Our past experience with a particular player or strategy either consciously (or subconsciously) affects our future projections every single year.
“Never again with Kyle Pitts!” “My only bad pick last year was Pitts. I won’t ever take him again!”
“Arthur Smith ruins everything!”
Look, everything that could have gone wrong actually went wrong for Pitts last season. It was Murphy’s Law.
Reliving Kyle Pitts’ past
Author’s Note: All of the data in this article is sourced from our in-house Fantasy Points Data department. We can’t wait to share the tools and data with y’all.
Before a knee injury (MCL) ultimately ended his season in Week 11, Kyle Pitts and Drake London played in one of the least fantasy-friendly passing offenses in modern NFL history.
Marcus Mariota averaged just 22.8 passes per game and only attempted 30 or more passes in a game once in Pitts’ 10 starts.
The Falcons averaged just 24.4 team pass attempts per game, which is the fifth-fewest in a single season since 2000. (The 2022 Bears averaged the fewest in this span – 22.2).
When the Falcons did actually try to throw the ball, Pitts was the clear #1 target. That’s the good news. Pitts led all tight ends in targets per route run (0.30) last season… but the bad news is that came with league-worst QB play.
Pitts is used like a wide receiver so his average depth of target (13.4 yards) ranked second-highest among tight ends, but it’s still clear that Marcus Mariota and Pitts had no connection whatsoever.
Just 63% of Pitts’ targets were catchable last season, which was dead last among tight ends.
Darren Waller is a similar player to Pitts in terms of his vertical, downfield usage – Waller’s aDOT last year was 13.6 yards – but the difference is that Waller actually saw adequate QB play as 81% of his targets were catchable.
The extremely low passing volume compounded the problem. Pitts saw just 3.7 catchable targets per game last year, which ranked tied for 18th with Broncos rookie Greg Dulcich among tight ends.
This context is captured best by Expected Fantasy Points (XFP), which is Scott Barrett’s brainchild and our in-house model of valuing how much a specific carry or target is worth in fantasy football based on factors like down/distance/target depth for receivers.
By XFP, Kyle Pitts had the fourth-best role among tight ends (12.1 XFP per game) behind Travis Kelce (16.2), TJ Hockenson (13.1), and Mark Andrews (12.8) last season.
However, he scored -4.6 fewer points per game than expected due in large part to Marcus Mariota’s awful play. This means that Pitts would have scored 38% more fantasy points last year if he had performed at his expected baseline. Among all wide receivers and tight ends, Diontae Johnson (-5.0 XFP per game below expected) was the only pass catcher that was more unlucky than Pitts was last season.
Atlanta’s awful QB play shows up in Drake London’s XFP as well. London scored -2.4 fewer fantasy points than expected based on his usage, which was the sixth-largest difference among wide receivers.
Both things can be true: London improved late last season, but Kyle Pitts’ injury opened up the opportunity for London to break out. It also helped that Desmond Ridder could actually deliver throws on time and within rhythm, something Mariota struggled with.
London’s rookie season was extremely impressive given the Falcons' low volume, but these splits still matter:
Drake London absolutely got better to end last season and the QB change to Desmond Ridder helped, but we can't ignore how massive London's splits were without Kyle Pitts.— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) May 22, 2023
– 10 games with Pitts:
3.5 receptions per game
21% target share
0.25 targets per…
A reminder about Pitts’ rookie season…
Before we look forward, let’s look back just for one quick moment – if for no other reason but to forget about the Falcons' 2022 passing offense.
Pitts’ hype train steam-rolled out of control last year mainly because of how great his rookie season was, especially in an age-adjusted context.
Not only was he the first-ever rookie tight end to go over 1,000 yards in the Super Bowl era, Pitts became just the seventh rookie pass catcher to cross the 1K mark at 21 years old since at least 1966.
The other six players in Pitts’ company are Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Randy Moss, Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, and Keenan Allen.
From an efficiency standpoint, Pitts led all players in yards per route run (3.01) when he lined up outside as a wide receiver. That’s right. Pitts was more efficient on a per-route basis than second- and third-best outside WRs Deebo Samuel (2.95) and Justin Jefferson (2.82) in 2021.
Pitts’ rookie and second seasons ended on polar opposite ends of the spectrum. With the bad taste of 2022 still stuck in drafters' minds, Pitts presents one of the best buying opportunities of the early off-season at his depressed cost.
Projecting the Falcons passing offense in 2023
The elephant in the room is that Atlanta still projects as one of the most run-heavy teams, with Bijan Robinson as the bell cow. Bijan has the upside to lead the league in rushing, just like Ezekiel Elliott did in his rookie season.
Atlanta ran the ball +11.2% above expectation last year, the second-highest rate in the league, only behind Chicago (+12.6%).
While the Falcons' ground game is going to be prolific, I’m expecting a jump in Atlanta’s pass rate. This team is built to run and take shots off of play-action where Pitts and London are schemed into open window throws.
Desmond Ridder struggled mightily in his first start as he telegraphed his throws all game long in Week 15 vs. the Saints. However, he showed stark improvement in his final three starts – all with a depleted supporting cast.
Now, Ridder has Pitts back, Robinson added, and two new secondary weapons in underrated deep threat Mack Hollins (57/690/4 last year) and Jonnu Smith (a nice upgrade over former TE2 MyCole Pruitt).
Ridder and Kyle Pitts did not play together last year, but Pitts’ presence will also allow Drake London to move back outside full-time. London ran 83% of his routes lined up outside when Pitts was healthy in Weeks 1-10, but that dipped to 69% without Pitts in Weeks 11-18.
I think the fantasy football community has shifted too far and is projecting the Falcons to be more run-heavy than they actually will be.
HC Arthur Smith was still very conservative, but the Falcons did throw more with Ridder under center after the bye in Weeks 15-18.
There are two different sample sizes at play here, but the Falcons were 59% run-heavy on early downs (red-zone plays excluded) in Marcus Mariota’s 13 starts, easily leading the league.
That shifted to 52% run-heavy in Ridder’s four starts – which still would have ranked fourth-highest over the full season – but it also provides a real glimmer of hope that this pass game rebounds.
The Falcons' early-down pass rate increased by 7% when Ridder started, and their overall passing volume increased as a result. Atlanta averaged a pitiful 25.3 pass plays per game with Mariota, but that bumped up to a more respectable 31.1 pass plays per game with Ridder.
30 pass attempts per game multiplied by 17 games equals 510 team pass attempts this season. If Pitts and London each get 22-25% of the Falcons' targets – a very reasonable median projection – then 110-125 total targets for each is within range (provided both play all 17 games).
The bottom line on Pitts
Pitts is being drafted in an ADP range (the mid-60s overall) where the wide receiver pool really dries up – making his ceiling even more tempting if Desmond Ridder can take a second-year leap surrounded by all of the Falcons' exciting young weapons.