It isn't often an NFL player resets what we think we know about a position, while simultaneously raising the bar for every player drafted after him at said position.
It even isn't all too often a highly drafted player meets or exceeds the expectations of his draft slot. There were already borderline unreasonable expectations on Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts entering the 2021 season because he was the highest-drafted tight end ever. The idea he would also be the next great offensive weapon while changing the position for everyone after him seemed nearly impossible.
Yet early in his career, Pitts might be on the path to doing just that.
Over his first six games as a pro, Pitts has caught 31 of his 44 targets for 471 yards and one touchdown, for 15.2 yards per catch. This is despite a slow start in which he had over 50 yards in a game once over his first four outings.
Then Pitts erupted in his fifth game, catching nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown in a win over the New York Jets. He followed that up with seven more grabs for 163 yards in a win over Miami. That made him the youngest tight end in league history to have 150-plus yards in a game, among other accolades, as noted by ESPN's Field Yates:
It isn't that Pitts is putting up wild numbers for his position, so much as it is the how he's doing it. He's consistently lined up on the outside or in the slot at spots traditionally reserved for wideouts. And he's putting world-class athleticism and a 6'6", 246-pound frame to work in a way that defensive backs can't handle.
And this isn't necessarily a case of "defenses will adapt and put an end to it in time." Not when he's already cooking some noteworthy defenses that try to press him, as Pro Football Focus' Anthony Treash showed:
Sunday's Miami game featured Pitts toasting Xavien Howard, a first-team All-Pro corner last year, for a 28-yard gain in single man coverage. Howard won't be the first major name to fall victim to the anomaly that is Pitts this year. And the attention from an elite defender negates any "he put up big numbers against bad teams" argument that detractors might point out.
Over his two major showcase games, Pitts ran routes on 71 of 91 dropbacks from Matt Ryan, with 20 snaps inline and 76 either on the boundary or in the slot, according to Establish The Run's Adam Levitan. And he's making it all look seamless, whether it's jumping for a catch with his massive radius or even falling one way while bringing in the ball on his back hip.
Pitts has been exceptionally reliable no matter when he gets a look...or who he gets it from. Per PFF, he hasn't dropped a pass since 2019 while he was still a member of the Florida Gators.
This realization of Pitts' rare draft stock seemed almost impossible and felt like it had zero chance of happening during his rookie season.
NFL.com's Lance Zierlein was effusive in his praise of Pitts in the leadup to the draft:
"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. His ability as a pass-catching tight end could force defenses in his division to alter the way they construct their roster. He's a tough matchup for most linebackers and too big for most cornerbacks."
Pitts isn't the first tight end to run some routes outside of his traditional spot. For instance, Waller has thrived with the Las Vegas Raiders when moved around the formation and is arguably the game's best tight end, or was entering this season.
But nobody, Waller included, has the blend of size and athleticism Pitts presents. Had these numbers been predicted preseason, most would have agreed they would be impressive if he was doing it while defenses worried about Julio Jones elsewhere on the field.
But Jones is gone, and Pitts is the No. 1 receiver now, especially given Calvin Ridley has already missed a game and only has 281 yards. Former wideout-turned-running back Cordarrelle Patterson is second on the team in receiving with 296 yards.
Pitts seems to know he's part of an evolution at the position when asked about it by reporters, per ESPN's Michael Rothstein.
"I would think the whole position now kind of shifted to hybrid," Pitts said. "Tight ends around the league are kind of doing everything, in-line, in the slot, outside, back side, two-by-one. I would consider myself a tight end. But I would say the position has kind of changed."
Pitts won't say he's leading the charge, of course. But it was inevitable this would happen to the position, just as it was inevitable all safeties gradually needed to have skills historically only held by the "free" spot or all running backs needed to be able to catch the ball well.
What's scary about Pitts, for everyone but the Falcons at least, is that he's just 21 years old and hasn't even played half a pro season. He's still learning the playbook and everything that comes with being a professional.
That Pitts is already forcibly accelerating progression at the tight end position while leaving a line of confused opposing defenses in his wake and giving future opponents anxiety is proof enough he's matching the hype of his draft slot as the league's next great offensive weapon.