The Matt Ryan and Austin Hooper connection reached new heights in 2018. Dan Quinn has mentioned Hooper several times as a player he has seen major improvements in. The third-round pick out of Stanford only had 68 receptions in his first two years combined. He will easily eclipse that number in this year alone, sitting at 60 catches with four games remaining. He’s also already passed his career high for touchdowns in a single season with four and setting a career-high in catch rate % at 82.2%.
Hooper went out of his way to be closer to Matt Ryan and really work on their connection during the offseason. Those stories turn out to be much nicer when you actually begin to see the results on the field. It has been quite some time since Ryan had a reliable tight-end option to go to in critical third down and red zone situations. He has that now in Hooper, who looks like the man who will hold down the position for the foreseeable future.
Damontae Kazee has been a guy I’ve had my eye on since being drafted. He was a ballhawk at San Diego State University, showed some of the same skills in his backup and special teams role as a rookie, and now he is leading the NFL in interceptions in his second year.
Here is the glass half full side to all the injuries: The Falcons were able to uncover the kind of talent they had waiting in the wings. There were many players who did not make the most of their opportunity. However, Kazee was not one of them, becoming the most reliable player on the defense behind Grady Jarrett.
Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal should be back from injury in plenty of time for the start of the 2019 season. They will likely hold down the starting safety spots, meaning Kazee will have to find a new role. He was a cornerback at San Diego State and has said himself he prefers the corner role. Considering how poor the Falcons cornerback play has been in 2018, it’s a safe bet Kazee will find himself somewhere on the field in 2019.
The Kicking Game
You know things are bad when you have to include the kicking game on your list of things that have gone right for the Falcons this season. That said, this is definitely something Falcons fans take for granted. Matt Bryant has held down the job in Atlanta since 2009 and nailed some of the most stressful kicks in franchise history.
Through 13 weeks of the season, Bryant is a perfect 15 for 15 on field goal attempts and missed a single extra point. Of course, this section would not be complete without mentioning Giorgio Tavecchio, who filled in for Bryant in the three games that he missed. Over those three games, Tavecchio was perfect, nailing all five of his field goals and eight extra points. In fact, the Falcons are the only team in the NFL that has yet to miss a field goal.
Bryant will be 44 before the start of next year. There have been talks about him retiring, and after the way this season went, that very well be the case. If so, Falcons fans should take a brief moment of silence, because the rest of the kickers are not nearly as automatic. We should all appreciate the 10 years of greatness Bryant has given us.