Is it risky to draft Kyle Pitts with a top-10 pick?

Kyle Pitts ran like a wide receiver but had some of the measurements of an offensive lineman at University of Florida’s Pro Day on Wednesday. If that’s not the recipe for the ideal NFL tight end, then there is no perfect recipe for the ideal NFL tight end. 

Pitts blazed a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at 245 pounds, with an 83-inch wingspan that would not look out of place on an offensive tackle. The only remaining question after Wednesday’s performance is how high he will be drafted. Pitts himself said he thinks the Atlanta Falcons might draft him fourth overall. Even if the Falcons and other teams engage in a quarterback feeding frenzy at the start of the draft, Pitts appears to be a lock for the top 10.

But is it risky to select a tight end with a top-10 pick? After all, tight ends have been complementary weapons and role players for much of pro football history, and recent superstars like Travis Kelce and George Kittle were mid-round picks. Perhaps a top-10 draft selection should be reserved for someone at a higher-leverage position.

A look at the 13 tight ends drafted in the top 10 since the NFL-AFL merger (sorry, Mike Ditka) reveals a fascinating list of innovators, pioneers, troublemakers, troubled souls, victims of circumstance, victims of tragedy, stunningly-gifted athletes, eventual Super Bowl champions, All-Pros, and a dentist. Yes, a dentist. 

Overall, Pitts will be in fine-if-eclectic company if he is drafted among the top 10. But superstardom is hardly assured. 

Kyle Pitts’ Predecessors: The Hits

Here are the tight ends drafted with a top-10 selection who went on to relative stardom. The players are listed in descending order of their Career Average Value from Pro Football Reference:

Riley Odoms (fourth overall, Denver Broncos 1971)

Odoms was one of the prototypes for the modern tight end — a three-sport prep standout who reportedly ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash at 210 pounds in high school (an amazing figure for the era) and caught 45 passes and 8 touchdowns for the University of Houston in 1971. 

Odoms became a two-time All-Pro who led the Broncos in receiving yards four times and was a key figure for the team that reached Super Bowl XII after the 1977 season.

Vernon Davis (sixth overall, San Francisco 49ers, 2006)

Davis was the Pitts of the mid-2000s. He caught 51 passes and averaged 17.1 yards per reception in his final season at Maryland. He then enjoyed one of the most stunning NFL Scouting Combines in history, running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and recording a 42-inch vertical leap at 254 pounds. 

Davis’ early 49ers career was marred by injuries, some clashes with head coach Mike Singletary and a revolving door at quarterback. But he went on to catch 583 passes in 15 seasons and help the 49ers reach the Super Bowl in 2012.

Charle Young (sixth overall, Philadelphia Eagles, 1973)

Young was a standout for an undefeated 1972 USC team that also featured Lynn Swann, Pat Haden, and Sam “Bam” Cunningham. He earned some Rookie of the Year recognition for a 55-854-6 season in 1973 (finishing fourth in the NFL in receiving yards) and was named to three straight Pro Bowls early in his career. 

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Young was a brash and quirky personality for the era, always tinkering with the spelling of his first name and sometimes daring to demand more money. The Eagles eventually traded Young to the Rams for Ron Jaworski. Young later became a starter for the early Bill Walsh/Joe Montana 49ers Super Bowl teams.

Jerome Barkum (ninth overall, New York Jets, 1972)

A member of the great Jackson State teams of the early 1970s, Barkum started his career as a wide receiver but later moved inside to tight end. Like Odoms and Young, he was part of an evolutionary change in the 1970s that saw tight ends grow smaller, quicker, and more integral to the passing game.

Pitts’ Predecessors: Mixed Results

Here are some tight ends who were drafted with top-10 picks who had decidedly up-and-down careers or whose careers have just started:

T.J. Hockenson (eighth overall, Detroit Lions, 2019)

Hockenson caught 67 passes for 723 yards and 6 touchdowns last season — strong numbers for a bad Lions team. New head coach Dan Campbell, a former tight end, should love the versatile Hockenson. But it’s too early to evaluate his career just yet.

Kellen Winslow II (sixth overall, Cleveland Browns, 2004)

The Browns cannot be blamed for drafting Winslow — he was the son and namesake of a Hall of Famer and was coming off 117 receptions in his final two seasons at the University of Miami.

Winslow enjoyed some mammoth seasons for the Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers amid injuries and squabbles with management. He never came close to achieving his potential, and his post-football career has been extremely troubled and troubling.

Eric Ebron (10th overall, Detroit Lions, 2014)

Ebron caught 102 passes in his final two seasons at North Carolina and dazzled at the 2014 NFL Combine but essentially became a one-year wonder in the NFL. He had some solid statistical seasons for the Lions but never became the seam-stretching big-play machine they envisioned until he joined Frank Reich’s Indianapolis Colts in 2018. 

Ebron is now one of a throng of offensive weapons helping to prop up Ben Roethlisberger for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Kyle Brady (ninth overall, New York Jets, 1995)

We saw in the last segment that the Jets were part of the vanguard of teams seeking smaller, faster tight ends like Jerome Barkum in the 1970s.

Well, by the 1990s, the Jets were evolving backward. Head coach Rich Kotite was one of several coaches who wanted to return to the days of blood ‘n’ guts blocking tight ends (don’t laugh: Bill Parcells was another of those coaches), so the Jets drafted 275-pound thumper Brady, who caught just 27 passes in his senior season at Penn State.

Brady was essentially an extra offensive lineman who also caught 30 short passes per year as the Kotite Jets collapsed into bumbling Jetsitude. But Brady went on to a long Marcedes Lewis-type career as coaches of the Parcells school (including Parcells, Tom Coughlin, and Bill Belichick) found roles for him. 

In short, Brady wasn’t really a bust. But he was the least Kyle Pitts-like player on this list.

Rickey Dudley (ninth overall, Oakland Raiders, 1996)

Dudley, on the other hand, may have been the MOST Kyle Pitts-like player on this list (besides perhaps Vernon Davis). 

Dudley was a star for the Ohio State basketball team who returned to the gridiron (where he was a Texas prep legend) for his final season and caught 37 passes and 7 touchdowns. He was an athletic marvel expected to revolutionize the tight end position along with another college hoopster who just entered the NFL named Tony Gonzalez.

Unfortunately, Dudley made Evan Engram look sure-handed, and his blocking was unreliable. Like Ebron, Dudley’s numbers looked OK, but the overall results were disappointing, and he lasted just five seasons with the Raiders before drifting around the league.

Junior Miller (seventh overall, Atlanta Falcons, 1980)

Miller caught 9 touchdown passes as a rookie and was named to two Pro Bowls at the start of his career after starring at the University of Nebraska. Then the Falcons moved him to H-back in the two-tight end sets that were popular in the early 1980s. Pitts asked for a trade, then began drinking when he joined the New Orleans Saints. He was later dogged by drug rumors after broadcaster Howard Cosell got his name mixed up with another player, which led to an early exit from the NFL.

Remember Miller’s story the next time you hear some unsubstantiated whisper about a player’s character emanating from the NFL’s gossipy little sewing circle of insiders.

Pitts’ Predecessors: The Misses

Here are the few top-10 tight ends who didn’t really pan out:

J.V. Cain (seventh overall, St. Louis Cardinals, 1974)

A tragic figure who died of heat-induced heart failure during training camp in 1978.

Paul Seymour (seventh overall, Buffalo Bills, 1973)

Seymour started his Michigan career at wide receiver, then kept bulking up and sliding inside until he was an offensive tackle. The Bills drafted him to block for O.J. Simpson, and that’s what he did for a few uneventful seasons.

Ken MacAfee (seventh overall, San Francisco 49ers, 1978)

If you have spent this draft season wondering what it would be like if Pitts had a passion for dentistry (and really, who among us is not wondering just that?), consider the story of Ken MacAfee.

MacAfee may have been the greatest tight end in Notre Dame history, which is saying something. He was a three-time All-American who finished third in the Heisman voting after a 54-catch 1978 season. He caught 45 passes for the 49ers in his first two seasons, and Bill Walsh and Joe Montana arrived during his second season.

So far, so good.

But MacAfee spent his offseasons studying dentistry. Walsh reportedly didn’t like him that much. Walsh also wanted the 250-pound MacAfee to move inside to guard. So MacAfee retired to become a successful dentist while Charle Young took over as Montana’s first pass-catching tight end. 

Pitts is unlikely to go all Hermey the Elf on whichever team drafts him. But MacAfee’s tale is a reminder that it takes a unique athlete (and often a unique personality) to get drafted in the top 10 as a tight end.

Pitts’ Predecessors: Other All-Time Great TE Prospects

Hall of Famers Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzalez were both selected with the 13th overall pick in their drafts. So was Keith Jackson, an athletic marvel from Oklahoma who had a fine career for the Eagles and Packers.

Jeremy Shockey, another tight end who looked like he would fit in with the Justice League during his Miami career, was selected 14th overall. 

Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome was selected 23rd overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1978 NFL Draft. Lots of other size/speed wonders were drafted in a similar range, including Engram and Matt Jones, a converted quarterback and 2005 NFL Scouting Combine celebrity who flopped with the Jaguars.

Less impressive, more productive tight ends like Dallas Clark, Dustin Keller, and Jermaine Gresham have also been drafted in that range over the years.

NFL decision-makers do appear to be more comfortable drafting even outstanding tight end prospects later in the first round than they are selecting them among the top 10. Oddly, tight ends have slid down the first round as their offensive roles increased over the decades — note how many of our examples come from the 1970s when pass-catching tight ends were still a relative novelty. 

It’s unlikely that Pitts will fall into the teens in the 2021 NFL Draft. But if he does, he will be in excellent company.

Trey Wingo and Tony Pauline discuss Pitts on PFN Draft Insiders

Trey Wingo and Tony Pauline talked about Pitts’ performance at the Florida Pro Day and his NFL future on this week’s edition of PFN Draft Insiders. Here’s are some highlights from the conversation:

TREY WINGO: Kyle Pitts ran a ridiculous 40, even though he ran 45 yards. If he had run in a straight line, it would have been a much better 40 time! But I’ve heard from a lot of former coaches and GMs that there’s always this wariness about taking a tight end that high.

I’m finding it hard to find a reason not to take Kyle Pitts … We’re talking about a guy who has physical attributes close to Megatron Calvin Johnson.

TONY PAULINE:  I can understand some of the hesitance to take a tight end at the top of the draft. But this guy’s a weapon. And I was also told that he looked great in position drills. It wasn’t just testing numbers — he looked terrific catching the ball.

If anyone doubted he was one of the top four or five players in this year’s draft, he solidified that [he was] today.”

WINGO: If you’re the Bengals at five or the Dolphins at six, and you believe you have your quarterback … you’re looking at no bad options when you’re looking at potentially getting Pitts, Ja’Marr Chase or Penei Sewell. Suddenly, you feel like you’re in the drivers’ seat.

Pitts’ Predecessors: Lessons Learned

Tight ends drafted among the first 10 picks fared well overall. Most of the semi-busts like Dudley, Ebron, or Junior had a few strong seasons. The least impressive players on the list had their careers cut short by extenuating/tragic circumstances or (in Seymour’s case) were throwbacks to a different era.

That said, none of the big “hits” besides Odoms were unqualified successes. Davis and Young were pains in the keister at the start of their careers, and Davis took a long time to reach his potential. Barkum never became a star and got stuck with some forgettable teams. 

Ultimately, Pitts does not remind me of Vernon Davis, Tony Gonzalez, or Megatron. He reminds me of Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. 

Sharpe was a three-sport standout who caught 61 passes and 18 touchdowns (!) as a senior at Savannah State. Yet, NFL scouts 30 years ago wrote him off as a wide receiver/tight end “tweener” from a small program. Sharpe was not drafted until the seventh round, despite the fact that his brother Sterling was already an All-Pro for the Packers.

Pitts is like a Sharpe hiding in plain sight, entering an NFL where the best tight ends catch over 100 passes per year and serve as the focal points of their team’s offenses (and are not expected to block like guards). 

There are good excuses not to draft Pitts — you need a quarterback, you like Ja’Marr Chase or Penei Sewell better, you traded all your first-round picks away already. But the fact the Pitts plays tight end is not one of those reasons.

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