Breaking down the Falcons roster by position: Tight ends

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Following my breakdown of the Falcons offensive line, we move to our final positional group on the offense before moving on to the defense. Tight end is going to look a lot different this season with Pro-Bowler Austin Hooper departing, but a trade for a former first-round pick should fill in just fine. If you missed the previous four installments of this series, click the links below.

Starter

The lone starter in this group will be Hayden Hurst, who the Falcons acquired from Baltimore this offseason for a second-round pick. He will be tasked with replacing Austin Hooper, who was remarkable last season, resulting in a mega-deal from the Cleveland Browns. Hurst only caught 30 balls for 349 yards and two touchdowns in 2019 for the Ravens, but he was one of the two backup tight end options Baltimore rotated as part of a heavily targeted position group. He’s now moving to yet another pass-happy offense that significantly favors the tight end, but he will be the number one target.

Going back to Dirk Koetter’s days with the Bucs, he loves involving his tight ends, which is why it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Hooper thrived in his final season in Atlanta. And while Hoop may have been deserving of the lucrative multi-year contract that he signed with the Browns, a lot of his success was due to the scheme. Toss Hurst into a similar role, and we should see his offensive numbers skyrocket. They may not be as impressive as Hooper’s because of the rapport he had with Ryan, but there’s no reason Hurst shouldn’t be able to record somewhere around 700 yards receiving. From workouts this offseason, Ryan says Hurst is one of the fastest and most athletic tight ends he’s ever played.

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He proved it last year with his 61-yard touchdown against the Bills. During this big play, he hit 20.5 mph, one of the fastest speeds any tight end in the league recorded in 2019, and the quickest time any Raven was clocked at over the course of the season. Not shabby when you consider he is teammates with speedsters Hollywood Brown and Lamar Jackson.

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He also has fantastic hands, which is why he was a first-round pick by the Ravens. Hurst should be an upgrade as a run-blocker over Hooper as well, who left a lot to be desired in that area.

The Backups

The reserves are where things get interesting. Last year, Jaeden Graham impressed enough to make the roster, appearing in all 16 games. He’s an athletic tight end out of Yale that the Falcons signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018, where he spent the year on the practice squad. Last season, Graham was primarily a special teamer but did record nine catches for 147 yards and a touchdown. If he performs well again this preseason, expect him to lock up the second-string tight end job and have an expanded role in the passing game.

To add to the competition, the Falcons signed Khari Lee this offseason, who most recently played in the XFL for the Houston Defenders, where he was a fifth-round draft pick. Before that, he spent four seasons in the NFL with the Bears, Lions, and Bills, appearing in 34 games, including seven starts, but he was never much of a threat in the passing game, catching just two balls for 12 yards over his career.

Lee has a chance to make the roster, given the depth behind Hayden Hurst isn’t especially inspiring, but a name to watch out for is Jared Pinkney, who the Falcons signed as an undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt. As a junior, he caught 50 balls for 774 yards, and seven touchdowns, putting him on draft boards everywhere. However, a QB change in his senior season resulted in a massive drop in production (20 catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns), leading to his going undrafted. Still, there’s a lot of promise in this young man, and he could quickly overtake Lee for the job as the third tight end.

The Falcons also have Carson Meier on the roster, who spent most of last season on the practice squad, but he did appear in one game — Week 13 versus the Saints. Meier’s a practice squad body on most teams, but Atlanta is the perfect opportunity for him to make the roster potentially.

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