The Atlanta Falcons have produced a Top-10 option at the tight end position each of the last two seasons. In 2019, Austin Hooper saw 97 targets and caught 75 for 787 yards and six TDs. That was good enough to finish as TE6 that season. Following the 2019 season, Hooper signed a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns, so the Falcons traded for former first-round pick Hayden Hurst.
Hurst got off to a bit of a slow start in Atlanta, but finished as TE10 in 2020. Hurst saw 88 targets, catching 56 for 571 yards and six TDs. The Falcons rewarded Hurst by declining his fifth-year option and drafting Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
With Julio Jones moving on to the Tennessee Titans and new coach Arthur Smith in town, it’s possible the best option for the Falcons in 2021 is to use both their tight ends as a part of the offense.
Hurst was taken by the Baltimore Ravens with the No. 25 pick in the first round of the 2018 draft. But with the emergence of Mark Andrews, Hurst was relegated to a secondary role with the Ravens. In two seasons, he caught 43 passes on 62 targets for 512 yards and three TDs. In 2019, he saw 39 targets, catching 30 for 349 yards and two TDs. That was good enough to be TE34, while Andrews caught 64 passes for 852 yards and 10 TDs to finish as TE5.
The move to the Falcons seemed like the ideal chance for Hurst to get a starring role. Hurst failed to live up to those lofty expectations early with a lack of preseason and training camp. He had some good showings, including catching five passes for 72 yards and a TD against the Cowboys in Week 2. Through the first five weeks, Hurst was the TE14.
As the season wore on, Hurst developed a rapport with Matt Ryan and helped the pass offense flourish despite injuries. From Weeks 6 to 17, Hurst finished as TE8. He also closed the season on a tear, recording at least four receptions and a touchdown in the season’s final three weeks.
Enter Pitts, the top tight end in the draft and one of the best TE prospects in years. In three years at Florida, Pitts caught 100 passes for 1,492 yards and 18 TDs. As a freshman, he caught three passes for 31 and a TD. In his second year, in 13 games, Pitts caught 54 passes for 649 yards and five TDs. Then, in his junior year in 2020, Pitts exploded alongside receiver Kadarius Toney for quarterback Kyle Trask. He played in eight games, catching 43 passes for 770 yards and 12 TDs.
Now, Pitts enters the NFL with a huge weight of expectations. Pitts has been a top pick in rookie drafts and already has an ADP of TE7, being the option many fantasy players assume will continue the Falcons’ streak of Top 10 TEs.
The Other Pass Catching Options
With Jones in Tennessee, the Falcons’ pass offense figures to look a bit different. At the top of the pyramid is receiver Calvin Ridley, who caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine TDs on 143 targets. He finished as WR8. Behind Ridley, there isn’t a lot of depth in the receiving corps. Russell Gage, who played all 16 games in 2020 and started eight, figures to get plenty of run with Jones gone. He was second on the team with 109 targets, catching 72 passes for 786 yards and four TDs. That was good enough to finish as WR36.
In 2021, Gage could become the clear No. 2 option, but the Falcons could also better maximize their weapons by playing Hurst at a traditional TE position and moving Pitts, a passing game weapon, around the offense. Jones saw 68 targets in 2020, playing in nine games. The Falcons threw it 628 times. Without an established lead back and a middling defense, it stands to reason the Falcons will throw 630-650 times again in 2021. Ridley figures to see 160-175 targets, and even with Gage possibly seeing 110 targets again, that leaves more than 350 targets up for grabs.
Should the Falcons Use 2 TE Sets?
I suspect Hurst takes a step back, ending up in the 70-target range while Pitts sees 85 to 100 targets. I think Pitts finishes Top 10, while Hurst ends up returning solid TE2 value, especially as he’s playing for a contract in 2022. Hurst is currently going as TE24, while I think he finishes more in the TE18-20 range, making him slightly valued. His performance in 2020 also shows that, for dynasty purposes, if he gets a shot with a new team, he could return TE1 value once again.
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus 2 Canton Network.