I, along with the rest of the Falcons writers here at SportsTalkATL, have been adamant since about October that the Falcons have to do everything in their power to retain Austin Hooper long-term. The former Stanford Cardinal has blossomed into one of the league’s best tight-ends, earning Pro-Bowl honors the past two seasons. And if it weren’t for an unfortunate injury that cost him essentially four games, Hooper would have been near the top in every receiving category at his position. You don’t let unique players like that walk out the door over a couple of million dollars – not when the salary cap is an obstacle that is easy to maneuver.
The simplest way for things to go down this offseason is for the Falcons and Austin Hooper to reach an extension relatively quickly and move on with life. Unfortunately, things rarely work out that way when dealing with an elite free agent on the open market, especially when you’re a team that can’t afford to spend top dollar. There will be franchises with cap space willing to make Hooper the highest-paid tight end the game, whether he deserves to be or not, and as of now, the Falcons haven’t even made him in offer.
However, it’s much too early to panic, and in the NFL, it’s rare for top tier players to ever reach unrestricted free agency due to the franchise tag. Now recently, Thomas Dimitroff stated, “the franchise tag is always an option but probably not realistic with Hooper at $10.7 million,” which is what he will make if the Falcons do decide to tag him. And while Dimitroff isn’t wrong in saying the Falcons most likely cannot afford him at that number for 2020, it remains a tool the front office can use for leverage in negotiations.
Unless Hooper is a team player and willing to take a lesser contract to stay in Atlanta, he’s going to want to test the waters in free agency. Inevitably, there will be some organizations looking for a tight end, knowing they can outbid the Falcons because of Atlanta’s cap issues. To prevent that from happening, Dimitroff will tag Hooper. At that point, Hoop can either work with the Falcons on a long-term deal or risk it all by playing on the franchise tag; something players are extraordinarily hesitant to do. However, what happens if Hooper is willing to roll the dice and play on a one-year deal for $10.7 million in 2020, which – as Dimitroff noted – is not something the Falcons can afford in their situation.
Well, Atlanta would not be left without options. If they can’t maneuver the cap to make room for Hooper on a one-year deal or don’t want to, they could always use him as trade bait and pick up assets. The Texans picked up a third-round pick for Jadeveon Clowney at the end of August last year, who refused to sign a long-term deal with Houston. The Falcons could also probably get more than that if they dealt Hooper before July 15th (the deadline for franchise-tag candidates to sign long-term extensions) to a team that wanted to sign him long-term, as the Seahawks did with Frank Clark.
Clark was traded in late April to the Chiefs in exchange for a first and second-round pick. Kansas City then immediately signed him to a five-year extension worth over $100 million. Now, Hooper isn’t nearly as valuable as Clark or Clowney, but the Falcons will still have options to pick up assets if they cannot work out a long-term contract with their Pro-Bowl tight end.
This is a situation where the franchise-tag seems inevitable. Whether an extension gets done will probably come down to how much Hooper wants to stay in Atlanta. The Falcons would be fools not to offer him somewhere in the 4-year, $40-45 million range, and I’d like to think that will be enough to get it done. Though if Hooper is willing to wait things out for one more season, things could get tricky.