This is the fourth of a ten-part series reviewing the Falcons season and taking a look at the future outlook position-by-position. If you missed any other installments, be sure to check them out.
The tight end position is evolving as the NFL progresses towards a pass-happy, high-scoring playing style. The position used to be dominated by linemen-like body types, who could handle the blocking duties of defensive ends. Now, there is a desire to have a Darren Waller or Travis Kelce, who can effectively threaten defenses like wide receivers.
The Falcons found that player in fourth overall pick Kyle Pitts, but they also had that prototypical 90s tight end in Lee Smith. Arthur Smith is a former tight ends coach and has shown a fascination with the mismatches the position brings for defenses. I wouldn’t be surprised if, during Smith’s tenure as a Falcons coach, Terry Fontenot brought in a new tight end every offseason — free agency or the draft.
For the 2021 season, the position was a resounding success, even with Hayden Hurst‘s shortcomings. Pitts broke a number of franchise and league records on his way to being named to the Pro Bowl — the first rookie tight end since Jeremy Shockey in 2002 to do so. He finished the year averaging over 15 yards per reception — 68 catches, 1,026 yards, and one touchdown. Hurst had a disappointing year, finishing with 26 receptions, 221 yards, and three touchdowns. Smith’s final stat line of nine receptions for 65 yards and one touchdown may seem underwhelming, but his biggest contributions came as a blocker, where he was fantastic.
Overall, the group was one of the better areas of the team, thanks to Pitts and Smith. The rookie has a lot to learn about coverages and how teams are looking to defend him, but this season can only be seen as a success for Pitts. Smith’s retirement hasn’t become official, but all signs point to the veteran riding off into the sunset. He’ll need to be replaced because his role is vital for Arthur Smith’s scheme. On the other hand, Hurst will likely play next season in a different uniform. Parker Hesse will carve out a role as a potential TE3 in 2022, but the team still needs to bolster this group before the start of next season.
Whoever the Falcons decide to bring in to replace Smith and/or Hurst, that tight end will play a prominent role in 2022. Arthur Smith uses two- and three-tight end sets as much as any offense in the league; I don’t see that changing anytime soon. The tight end position will be an exciting story to track during the Arthur Smith era.