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Kyle Pitts could be this draft's 'unicorn'

Kyle Pitts

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule tried to get Kyle Pitts before.

Back then, Rhule was coaching at Temple, and made an early offer on the runaround quarterback who grew up near Philadelphia, before he'd become a dominant tight end in the SEC.

Now, with the eighth pick in the draft, Rhule might be on the outside looking in again, as Pitts could be the first non-quarterback chosen in the 2021 NFL Draft, convincing people by the day that he's among the best prospects available.

"I think you can make a strong case he's the best player in the draft," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said, and it didn't particularly sound like pre-draft hyperbole.

But for all the athleticism Pitts displayed (running a 4.44-second 40 at 245 pounds), the Florida tight end thinks there's more he can do.

"My ceiling, I feel like I have a lot to improve on," he said. "I have a lot of talent that will translate. I feel like there will be some things you can do in college and can't do in the NFL."

Pressed for a weakness, he mentioned not being happy with his hand placement as a run blocker, but that's a brush stroke on a Mona Lisa, as Pitts is the kind of rare player the league's looking for. With tight ends such as Travis Kelce and George Kittle changing modern passing games, Pitts could be the next step in the evolution.

He pairs his ability to run with a 6-foot-5 5/8 frame, with an 83 3/8-inch wingspan, making him a speed mismatch for most linebackers, and a size mismatch for most defensive backs.

"I think he's an elite wide receiver and I think he's an elite tight end," Florida coach Dan Mullen said of Pitts. "And when you're that, that's what causes the problem of what personnel grouping are you in, who you're going to match up against him? I was in a meeting one day and (someone said) he's kind of like a unicorn and the only way you can defend a unicorn is with another unicorn, so if you don't have a unicorn on defense you've got a problem. . .

"He's such a dynamic player and he has so much versatility. Not only is he a great person to be around as a coach, when you're in the meeting room and you're designing a game plan, but he's awful fun to have that little spot that you can go put up on the board and say, 'That's him and how are we going to move him around?' That's a lot of fun, too."

Unless you're trying to cover him.

Pitts caught 43 passes for 770 yards (17.9 per reception) and 12 touchdowns in eight games last year. He missed time after taking a huge hit against Georgia, and needed surgery to repair a broken nose. He came back and caught three touchdowns against Kentucky, and had seven catches for 129 yards and a touchdown against Alabama in the SEC title game.

And his peers have noticed. Retired Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was among those impressed with his workout Thursday, after which Pitts casually mentioned he set a personal best in everything he trained for (including a 33 1/2-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot-9 broad jump, and was ready to go from "combine shape" to football shape.

Now, Pitts could make draft history.

He said he gets the sense the Falcons (picking fourth overall) have serious interest in him, and if they don't, the Dolphins (picking sixth) probably do.

No tight end has been chosen that high since Denver took Riley Odoms fifth overall in 1972.

"It would be a dream come true to be a top five, or even the first non-quarterback to come off the board," he said. "That's something I'd look forward to."

It's a rare accomplishment, but Pitts is a rare player. Perhaps even a mythical one.

"People calling me a unicorn, that's kind of a special nickname," he said. "Unicorns, you don't find many of them. Being able to do things other tight ends can't is kind of special."

View AP photos from the pro day workout at Florida, including tight end Kyle Pitts and quarterback Kyle Trask.

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