Nowhere has the shift been more pronounced than at the tight end position, once the province of dutiful blockers and complementary receiving targets. Kittle is the muscle of the San Francisco 49ers’ ground game, cracking into linebackers to clear space for outside runs, and the focal point of its aerial attack, amassing a team-high 1,053 yards during the 2019 season, which ended with the 49ers in the Super Bowl.
Kansas City’s Kelce is a less renowned blocker but a bigger vertical threat; until late in the 2020 season, he led all N.F.L. players, not just tight ends, in total receiving yards. In trying to re-establish their championship bona fides, the New England Patriots added a pair of tight ends this off-season, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, giving the team a chance to recreate the offensive confusion that made the pairing of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez so successful in the early 2010s.
To defend against such threats, “what you need is for someone like me to go play linebacker,” said Tony Gonzalez, the Hall of Fame tight end who in the 1990s and 2000s prefigured this age of rangy receiving threats. “But we don’t want to play linebacker; we want to score touchdowns.”
At Florida’s pro-day workout for N.F.L. scouts in March, Pitts flashed the attributes that make him what Renner terms “a true modern tight end weapon,” registering a wingspan of nearly 7 feet and a 33½-inch vertical leap and running his 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds — faster than some All-Pro wide receivers.
Shortly thereafter, Pitts laid out professional aspirations that extend beyond going in the top five of this year’s draft, as many analysts predict he will: “Start at a high level and keep increasing every year and being able to do other things that other tight ends aren’t doing,” Pitts said. “I feel like I’ll be the best to ever do it.”
When Pitts arrived in Gainesville in 2018 as a 17-year-old freshman, the challenge for Florida coaches lay in convincing him of all that his body could do. “It was just a learning process of him understanding how to play in his frame,” said Larry Scott, Pitts’s tight end coach for his first two years with the Gators and now the head coach at Howard University. Scott marveled at Pitts’s catch radius — his ability to adjust to passes close to his shoe tops or high above his helmet — and taught him when to outrun defenders and when to invite contact and create leverage.