The idea was first thrown Kyle Pitts’ way around his sophomore year of high school.
Pitts was a zone-read quarterback when he and his family saw tight ends like Travis Kelce becoming NFL stars —not just as blockers or red-zone threats but as primary, impossible-to-defend receivers.
Pitts liked to score. Pitts liked to be physical.
“Just hear me out,” his dad told him, “and try to go to tight end.”
And with that, a generational prospect was born.
The former Gators star enters Thursday’s first round as a consensus top-eight pick. He has a legitimate chance to be the highest-drafted tight end of the modern era, if not ever. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Pitts might be the best player in this draft, regardless of position.
To understand why, you have to understand the ongoing tight end transformation that intrigued Pitts and his family five years ago.
“I think the tight end position is totally evolving into one of the absolute important positions on the offensive side of the ball,” Florida tight ends coach Tim Brewster said. “I think the quarterback and tight ends right now, they’re the marquee players.”
Twenty years ago, five NFL tight ends totaled more than 600 receiving yards. Last year, there were a dozen, with Kelce (1,416 yards) and the Raiders’ Darren Waller (1,196) both ranking among the league’s top 10 receivers, regardless of position.
Beyond the statistics, coaches have changed the way they use tight ends. In one first-half drive in Super Bowl 55, Kelce caught four passes from four different alignments: the traditional tight end spot to the right, motioning in from out wide, slightly detached from the line to the left and as a slot receiver.
It’s not just Kelce. Waller can catch passes from four different positions, too. San Francisco’s George Kittle often lines up in the slot.
“Now there’s tight ends that line up way out wide, in the backfield, all that type of stuff,” Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “That brings a bigger appreciation to that position.”
That bigger appreciation matters in youth football (where top athletes are more willing to try the position) and among NFL coaches and executives. And that’s where Pitts comes in.
His physical traits would have been impressive in any era. At 6-feet-5, 245 pounds, he has prototypical size. His wingspan (83 3/8 inches) and 40-yard dash time (around 4.45 seconds) are both among the best of any tight end over the past two decades.
Pitts’ measurables show up on the film, too; he improved as a blocker during his three years at UF and set a Gators tight end record with 1,492 career receiving yards.
“There’s no holes in the kid,” said Brewster, who coached future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates with the Chargers.
Which makes Pitts invaluable in today’s NFL.
Pitts can not only stay on the field in every situation, but he can also move around the formation, depending on the personnel. He can line up next to the offensive tackle and blow by a linebacker with his speed. Or he can flex out wide and overpower a defensive back with his size.
“The defense can’t be right against him no matter what you do,” Jeremiah said.
That’s what it looked like in Pitts’ final season at UF, when he tied for third nationally with 12 touchdown catches while becoming the eighth unanimous All-American in program history.
Pitts was the perfect fit for what coach Dan Mullen calls a pro-style offense — a system built on moving versatile talents around the field to create and exploit mismatches. In the opener at Mississippi, at least five different positions (edge rusher, linebacker, cornerback, nickelback and safety) all tried, and failed, to defend Pitts during his 170-yard, four-touchdown game.
“When you’re in the meeting room and you’re designing a game plan, he’s awful fun to have,” Mullen said.
One NFL staff will soon find that out. Pitts could go as high as fourth overall to the Falcons, with Cincinnati (fifth) and Miami (sixth) as other possible landing spots.
Whoever gets him will be adding a prospect who’s taller than Kittle, stronger than Waller, faster than Kelce and as versatile as any tight end of this era. After being inspired by the NFL’s Kelces five years ago, Pitts is poised to join them — if not exceed them.
“I feel like at the end,” Pitts said, “I’ll be the best to ever do it.”
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.
Thursday: Round 1, 8 p.m
Friday: Rounds 2-3, 7 p.m.
Saturday: Rounds 4-7, noon
TV/streaming: ESPN, ABC, NFL Network
Bucs picks: 32nd overall (Day 1); 64th and 95th (Day 2); and 137th, 176th, 217th, 251st, 259th (Day 3)
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