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Falcons 'Confident and Positive' About TE Kyle Pitts After 'Very Different Years'

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts had a much different follow-up campaign after a Pro Bowl rookie season ... but his overall play actually took a big step forward, per coach Arthur Smith.

Oh, what a difference a year makes.

After a dominant rookie season in which he validated any doubts surrounding being the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history, Atlanta Falcons star Kyle Pitts was viewed as one of the brightest young players in the game.

And for good reason - he totaled over 1,000 yards receiving and led Atlanta's passing attack in several key categories en route to the second-most receiving yards among rookie tight ends in league history and was one of just six first-year players to make the Pro Bowl.

Fast forward to Dec. 2022, and Pitts is done for the season after undergoing surgery on his right knee Tuesday. It marked the end of a down statistical year for the former No. 4 overall pick, as he mustered just 28 receptions for 356 yards and two touchdowns.

Dubbed "The Unicorn," Pitts physically was as impressive as ever, and Falcons coach Arthur Smith stressed time and again how integral his presence was to Atlanta's offense.

But the talk for the next nine months, be it right or wrong, will undoubtedly be about Pitts' lack of production and "disappointing" follow-up act - but that's far from the true story of his second year.

Atlanta's run-heavy approach and focus on grinding games out limited the opportunities available in the passing game, but Pitts remained a focal point when the ball was put in the air, as he saw over a quarter of Marcus Mariota's pass attempts in the nine games he played.

There was simply a disconnect between Mariota and Pitts, one that wasn't as prominent when Matt Ryan was under center. It's not a knock on either signal caller, it's just a matter of how things played out ... and contributed to two dissimilar campaigns, per Smith.

"Very different years," Smith said. "He had bigger statistical numbers in the passing game a year ago - we were a much different team in a different place. You saw a lot of growth in a lot of other jobs we asked him to do - certainly there's some things you wish would've gone different, but you can see that growth as a player, as he becomes a more complete player."

Smith compared Pitts to the last two NBA Most Valuable Players, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, in the manner of which both faced "huge expectations," were given time to develop and became "really dominant players."

The same is true for Pitts, said Smith, as the 22-year-old is playing "a really hard position in what we ask out of (it)," adding that the Falcons' offense requires more out of tight ends than nearly any other scheme in the league.

It's in this specific regard where Pitts has made the most progress, becoming the well-rounded player Atlanta envision him becoming when they spent a top-five pick on his talents. Viewed by some as an oversized receiver playing tight end, Pitts put all doubts to rest in his 10-game season, proving himself as a blocker week in and week out.

There will be questions surrounding his usage, as players like Pitts should be producing more than he did statistically but lost in the world of numbers is the impact he made on so many plays where he wasn't the featured player.

Teams use premium picks on players intending for them to be crucial parts in what they do, and even though the numbers don't necessarily reflect it, Pitts absolutely did that in his second season.

"He's made so much growth and he's such an impactful player whether he touches the ball or doesn't," Smith said. "Being able to run behind him and (having) some really efficient runs, and also even on some of the actions where he's asked to block, where they're not just assuming he's getting out ... we're very pleased with his progress."

The "progress" Smith is alluding to, once more, isn't evident in the box score. Rather, it's seen in the versatility of his ever-expanding role and ability to contribute in more ways than when he initially arrived.

Better yet, not only does Pitts have a more diverse skill set now than a year ago, but he's doing everything more consistently, making him a player Smith can trust - especially when it comes to his recovery and long-term impact on the franchise.

"I'd say the best thing is you're not wishing or hoping," Smith said. "You know he's done it and you know he's made other gains in different areas of what we've asked him to do, so you're very confident and positive about predicting his future. Now, you can't predict everything, but you've got evidence."

The evidence certainly is telling; a 1,000-yard season as a rookie, a much-improved blocker with the ability to lead the way and spring big runs in year two.

It's been a pair of uneven years - "very different," to use Smith's words - but the "evidence" tells all: Pitts, who will enter his third season at age 22, is an extremely well-rounded player who proved himself as a pass catcher in year one and followed it up with a clinic as a blocker and teammate.

With Smith sharing that Pitts' injury isn't a concern for 2023, all eyes are set on a third season where all aspects of the Philadelphia native's skill set come together.

Oh, what a difference a year makes ... just look at the strides Pitts has made.

You can follow Daniel Flick on Twitter @DFlickDraft

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