AUSTIN, Texas — Kyle Pitts stutter-stepped toward the yellow cone on his left, then the green cone on his right. The Falcons rookie tight end leapt across the sideline of the Del Valle High School fieldhouse, catching a quick pass in stride.
“Getting in and out of breaks, shortening my steps and being able to be powerful,” Pitts described the body-control drill to USA TODAY Sports. “I like to be a sponge and just soak up all the knowledge I can.”
Since Atlanta selected the former Florida star fourth overall in the 2021 NFL draft—making him the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history—Pitts has soaked up knowledge at Falcons offseason practices and the inaugural Tight End University summit that gathered dozens of the league’s best at his position. In early July, Pitts joined fellow clients of NFL agent David Mulugheta for workouts that the group called “Pros Week.” Steelers veteran tight end Eric Ebron, who has advised Pitts including over Instagram message for more than five years, guided Pitts through pointers in an on-field workout on July 9.
“As a young person with such a big body, you don’t fully understand your body,” Ebron told USA TODAY Sports of the 6-6, 246-pound Pitts. “Really trying to get him to understand how explosive he could be really be and how dynamic he could be, because a lot of people in college bank on your natural gifts.
“My job is to help him develop his body.”
Honing his football savvy will speed that physical transition, so Pitts is consulting with veterans including Ebron on the most effective ways to gain separation on routes and smoothly integrate into blocking schemes. How, Pitts asks, can he absorb as much information from a coverage as possible without overanalyzing in the heat of a game?
He knows that the more he absorbs now, the less he’ll need to process when the Falcons host the Eagles for their season opener on Sept. 12. So Pitts doesn’t just look to offensive players for guidance.
“Kyle’s out here speaking to some of the safeties and trying to figure out, ‘Hey, when you’re covering tight ends, how do they make it difficult for you?’” Mulugheta told USA TODAY Sports. “What are they doing to make it difficult for you? I saw Kyle talking to (Seahawks safety) Quandre Diggs and (Bengals safety) Jessie Bates and those guys and (Washington safety) Landon Collins.
“Just trying to pick their brains on how, as a defender, you guard him.”
Here are three more takeaways from USA TODAY Sports’ reporting at Pros Week in Austin:
A broader network
Pitts was one of several 2021 first-round selections to capitalize on the mentorship opportunity in Austin. Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn (eighth overall pick), Bears quarterback Justin Fields (11th), Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (12th), Football Team linebacker Jamin Davis (19th) and Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh (31st) were among 37 Athletes First clients who joined in a week of gym workouts, fieldwork and a Central Texas philanthropy event. Pros Week, which once focused specifically on defensive backs, has evolved since 2017.
“All my guys come out (to) get to know each other,” Mulugheta said. “The rookies can meet the veterans, the veterans can meet the rookies and hopefully serve as mentors to some of these young guys. Sounding boards for these guys, whether that’s on the field, off the field.”
Mulugheta said on-field cues garnered during the offseason gathering have helped his clients. He mentioned Chargers safety Derwin James’ rookie debut against the Chiefs and star quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2018.
“[James] told me he had a conversation with Landon Collins and [former Saints and Titans safety] Kenny Vaccaro and a couple other guys and just asked them, ‘Hey, when you’re playing this quarterback, how does he try to manipulate you with his eyes?’” Mulugheta said. “Those type of conversations and that happened because he gained the comfortability here at Pros Week, then he got to know some veterans and guys that aren’t on his team.
“He had obviously the guys on his team to bounce those questions off as well but just having a bigger network to ask those questions to I think is beneficial.”
Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, Packers quarterback Jordan Love and Fields cycled through drills together at Pros Week. The field workout emphasized movement in the pocket and off-platform throws, quarterbacks guided to time their eyes and feet together to maximize consistency on second and third reads. Private quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery, whose clients include Watson and Fields, choreographed the workout. But Avery relished moments when the quarterbacks aided one another.
Watson weighed in on how best for quarterbacks to angle their front shoulders and keep their weight back while navigating chaotic plays.
“As a player in the league who’s played for a long time like Deshaun has and gone against so many different things, he can draw on experiences, like not just ‘don’t do this,’ but 'don’t do this because,’” Avery told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s cool when I tell them. It’s a lot better when someone who’s been in the league for a long time and worked with me for a long time can tell them how the drills correlate to the things they do.”
Caught up with Bears rookie QB Justin Fields last week in Austin. His throwing was crisp. But perhaps most impressive? His playbook recall. Story publishing soon on @usatodaysports. pic.twitter.com/MJzHxYZ6LV
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) July 16, 2021
Each of the three quarterbacks faces uncertainty in his 2021 role. Watson has requested a trade from the Texans, who have yet to acquiesce. The NFL is also investigating allegations of sexual assault against Watson, who could face a suspension if he’s found in violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. Love shares a quarterback room with reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, who also seeks a new team after discord with the Packers front office. The Bears drafted Fields at 11 to be their future franchise quarterback, but he’s not expected to start immediately with veteran Andy Dalton set to top Chicago’s depth chart. During workouts in Austin, the quarterbacks tuned in to improving on the field.
“I’m not worried about playing right away,” Fields told USA TODAY Sports. “NFL, as long as I’ve heard, it’s ‘not for long.’ In the NFL, it’s not how fast you play, it’s how long you can be in the NFL.
“All of us are in weird situations right now. All we can do is work and get better every day.”
COVID-19 concerns loom
Veteran receiver Marquise Goodwin opted out of the 2020 NFL season due to COVID-19 concerns. But Goodwin, who wore a mask while working out in Austin, is preparing to play for the Bears in 2021. Goodwin said he and wife Morgan are comfortable with the decision now that their daughter Marae is 17 months old. Before Marae was born, the couple lost three unborn children to pregnancy complications.
“I just wanted to give my daughter a year to have strength in her immune system so she’d be less of a risk,” Goodwin told USA TODAY Sports. “To where she really knew if she had any underlying conditions where if she was affected by the virus, if it would be detrimental to her before she could even start her life. But with my wife and I both being vaccinated and us being still quarantined, like we don’t go around any people, we just feel like it’s time.
“We feel like it’s a thing we can do this year.”
Goodwin implores fans to consider what was a “very hard decision” for his family.
“People without kids or people who just look at you for fantasy points or to score touchdowns for their favorite team, they don’t really look at the real effects a decision like this can have on a family,” he said. “Lifelong decisions. Say if I go out in Philly and play and get it, and say ‘If my family get COVID, it is what it is because I love my job that much.’ How selfish would I be? My family have to live with that and I’d have to live with that for the rest of my life and it’s something I wasn’t willing to do.
“I’m happy with my decisions I’ve made.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL notebook: How Kyle Pitts, Jordan Love, others prep for season