Falcons Breakout Canidates: Hayden Hurst

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Just before the deadline in early May, Terry Fontenot decided to decline Hayden Hust’s fifth-year option, which would’ve guaranteed him $5,428,000 against next year’s cap. A few days before, Fontenot said he wanted to talk to Calvin Ridley and Hurst before exercising their fifth-year options, the former of which got his picked up. Hurst did enjoy a career year in 2020, catching 56 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns, but that hasn’t stopped the former South Carolina Gamecock from being more motivated than he’s ever been…

“I hit it pretty hard,” Hurst said after Thursday’s OTA session. “I try to get as strong and as fast as I possibly can. I’ll do whatever it takes to do that, whether it’s lifting for three hours and hitting the field after that. That’s just how I’m wired.”

“This year was big for me, adding the diet to my routine as well,” Hurst said. “I’m down to almost eight percent body fat right now. I’m definitely a man on a mission this year. I have a lot of reasons to play a little bit harder.”

…and Arthur Smith is noticing.

Hurst is heading into a contract year in what is quite possibly the best-case scenario for him. His offensive play-caller is obsessed with involving his tight ends, and the attention Kyle Pitts will garner inherently makes Hurst’s job easier, and he knows that.

“That’s the beauty of this offense,” Hurst said. “We’re going to operate at multiple tight end sets. History has proven that with Coach Smith in Tennessee. I think we have a pretty good group of guys here in Atlanta and that he’s going to be able to utilize all of us in specific ways to create mismatches and make defenses uncomfortable.”

“I think it’s obviously a benefit,” Hurst said of Pitts. “Kyle is an extremely incredible athlete. I think it’s only going to help him, help us as an offense having him on the field. I thought (the selection of Pitts) was a good thing. He’s going to draw a lot of attention when he’s out on the field. So, I think it’s going to help everybody across the board.”

Last year in Tennessee, Smith deployed 12 personnel — one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers — 35% of the time, a league-leading 373 snaps. Furthermore, Smith ran 9% of the Titans’ offensive plays out of 13 personnel — one running back, three tight ends, one receiver — tied for the second-most snaps (100). There will be a plethora of opportunities for Hurst to showcase what he can do.

Below is a chart accounting for the Titans’ receptions distribution, which points toward the impact tight ends will have in this new-look offense. Smith’s offense targeted tight ends the fourth most (29.7%) a season ago. To put that into perspective, tight ends caught only 16% of the Falcons’ total receptions in 2020.

2019 15.8% 57.6% 25.6%
2020 12.0% 57.9% 29.7%

Pitts is such a unicorn that he can be used on the boundary with Hurst and Lee Smith in line with their hands in the dirt, which allows for the offense to threaten defenses in a head-spinning amount of ways. Hurst can stretch the field more so than he can rack up yards after the catch like Jonnu Smith did in Tennessee under Arthur Smith.

“What I bring to the table is pretty unique as far as my vertical speed and how I’m able to move at my size. The way I play in games, my tempo is a match [to the system],” Hurst said. “I think it’s a great offense and I’m excited. I think that, in my fourth year, I’m going to get utilized vertically. That’s what I was able to do in college. Finally, an offensive coordinator can see that and utilize it this year.”

The ingredients are all there for Hurst to breakout, even though he had a career year last season. I fully expect the combination of Hurst and Pitts to be the best tight end duo in the league by season’s end.

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