As fans flowed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday afternoon to watch one of the Falcons open OTAs, one number stood out among all the jerseys in the crowd: No. 8.
This isn't Kyle Pitts' team but he is the face of it, as evident by the Pitts jerseys taking up the stands and lounges off the field. It was a true visual representation of the shift away from the Matt Ryan and Julio Jones era and into the next chapter of the organization, one which will be built around Pitts himself.
Throughout Pitts' rookie season in 2021 he shined as brightly as any rookie tight end has in decades. Playing in all 17 games last year, Pitts had a 1,000-plus receiving yard season. It was enough for a no-brainer All-Pro selection. Now, Pitts enters into his second year in the league, with the same lofty expectations still on his shoulders.
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Last season, Arthur Smith said on a few occasions that Pitts was just scratching the surface of what he's capable of doing in the league. He echoed that same sentiment before practice on Friday. However, the echo was a bit different this time around.
"With all these rookies, everything's new to them. New environment, new team, new staff and new terminology," Smith said. "As you've seen with Kyle, as he progressed through last season – I've said this many times – he's just scratching the surface. You see a different player and mindset."
According to Smith, there's a level of comfort around Pitts now than there was last year.
"He's not facing the unknown," Smith explained. "... He knows what to expect from us. We know what we're getting from him."
It's important to note, though, that even in the midst of this, there's a lot of change around Pitts this offseason. Outside of the Falcons picking up Drake London in the draft and other receiving weapons like Bryan Edwards via trade or free agency, the tight end room has almost completely turned over. Lee Smith retired and Hayden Hurst left in free agency. Now, there's a different group for Pitts, and Smith, to work with.
"We're gong to be able to do some different things with the personnel," Smith said. "We had Lee Smith in there last year at the end of his career, who I think I'm faster than. Hayden Hurst was a different type of player. Now you've got a different group."
This new-look tight end room now includes Anthony Firkser, who Smith coached at Tennessee. The head coach seemed excited about this addition in free agency, saying Firkser "gives you a different element in the passing game," and he's a guy who has shown he can make big plays in a jam.
Then, there's rookie John FitzPatrick, who the Falcons drafted in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. He provides the blocking presence Lee Smith did last year for the Falcons.
"That room is unique," Smith said. "It's different than it was a year ago. I'm excited about it."
Make no mistake about it, though: This is Pitts' room to command.
Notes, observations from practice
- The Falcons announced that 5,000 tickets were sold to the Falcons OTA practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with all proceeds going to the Morehouse School of Medicine's Health Equity Tracker initiative.
- New receiver Bryan Edwards, acquired in trade with Las Vegas, is already proving to be a deep threat during the offseason program. He created separation downfield during a 7-on-6 drill, high-pointed a lofted throw from Marcus Mariota and streaked down the sideline for yards after the catch. It must also be said here that there's no contact at this stage, but we're seeing some natural playmaking ability that could help the Falcons this fall.
- Smith would not comment on Isaiah Oliver's rehab process as he returns from an ACL injury, but he did note that no one is working as hard as Oliver to get back on the field. Talking to AtlantaFalcons.com, Oliver said last week he would estimate he's around 70 percent in his rehab process. He explained he can physically do everything on the field, it's just catching back up to the speed of the game.