PHILADELPHIA - Sunday’s season-opener in Atlanta will feature what is supposed to be two of the NFL’s top rookie playmakers.
From the Eagles’ perspective, that’s the No. 10 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and reigning Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, the 166-pound “Slim Reaper” who breaks ankles off the line of scrimmage like Allen Iverson crossing over.
For the Falcons, it’s a much more imposing presence in 6-foot-6, 246-pound Kyle Pitts, the Philadelphia native, and former Archbishop Wood star, who was the No. 4 overall selection back in April and the first non-quarterback taken in the draft.
Although a tight end by trade, Pitts is earmarked to replace future Hall of Fame receiver Julio Jones, who was traded to Tennessee, as a playmaker in Atlanta.
Pitts has never played an NFL down, but is so gifted he’s at the forefront of the Eagles’ collective minds for Sunday, along with veteran QB Matt Ryan and slick route-runner Calvin Ridley.
The Eagles understand what they are up against because Pitts’ former offensive coordinator at the University of Florida, Brian Johnson, is now Philadelphia’s QB coach.
“Brian has been able to give us a ton of insight on him,” head coach Nick Sirianni said. “So, the one thing that keeps coming back is he's a really good player. We know we're going to have to handle him and things he can do.”
The top of the list for handling Pitts figures to be veteran safety Anthony Harris but the former NFL interception leader admits that Pitts is the type of talent that takes a village.
"I think any time you go into a game and there is a dynamic player, it's always going to be a team challenge, through scheme,” Harris said. “Obviously, there is gonna be a time where a guy is going be matched up with him where you gotta do what you gotta do, but I think collectively, you know pass rush, coverage, hand to hand, everybody, being able to stop the run and keying on that as well."
The thought on Pitts coming into the NFL from personnel evaluators is that he’s too big for cornerbacks to deal with and far too fast and athletic for the average safety, never mind a linebacker.
His Florida coach, Dan Mullen, called him a unicorn.
"I think you have to look at his ability to run routes downfield. He's got good size. Obviously, in college, he showed he can be explosive,” Harris said. “So for our defense Week 1, the challenge will be keying on him as well as seeing how they are going to utilize him and be able to combat that with what we want to do defensively."
The plan, according to Harris, is to be physical with a player not used to the NFL yet, likely the same tact that the Falcons defense will try with Smith.
"You want to be physical with him around the line of scrimmage,” explained Harris. “You want to be able to go out there and disrupt that timing, whether it's some of the defensive lineman getting in his way or on the pass rush or in the run game as well.”
-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.