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Kyle Pitts and the Search for Unicorn Tight Ends

The Florida playmaker could soon become the first tight end drafted in the top five in decades. If he’s as good as many draft experts think, he’ll quickly become the kind of do-anything playmaker that NFL teams covet more than ever.

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In the run-up to this week’s NFL draft, Kyle Pitts has received so much hype that his skill set has started to sound almost mythical. That’s not just coming from draft pundits and talking heads. It’s how one Florida assistant once described Pitts during a meeting, according to Gators coach Dan Mullen, who recalled the scene during Florida’s pro day last month.

“He’s like, ‘Hey, (Pitts is) kind of like a unicorn,’” Mullen said. “‘And the only way you can defend a unicorn is with another unicorn. So if you don’t have a unicorn on defense, you get a problem.’”

Pitts has long been cemented as one of the 2021 draft’s best players. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly ranks Pitts as his no. 3 prospect, and the Florida playmaker is a consensus top-10 player across all reputable draft boards. If he goes in the top five on Thursday—as most mocks project—he’ll be the first tight end taken that high since the early 1970s. For the first time in recent NFL history, a tight end is arguably the draft’s best non-quarterback prospect—a testament to Pitts’s tantalizing ability and the value of a difference-making tight end in today’s NFL.

Tight end is still a niche position. Not every team has a good one, and not every offense is designed to make use of one. But a star tight end can expand playbooks in ways that talents at other skill positions can’t.

In recent years, athletic tight ends have posed unsolvable questions for defenses. Players like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Travis Kelce are some of the best and most memorable players of their eras because of how they stretched and stressed defenses with their positional flexibility. The combination of pass-catching and playmaking ability—and, for some, blocking gusto—makes these “unicorns” assets, a sentiment that’s clearly been emphasized throughout the offseason.

Still, it’s rare for unicorns at the tight end position to be so obvious in the draft. (And perhaps just as rare that highly touted prospects reach their perceived ceilings.) The Chiefs drafted Kelce with a 2013 third-round pick. The Ravens originally chose Raiders tight end Darren Waller in the sixth round of the 2015 draft as a receiver. The 49ers took George Kittle in the fifth round in 2017. That trio spearheads the NFL’s current top guard of premier athletic pass-catching tight ends, a collection of diamonds in the rough that Pitts appears destined to join as its most obvious jewel.

“I feel like people calling me a unicorn is a special nickname,” Pitts said following his pro day last month. “Because unicorns, you don’t find them everywhere. So being able to do other things that other tight ends can’t is kind of special.”

While Pitts is the most highly regarded tight end to enter the draft in recent memory, recent first-round tight end prospects have been a mixed bag, and nothing more than solid. Injury issues have prevented the Giants’ Evan Engram (2017), Broncos’ Noah Fant (2019), and Buccaneers’ O.J. Howard (2017) from breaking through. The Browns’ David Njoku hasn’t been consistently serviceable and has considered leaving Cleveland. The Falcons’ Hayden Hurst was originally drafted by the Ravens, but Baltimore traded him after two quiet seasons. Pitts may break the mold, though, as his otherworldly athleticism and receiver-like skill set make him a special prospect whom so many believe will live up to the hype.

Pitts reaffirmed his elite prospect status during his pro day in Gainesville. He clocked a 4.44-second 40-yard dash, logged a 10-foot-9 broad jump, and measured in at 6-foot–5 5/8 and 245 pounds with an 83 3/8–inch wingspan, the largest of any receiver or tight end in the past 20 years. While pro day numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, Pitts’s marks in those drills would rank in the 97th percentile or better of all tight end prospects since 1999, according to Marcus Mosher’s database. Pitts also recorded a 33 1/2-inch vertical, which squares with Kelly’s scouting report that Pitts is a “catch point dominator who regularly comes down with the ball in traffic.”

Pitts thinks his best trait is his wingspan. “I feel like that gives me an advantage versus people and (defensive backs) who have maybe shorter arms,” Pitts said. “So that gives me a chance to go up and make a great play.”

A four-star recruit in 2018, Pitts practiced with Florida’s receivers as a true freshman, refining his route-running ability, and then translated that skill to tight end as a sophomore in 2019. He broke out as a junior, recording 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2020 en route to winning the John Mackey Award, given to college football’s most outstanding tight end. Still, Pitts is not a traditional fit at his position. According to Pro Football Focus, Pitts registered 4.4 yards per route run when he was split out wide against cornerbacks—the same figure as Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith, a projected top-10 pick coming off a Heisman Trophy–winning campaign.

“I think he’s an elite wide receiver and I think he’s an elite tight end,” Mullen said. “And when you’re that [versatile], that’s what causes the problem of what personnel grouping are you in, who you’re going to match up against him.”

The thought of acquiring a generational talent like Pitts makes offensive masterminds salivate. Conversely, planning for a player like Pitts probably gives defensive play-callers a headache. Diante Lee, who analyzes NFL schematics for PFF and is a high school defensive coordinator, explained how the biggest problem facing NFL defenses is determining where Pitts is going to line up pre-snap, because his versatility makes him a threat in any alignment.

“From a scouting perspective, wherever he’s at is going to change what I’m thinking about defensively, because he puts stress on a defense in that way,” Lee said. “It’s almost like a Ray Allen or a Kyle Korver in basketball, right? Everywhere they line up at, there’s gotta be dedicated eyes to him, otherwise you will get hurt. That’s the way I kind of think of him as a talent before the ball’s even snapped.”

Pitts’s versatility is a perfect fit for modern football, which in the past decade has started to look more and more like seven-on-seven scrimmages. And while offenses are getting more clever at concealing play calls, personnel groupings can help signal whether a run or a pass is coming in some contexts. Pitts’s presence makes that even more difficult to detect. Just like pre-snap motions can get defenses to tip their hand or get playmakers quickly onto the perimeter, offensive personnel groupings can help disguise play calls and put defenses in a bind, especially when a dual-threat tight end is on the field.

Over the past three years, NFL offenses have increased their use of 12 personnel groupings, making one running back and two tight end pairings the second-most-used formations in the game (trailing only 11 personnel, in which one RB and one TE is on the field). According to Warren Sharp’s database, in 2018, seven teams used 12 personnel on 20 percent of plays or more; in 2019, it spiked to 13 teams; in 2020, there were 15 teams who reached that benchmark—nearly half the league. That’s no surprise, given the problems multi-tight-end sets can cause for defenses.

Regardless of whether players are attached or detached from the offensive line, 12 personnel groupings force defenses to determine whether to stay in base formations with more linebackers on the field—enabling stouter run defense—or deploy nickel (formations featuring five defensive backs) or dime (six DBs) looks that allow for more effective pass coverage. The advantage already rests with the offensive play-caller in that scenario; Pitts accentuates that challenge for defenses.

“The issue is that you can use Kyle Pitts to create different kinds of formations out of the same personnel package,” Lee said. “So while it may be 12 personnel in the huddle, they can come out in trips and Kyle Pitts is the X receiver singled out. In those situations, you have to think like there’s only one tight end on the field, because Kyle Pitts can really kill you one-on-one if you don’t have a true no. 1 corner out there with him.”

Florida took advantage of Pitts’s versatility often last season, flanking him out wide while featuring 12 personnel groupings, such as on the play below against South Carolina. The Gamecocks saw the Gators bring two tight ends onto the field and deployed a base personnel grouping with three linebackers and four defensive backs. But two Gators receivers line up to the field side and only one tight end is attached to the offensive line. A South Carolina linebacker quickly lines up over Florida’s slot receiver, Kadarius Toney, pre-snap, creating a potential mismatch in coverage, because Pitts is split wide as the X wideout on the boundary side occupying South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn, a projected first-round pick. During the play, Pitts runs a fade route and outmuscles Horn for a 20-yard reception. It’s a perfect example of the options and mismatches a player like Pitts can create.

According to PFF, Florida aligned Pitts in the slot or split wide on 36.2 percent of his snaps last season. Defenses tend to line up in heavier personnel groupings when offenses trot tight ends onto the field in an attempt to defend against the run, intuitively matching the size of the offense. Pitts is not a dominant blocker, but he’s adequate, willing, and his massive frame always will allow him to compete in that realm. That forces opponents to account for his presence in the box, and when base personnel defenses are deployed on passing plays, that can leave slower linebackers or smaller safeties in coverage against Pitts, which is a matchup nightmare for defenses that Florida regularly took advantage of:

Pitts can also simply flex out wide, where he’s shown that he can consistently win one-on-one battles against defensive backs on slants and vertical routes.

“With a guy like Pitts, the entire playbook is still open while he’s on the field,” Lee said. “And as a defensive coach, we don’t necessarily get to work under that same assumption that we can just call anything that we have.”

Last month, Pitts made it clear that, by the time he’d completed his pro day, no teams had mentioned him exclusively playing wide receiver. “They’ve mentioned utilizing me in different areas,” he said, “but not just specifically receiver.” He noted that he’s closely studied Waller, whose 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame and receiver-like athleticism reminds him of his own build and playing style. According to PFF, Waller lined up in the slot or out wide on 44.5 percent of his offensive snaps last season, recording his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving campaign.

In the passing game, tight ends are usually among the QB’s closest targets, as the typical tight alignments lend themselves to routes across the middle of the field that make for easy throws. Where Pitts differentiates himself is he can be effective in every area of the field. He’s a monster over the middle, but dominates along the perimeter, too. Lee noted that typical tight end prospects are mostly used as checkdown targets or safety valves within the structure of more complex route combinations. An NFL offense will immediately be able to manufacture touches for Pitts because of his athleticism, fluid route running, and wide catch radius.

“With Pitts, it’s like we have an opportunity to be explosive (on offense),” Lee said. “If we get pressed and they don’t have safety help over the top, and we run a fade, this could be a catch for 45 yards or a touchdown. That’s the biggest thing to me for what I’m impressed with. And other than that, it’s been the diversity of his route tree.”

The earliest Pitts will be selected Thursday night is fourth by the Falcons. Leading up to the draft, there’s been speculation that Atlanta is content to stick with quarterback Matt Ryan, trade star wideout Julio Jones, and hitch Pitts to first-year head coach Arthur Smith’s offense. Per Sharp’s database, Smith’s Titans used 12 personnel groupings on 34 percent of snaps, second most in the league last season. And with veteran tight end Hayden Hurst already in tow, adding Pitts as a complement could make the Falcons passing attack extremely intriguing. If Atlanta doesn’t take Pitts, both the Bengals (who could use another dynamic pass catcher) and the Dolphins (whose starting TE, Mike Gesicki, lined up tight to the formation on the second-lowest rate among qualified players last season—12.9 percent, according to PFF) are possible landing spots.

“I think that if I got to play with a great tight end in front of me, it would be great for me being the young kid learning from someone who’s already been in the spotlight at that position,” Pitts said. “Just learning from them and being able to take things from them and apply it to my game—even just being a professional—that’ll be something that can be pretty cool.”

Whichever offense adds Pitts will attain a “one-of-one” type prospect who has a legitimate case as the best player in the class. He offers unlimited options for one NFL offense and a guaranteed problem for 31 NFL defenses.

“These are the kinds of threats that you get when you have a tight end who’s kind of a skeleton key,” Lee said. “As long as he’s on the field, technically, any formation, any personnel grouping is a possibility.”

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