Even though I’ve disagreed with a lot of what our front office has done recently, holding firm on Austin Hooper and not trading him at this past trade deadline was a decision I was 100% behind.
Hooper has slowly improved each season since entering the league in 2016. Last year, he even found himself in the Pro-Bowl after catching 71 balls for 660 yards and three scores. But those numbers pale in comparison to what he put up this past season with Dirk Koetter as the offensive coordinator.
The Stanford product missed nearly a full four games and still set a career-high in receptions (77), yards (786), and touchdowns (6). He was chosen as a Pro-Bowl alternate as a result. However, had he not suffered an MCL sprain, he would have easily been nominated as the second tight-end behind George Kittle. There’s now a legitimate argument for him being one of the three or four best tight ends in football, and he’s scheduled to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent – a dream for any player coming off a career-year.
Hooper will command $45 million at the very least, which will put him between Travis Kelce’s $46.8 million, Jordan Reed’s $46.75 million, and Zach Ertz’s $42.5 million. It’s also entirely possible he could reset the market and get $50 million, given he will have a boatload of suitors. This presents a problem with Atlanta’s bloated cap sheet and key players on big contracts.
Austin Hooper on free agency: “I obviously would like to be here, I’m open to coming back here. But I don’t know — I haven’t received an offer yet. If I do, I’d like to be here. At the same time, it’s a business. I’ll let my representation and the Falcons handle that.”
— Jason Butt (@JasonHButt) December 30, 2019
In the coming days and weeks, we will discuss the number of ways the Falcons can work around the salary cap to create space for this season. They’ve already done so a little bit by restructuring the contracts of Grady Jarrett and Matt Ryan. So even though it might look like the Falcons cap situation is dire, moves can easily be made to make room for necessary players. Austin Hooper is one of those necessary players.
At 25 years young, Hooper is just scratching the surface of his potential and looks to be entering his prime. He adds another level to this offense, and premium tight ends have always been a luxury. General managers dream of finding a big body like Hoop that can move while also being reliable in the running game. So when you find one, you should do everything in your power not to let him go.
The option to franchise tag Hoop is there, and it will almost certainly be used by the Falcons unless they can get a deal done quickly this offseason. What that will do is buy Dimitroff a little more time to negotiate before the July 15th deadline. If all goes well, the Falcons will be able to work out an extension, as they did with Grady Jarrett last season. But if nothing can be reached, Hoop will play in 2020 under the franchise tag.
That’s something that he won’t be thrilled with, and it could result in a holdout and hurt the Falcons in future negotiations. The franchise tag should only be used as a last resort. However, it does give Atlanta a little leverage at the negotiating table.
If the Falcons don’t re-sign Hooper in the long-term, they will be starting from scratch at tight end. All they have behind him is Luke Stocker, who might be cut this offseason, and former UDFA Jaeden Graham. Not to mention, Atlanta, who has always been loaded at the skill positions, wouldn’t have nearly as many threats for Matt Ryan to utilize, especially since Mohamed Sanu was traded to the Patriots. It would be a sin for the Falcons to let a 25-year-old potential superstar tight end walk as he enters his prime. Dimitroff needs to do everything he can to make sure a long-term extension is completed before July 15th.