Austin Hooper is a very good tight end who had a career season in 2019. The Falcons still decided they won’t offer Hooper a contract before he becomes a free agent next month. Salary-cap restraints may have forced their hand but, either way, the Falcons are making the right move to let Hooper reach the market.
Hooper has been a very productive player for the Falcons but he’s more possession pass-catcher than big-play producer. Hooper had 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns over 13 games 2019. His yards per reception ranked 19th among tight ends with at least 50 targets. Hooper ranked tied for 22nd in explosive play rate for tight ends, according to Sharp Football.
Pro Football Focus notes that Hooper’s numbers are “more a result of Atlanta’s scheme as opposed to a tight end who can single-handily win in single coverage. Over three-fourths of his total receiving yardage since 2016 has come on targets that were underneath coverages or from finding a hole in a zone.”
Hooper is a nice piece to have for a team that can spare the cap space. He is not an essential player for the Falcons, who don’t have the cap space. Hooper might get a nice payday in free agency because he’s just 25-years old and still could expand his game. Even if that happens his value is limited by his position, which ranks just above running back in the pecking order.
The Falcons can replace Hooper in the draft or with a lower-tier free agent. Darren Fells may be a veteran option. He signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with Houston last year and went on to rank 29th in explosive play rate among tight ends and third with six TDs. Fells will be 34-years old in April, but he made his NFL debut at age 28 (he played pro basketball internationally) and turned a career-high number of targets in 2019 into a very productive season.
Whichever No. 1 tight end the Falcons settle on for 2020 will benefit from playing with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. They are reasons why Hooper had room to work against zones and underneath coverage. The cap space Hooper is likely to demand is better used on defense. Maybe the Falcons can re-sign free agent linebacker De’Vondre Campbell to a modest deal after he came on as a starter in 2019.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff said the Falcons still would negotiate with Hooper and other free agents. He said the team also is considering using its franchise tag. Hooper would be the only candidate for that designation, which would mean a salary of more than $10 million. The Falcons likely would be in line for a compensatory draft pick if Hooper signs elsewhere.
That appears to be the most likely outcome at this point. Losing Hooper would leave the Falcons down a good player but they have more pressing roster needs and little cap space to address them.