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History is Not on the Side of Whichever Team Picks TE Kyle Pitts in the First Round

Liam McKeone
Kyle Pitts
Kyle Pitts / Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
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There is much hullabaloo surrounding the various quarterback prospects that will go somewhere in the top-10 of the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday. Everyone wants to know who the San Francisco 49ers will take No. 3 overall and just how far college football superstar Justin Fields will fall.

You may have also heard, however, that there are some awfully talented pass-catchers who will fill in the rest of the top half of the first round once the QBs are gone. Names like Ja'Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. All are heralded as top-tier receiving talents, but only one guy has received the "generational" label: Florida tight end Kyle Pitts.

Pitts is projected to go as high as No. 4 to the Atlanta Falcons and isn't expected to last much longer after that if Atlanta decides to pass or trade down. There hasn't been this kind of hype around an offensive skill position player for years and certainly never about a tight end. It's impossible to overstate how good of a prospect everyone seems to think Pitts is. This is from NFL.com:

While the player comparison for the purposes of this scouting report is Darren Waller, Pitts may have the traits and talent to create mismatches similar to those created by Calvin Johnson and Tyreek Hill. His rare blend of size, athleticism and ball skills are reminiscent of Megatron’s.

Calvin Johnson and Tyreek Hill were brought up in the same sentence as his name! That's where we're at. The quarterback prospects are so controversial no one has taken the time to wonder if Pitts is the one getting his draft stock boosted in ways people might come to regret. From Walterfootball.com:

As a receiving weapon, Pitts is a once-in-a-decade-caliber prospect who is a mismatch nightmare similar to a Travis Kelce or Calvin Johnson.

From PFF:

Pitts is a phenomenal prospect, and he may be the best receiver in the draft, regardless of position.

You get the point. Everyone thinks this young man is as good as a receiving prospect can possibly be. That's why a tight end is projected to go as high as top-five in the draft and very few have wondered aloud if that might be a mistake.

I am here to do just that. Pitts is definitely *that* good as a receiver. Nobody who writes the above draft profiles actually expects him to rise to Megatron-levels of dominance, but he has the talent to make people think he could, which means that talent is obvious to even the eyes of someone like me who doesn't grind tape for a living.

The obvious and only flaw in Pitts' game is that he's a tight end who can't block very well. When one considers players at that position who have been considered the elite of the elite, they can all do both. George Kittle is a monster in the blocking game, as was prime Rob Gronkowksi. Travis Kelce isn't great in that area but has the size to seal the edge when asked. Same with Darren Waller. Pitts gives a good effort, and being a great receiver is more important than being a great blocker, I'll admit. Teams don't really care about that if enough of an impact is made in the pass game, and Pitts can definitely do that.

But picking Pitts in the top-10 could very well end up being a mistake. There has rarely, if ever, been a tight end picked high in the first round worth the investment in modern NFL history. T.J. Hockenson was the most recent at No. 8 overall in 2019. He looks like he's a fine player, but the Lions passed on guys who look like they could be future All-Pros like Ed Oliver and Devin Bush to pick him. Before Hockenson, it was the Lions (again) picking Eric Ebron No. 10 overall in 2014. Ebron, like Hockenson, is a fine player. But Detroit missed out on Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham Jr. to take a tight end.

You could chalk it up to a Lions problem, but there just isn't any evidence this century suggesting a tight end, no matter how talented, is worth the investment of a high first-round pick. Hell, that stands true even when just looking at regular first-round picks. Here's a list of tight ends taken in the first round over the last two decades, excluding Hockenson and Ebron:

Noah Fant, Hayden Hurst, O.J. Howard, David Njoku, Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham, Brandon Pettigrew, Greg Olsen, Vernon Davis, Marcedes Lewis, Heath Miller, Kellen Winslow, Ben Watson, Dallas Clark, Jeremy Shockey, Daniel Graham, Jerramy Stevens, and Todd Heap.

There are some good players in that bunch, to be sure. Davis played great football for the Niners for a long time as a former No. 6 overall pick. Clark was a mainstay of the best Colts teams under Peyton Manning. Shockey was solid, as were Heap, Olsen, and Winslow. But out of the 20 players listed (including Hockenson and Ebron), only Davis and Clark would be considered above-average for their position over the course of their careers for the team that drafted them. Olsen did most of his damage in Carolina after going to Chicago in the late first. Winslow had one great year in Cleveland before leaving and falling off in Tampa.

Everyone else topped out as pretty good or worse. Which is fine! But when you're investing a first-round pick into a player, you don't want "pretty good." You want great, and you want great for more than one or two seasons. The hit rate on those types of players at tight end in the first round is extremely poor in the 21st century.

Similar to how teams have realized over the last decade that running back talent can be found at a much greater value in the later rounds, teams will soon realize that's the case with tight ends. Kittle and Kelce were third-rounders. Gronkowski was a second. Waller went in the sixth. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were third and second-round picks, respectively. With the benefit of hindsight, they obviously would have gone higher. But that's not the point.

Perhaps Pitts, like Clark or Davis, will be the exception to this rule. NFL draft analysts unilaterally agree on very little, and everybody agrees Pitts is legit. But history is not on the side of whichever team decides his talent is worth investing a first-round pick in, no matter where he ends up.

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