialize, he and Smith were more than comfortable selecting Pitts.
Pitts, the John Mackey Award winner, caught 43 passes for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns last season for Florida and had 100 catches for 1,492 yards and 18 touchdowns in his Gators career.
"I've been waiting for that call my whole life," Pitts said. "I see my phone ring and it's just -- felt my heart drop. It's step one into the right direction, so I can't wait to get to Atlanta and start a new journey."
Atlanta also has Hayden Hurst as its top tight end, but the Falcons have to decide whether to pick up his fifth-year option for 2022.
Part of what happened with Atlanta on Thursday was what the Falcons didn't do -- namely, select a quarterback as the heir to Ryan. Both Justin Fields and Mac Jones were on the board when Atlanta selected.
Ryan remains the only quarterback on the roster -- so Atlanta will have to bring in at least one more signal-caller at some point -- and Fontenot said he believes there are still good quarterbacks remaining in the draft besides the five selected Thursday night.
But it doesn't sound like Atlanta will force the quarterback situation behind Ryan, either as a backup or a potential future starter. Fontenot reiterated his confidence in Ryan and said the team's pre-draft work on the quarterback class wasn't anything to read into how the Falcons feel about their incumbent starter.
"Still a chance we could draft a quarterback," Fontenot said. "Or, again, we could get out of the draft and there could be a trade. There are still a lot of other opportunities to acquire quarterbacks and to fill out the roster the right way."