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Does moving Kyle Pitts to wide receiver make sense for the Eagles?

Pitts to Philly is the mock draft fit of the month. Can the Eagles really add another tight end, or is Pitts actually the best option for wide receiver?

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama at Florida Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL Draft is a tough one to prognosticate. With a glut of potentially elite QBs and plenty of teams on the fence of QB needs, we could see as many as four consecutive QB picks to start the draft. It would be a record.

The Eagles are one of those will-they-won’t-theys, as their QB room currently consists of second-year, second-round pick Jalen Hurts and veteran Joe Flacco, recently signed in free agency. But if the top of the draft runs on quarterback, all of the Top 4 may not be available when the Eagles pick at 6.

Of course, the Eagles need more than just a quarterback. With arguably the worst pass-catching corps in the league, Philly fans have been long enamored with LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase, the 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner, and likely WR1 in the draft class. Other top wide receivers have challenged for his ranking — Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, namely — but recently, a new name is rising into prominence for mock drafters selecting for Philadelphia.

Florida TE Kyle Pitts.

That’s right: another tight end in Philly.

No team ran more 12 personnel (2 tight end sets) across the last two seasons than the Eagles, and with Zach Ertz likely out of Philadelphia, the Eagles need another versatile tight end to remain a base 12 personnel team. Pitts could be that player, but he could also be more.

When asked explicitly about Pitts, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah called him the best player in the draftthough he currently has Ja’Marr Chase ranked one spot higher on his most recent big board. Jeremiah called Pitts a “no-brainer” pick for the Eagles at 6, even with Chase still on the board, because of the additional dimensions he brings to the offense as a tight end: the matchup nightmare, the ability to block, the rarity of his ability relative to Chase’s as a pure X-receiver.

The Eagles endured the worst WR play in the league last season, and passing on a top WR for a top TE — even one as talented of a pass-catcher as Pitts is — sounds like a dangerous game. Does Pitts’ unique ability and value as a tight end justify the selection?

That’s what I want to answer here.

Why have the Eagles sucked in 12 personnel?

If the Eagles select Kyle Pitts, they’ll become a base 12 personnel team. Their two best pass-catchers will be Dallas Goedert and Kyle Pitts, and they will rarely take either off of the field. Of course, they’ve been a base 12 personnel team over the last few seasons, and their offense has stunk. But there’s a lot that goes into that.

The value of 12 personnel has been captured by a few teams over the last few years, but the Eagles are the classic example. Across the last 6 games of the 2018 season, during which the Eagles went 5-1 and secured a playoff spot, 12 personnel unlocked the offense. An ill-fated Golden Trade kept them faithful in 11 personnel for a while, but when push came to shove, the Eagles began taking more snaps in 12 personnel than in 11, electing to play rookie second-round TE Dallas Goedert alongside star Zach Ertz in their base offense.

That dedication to 12 personnel put defenses in a bind. With two tight ends in the formation, running the ball became a lot easier, especially against defenses who wanted to base out of nickel personnel (5 DBs). Such was the case when the Eagles played the Rams, hammering in three rushing touchdowns against Wade Phillips’ light personnel.

But if defenses went with true base personnel (3 LBs) against the Eagles’ two TE sets, they’d be unable to protect those linebackers from man coverage responsibilities against those tight ends — or else, be stuck playing zone. Against the Eagles, whose two tight ends were both top-flight receiving threats, this made the pass coverage difficult. Philadelphia could just pick their matchups and shoot.

Sean McVay saw what 12 personnel did for the Eagles firsthand, and wanted that for his team. After refusing to leave 11 personnel in 2018 and eventually running into a wall in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, McVay has steadily increased his 12 personnel rate over the last two seasons. When facing the Patriots again in 2020, McVay’s Rams refused to leave 12 personnel, running the ball on 31 of 43 snaps and answering Belichick’s bear fronts with creative, atypical concepts beyond their standard zone runs. They ripped off 170 yards on the ground for a 48% success rate.

Like Pederson, McVay also exploits the personnel bind presented by two tight end sets: if they go light, we can run it; if they go heavy, we can pass it. Additionally for the Rams, however, 12 personnel represents a new world of curveballs relative to their traditional approach: series football. McVay was so dedicated to 11 personnel initially because he wants all of his run-action to look the same, increasing the efficacy of his play-action pass approach; but that became predictable and quality defenses put answers on tape, to be mimicked by other opponents. A changeup was needed, and that changeup was 12 personnel, again with two legit receiving threats in Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. This gave the Rams new surfaces in the running game and more versatility in their play-action passing game.

But 12 personnel is just that for the Rams: a changeup, a tool to conceal intention and muddy tendency. They still base in 11 personnel, and remain a dangerous offense.

In 2019, the Eagles ran 12 personnel as their base offense. When both Goedert and Ertz were active, the Eagles ran 12 personnel on 57% of their snaps, and 11 personnel on only 37% of their snaps. It was a move made necessary in part by the depth chart: with rookie WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside unable to find the field and veterans Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson struggling for health, the Eagles just didn’t have enough good WRs rostered to run 11 personnel. Stuck in 12 personnel, the Eagles lost the ability to disguise intentions with fluid personnel grouping and alignments, and the cracks in their roster showed.

The season-long success rates for 11 and 12 personnel were the same (51%), but even top receiving tight ends like Goedert and Ertz are slower targets with limited route trees who produce fewer yards after the catch. Ertz was effectually a wide receiver, running a route on 90% of all pass snaps — seventh-most out of all tight ends — and delivering an average of 3.1 yards after the catch — sixth-worst among all tight ends.

In 2020, the story was much the same: when both Goedert and Ertz were healthy, the Eagles based out of 12, in large part because they didn’t have the WR talent to force either TE off the field. They were slightly more effective out of 12 personnel, but only just.

12 personnel has been suggested as a skeleton key for easier offense league-wide, in the vein of tagging play-action fakes to passing plays: it just makes offense better, period. It’s an understandable argument, as most teams experience more success in the passing game out of 12 than they do out of 11.

But football is a game of matchups, numbers, and angles, and 12 personnel only helps in that it can put three linebackers on the field for the defense. You still need the tight ends necessary to take advantage of those linebackers, and once you have them, defenses will play with five defensive backs and force you to run it. 12 personnel may create exploitable edges, but is not a panacea in and of itself.

The Eagles’ deterioration proves this clearly. They were a bad offense in 11 personnel and a bad offense in 12 personnel across the final 1.5 seasons of Doug Pederson’s tenure, and they were so for a myriad of reasons: injuries, deteriorating quarterback play, uncreative approaches, coaching changes, bad drafting, poor roster. No number of 12 personnel snaps could solve the reality that the Eagles just don’t have many good players on offense: any good matchups they got, they couldn’t exploit.

So ... no Kyle Pitts, then?

Kyle Pitts is an extremely good player. More than anything else, that’s what the Eagles need: the best pass-catchers possible. Pitts is arguably the best pass-catcher in this class and is truly a matchup nightmare.

Remember, Pitts didn’t just win the Mackey Award (given to the best TE in college football), but was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award (given to college football’s best receiver). He was the first tight end to ever qualify as a finalist for the award, historically given to wide receivers. That’s how dangerous he was on a route.

Pitts’ success as a receiver, as well as his build (6-foot-6, 240 pounds), has folks wondering if he’ll really be a tight end in the NFL, or if he’ll be a wide receiver instead. There are plenty of reps of Pitts, lined up out wide, dominating even NFL-bound cornerbacks in the SEC.

Concerning his fit with Philadelphia, this potential has been brought up. Jeremiah called him a top-10, top-15 pick if he were just a straight X-receiver, and said elsewhere that Pitts would be the Eagles’ best X receiver if he were drafted by Philadelphia.

Jeremiah is not wrong. The Eagles’ WR depth chart has Jalen Reagor, Travis Fulgham, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside as the three players potentially competing for that “X receiver” role. None of those players have a clear foothold in that role, and Pitts would potentially dominate there.

But we can’t be sure about that. Any move of Kyle Pitts to an X-receiver role requires a significant projection. Remember, Pitts was a tight end for Florida; he did not play X-receiver often, and there’s only a small sample to consider for that potential move in the league.

It’s not that I think Pitts can’t line up as an isolated, boundary receiver and win — I think he can. I just don’t know why you’d ask him to do that very often when he’s already so good at playing his real position: tight end.

Let’s compare Pitts’ snap distribution at Florida to the snap distribution of the two top receiving tight ends in 2020: Las Vegas’ Darren Waller and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce. Each was targeted 145 times (only five WRs saw more targets), so their positional designation certainly didn’t keep them from working as focal points of the passing game.

Kyle Pitts TE Snap Distribution (v. Darren Waller and Travis Kelce)

Poistion Kyle Pitts Darren Waller Travis Kelce
Poistion Kyle Pitts Darren Waller Travis Kelce
Inline 63.81% 64.94% 43.89%
Slot 19.32% 15.85% 23.79%
Wide 16.87% 19.21% 32.32%

That Pitts was so effective as a receiver despite a rather traditional TE snap distribution is impressive, and serves to emphasize just how dangerous he can be in a traditional tight end role. At this stage of modern spread offenses, most starting tight ends are just like Waller: they take a fair percentage of their snaps detached from the line of scrimmage, regardless of an offense’s dedication to 11 personnel, 12 personnel, or otherwise. Kelce’s snap distribution is a significant outlier.

A traditional TE deployment wouldn’t preclude Pitts from seeing 100+ targets, just as Waller, Logan Thomas (110 targets), Evan Engram (109 targets), and T.J. Hockenson (105) did this past year.

But Pitts isn’t considered a potential Top-10 pick because he can be Evan Engram or T.J. Hockenson — he’s considered a potential Top-10 pick because he can be used like a Kelce or a Waller, and produce as such. And Kelce and Waller don’t just bring value for their receiving ability — though that ability is quite nuts. They also enhance the strength of their team by offering better run blocking than most receivers; by disguising personnel and formation tendencies by aligning everywhere and doing everything.

Remember, 12 personnel is valuable because it puts an extra tight end on the field, and if that tight end is good, he can line up in more places and do more things than the wide receiver he replaced. Smart offensive coordinators can leverage this versatility into easy wins for the offense by exposing whatever personnel the defense responds with. But you still need a smart coordinator and good tight ends, no matter which personnel you put on the field.

12 personnel isn’t the skeleton key; good players are. Pitts is a tremendous player, and in that he has been a tremendous tight end, he should play tight end and remain tremendous there. He brings the extra value of disguising tendency on top of lining up and beating most NFL cover players one-on-one — and as a tight end, he can avoid top corners via alignment, getting even more favorable matchups. His team can modulate how many snaps he sees out wide and inline as they see fit, and he can be the feature part of a passing offense no matter how he’s aligned.

If the Eagles take Kyle Pitts at 6 overall, are they an extremely dumb team who is blindly obsessed with tight ends when they just need to shut up and take a doggone wide receiver?

Yes. Also no. Not really. But kinda.

The Eagles need to improve their WR room badly. Whether they want to base out of 11 personnel or 12 personnel, the Eagles don’t have one demonstrably good receiver on the roster, let alone two. It is the weakest position on their roster, and they should improve it directly — not indirectly, with a tight end who can do wide receiver things but is objectively a tight end.

In my estimation, Pitts is a better prospect than Chase and Waddle outright, but the Eagles need a wideout far more desperately than they do a tight end, and wide receiver is a critical position. If Pitts and Chase are both on the board at six overall, they should take Chase. If they take Pitts, wide receiver remains their biggest position of need and should be targeted in Round 2 regardless.

With that said, Pitts is the best pass catcher in this class at any position, and the Eagles would have plenty of targets to funnel his way. Nick Sirianni’s offense in Indianapolis used multiple tight ends effectively, though largely as supplementary targets to the wide receiver room. Pitts would be great in Philadelphia and is a potentially dominant player in Year 1; he would be a great pick at 6.

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