Pitts, Toney become UF's first skill players drafted in opening round since 1997

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
Images of Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney are shown on stage Thursday after he was chosen by the New York Giants with the 20th pick in the first round of the NFL draft in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND — Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney on Thursday night became the first pair of Florida offensive skill players drafted in the opening round since Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony in 1997.

Pitts played his final collegiate game in Atlanta, and will now begin his NFL career there. The Falcons selected the Mackey Award winner fourth overall, making him the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history. 

Toney became the first UF receiver since Percy Harvin to go in the first round, heading to the New York Giants with the 20th pick. 

“I’ve been waiting for that call my whole life,” Pitts told ESPN. “When I saw my phone ring, I felt my heart drop. It’s just step one in the right direction.” 

Prior to Pitts, Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka (1961) and former Denver Broncos All-Pro Riley Odoms (1972) were the only tight ends taken in the top five. Pitts is the first Gators TE to be a first-round pick and the program’s highest-drafted player at the position since Ben Troupe, a second-round selection (40th overall) in 2004. 

Florida tight end Kyle Pitts puts on a team cap Thursday after he was chosen with the fifth overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the NFL draft in Cleveland.

“He's the ultimate matchup nightmare,'' ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said of Pitts during the draft telecast. “In a league predicated on winning match-ups, he's the prototype. As a former defensive back, I would be scared to death to cover this guy.”

Riddick compared Pitts to Kansas City tight end and six-time Pro Bowler Travis Kelce and Las Vegas Raiders TE Darren Waller, a 2020 Pro Bowl selection. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. also expects Pitts to be used like the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Waller. 

“Darren Waller, former wide receiver at Georgia Tech, he found a home with the Raiders and he’s lighting it up. He’s uncoverable,” Kiper said. “They can look at that as a blueprint to say this is how you use a guy with Darren Waller-type skills in Kyle Pitts.”

Toney, meanwhile, has been likened to Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill and Saints running back Alvin Kamara. Kiper and ESPN analyst Booger McFarland both described Toney as a tough, aggressive runner who’s difficult to tackle and takes on contact from defenders. 

"The New York Giants needed to add a playmaker on offense," McFarland said. "We saw Kadarius Toney from the slot, we saw him run reverses, we saw him run jet sweeps. When saw his contact battles. When you give him the football, it takes several people to bring him down. There were six guys from South Carolina who couldn’t bring him down. 

“He may not be the best wide receiver, but here’s what you have with Toney: he is the essential guy with the speed-and-space game in the NFL now. He is a playmaker with the ball in his hands.”

The Giants made it a priority this offseason to get more weapons for quarterback Daniel Jones, and Toney should help upgrade a passing game ranked 29th in the NFL last season. 

The Falcons had the league’s fifth-best passing attack with veteran quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Pitts will make their offense even more lethal. 

“I can’t wait to get to Atlanta and start a new journey,” Pitts said. “I hope to accomplish a lot. I have a lot of goals that I want to reach. Through time, strength and just mental, I think I’ll reach it.”

Pitts and Toney give the Gators 53 first-round picks in the common draft era (since 1967), which ranks second in the SEC behind Alabama. At least one Florida player has been selected in every NFL draft since 1952, the longest streak in SEC history.

The draft continues at 7 p.m. Friday with rounds 2-3. The final four rounds are set to start at 12 p.m. Saturday.