CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals are in one of the best positions heading into the NFL draft.
In 2020, Cincinnati selected its future franchise quarterback when they took Joe Burrow with the top overall pick. A four-win season netted the Bengals the No. 5 overall pick, which should allow Cincinnati to give Burrow some much-needed support.
That’s where things get interesting.
The Bengals, a franchise mired in a 5-year playoff drought, have a few pressing needs entering Burrow’s second season. Depending on what happens ahead of them in the draft, Cincinnati could help their second-year quarterback by improving his pass blockers, his receiving options or perhaps even trading down if the price is right.
Florida’s Kyle Pitts is someone who has the potential to help the Bengals immediately. Here’s why Pitts does and doesn’t make sense for Cincinnati.
The case for Pitts
Watching Pitts is akin to daydreaming about the future of NFL offenses.
The way the former Gator leaves opposing defensive coordinators aggrieved is why he is such a tantalizing option at No. 5.
To label Pitts merely as a tight end is a misnomer as large as his 6-6 frame. Yes, Pitts technically played that position during his three years with the Gators. Florida used Pitts across the formation, lining him up anywhere from the traditional in-line spot for a tight end all the way to outside receiver.
In 2020, Pitts averaged 3.36 yards per route, according to ESPN Stats and Information, good for fourth among all Power 5 receivers. The Philadelphia native had four 100-yard receiving games during his collegiate career. One was in 2019 against an LSU team that eventually won the national championship. Another was in 2020 in the SEC title game against Alabama, when Pitts totaled seven catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.
In his latest mock draft, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. has Pitts going to the Bengals. In February, before Pitts’ draft stock really took off, Kiper explained why he isn’t a reach at No. 5. Pitts has the size and ability to line up at various spots, Kiper said, and has a versatility that other options necessarily don’t.
“He’s not an in-line tight end,” Kiper said. “He’s basically a glorified wide receiver.”
The position versatility also makes Pitts a sensible fit for the Bengals’ scheme.
With Burrow operating the unit, the offense ran 159 snaps in empty formation, the third-highest in the NFL in 2020 according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Before Burrow arrived, the Bengals ranked 11th in the league in that category. Even dating back to his days at LSU, Burrow has preferred that formation because of the information gleaned pre-snap at the line of scrimmage.
“It makes the defense declare themselves,” Burrow said last October. “They can’t disguise things as well when you’re in empty.”
Pitts’ versatility gives the Bengals a viable receiving option if Burrow opts to put the tight end in motion to the outside. Of course, Pitts can also do plenty of damage in the middle of the field when he’s matched up against a linebacker or safety. He averaged 56.63 receiving yards per game from the in-line position, good for third among tight ends since 2018, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
The case against Pitts
Picking a tight end as high as No. 5 is as unconventional as it gets. In 1972, the Denver Broncos drafted Riley Odoms with the fifth overall pick, the highest a tight end has been chosen since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. In the last 40 years, a mere six tight ends have been selected with a top-10 pick.
More importantly for the Bengals, taking Pitts means potentially passing on Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell or LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, two of the other intriguing options on Cincinnati’s draft board.
Chase gives the Bengals a tantalizing target at outside receiver while Sewell has been billed as a rare talent who will immediately improve a poor offensive line.
That last point is perhaps the biggest knock against drafting Pitts (or Chase, for that matter). Sewell represents potential long-term stability at tackle, even if he plays guard as a rookie. It’s something the Bengals have lacked ever since Andrew Whitworth, who also started his NFL career as a guard, was not re-signed after the 2016 season. And as Cincinnati learned after Burrow's season-ending knee injury last season, it's important to protect top investments.