Falcons: Letting Austin Hooper walk is looking like the right decision

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I’ve finally settled down enough to make some rational points about the Falcons, so welcome back. As stomach-churning as this season has been, I have to give the front office some credit for making a prudent move. It’s only Week 2, but arguably the most significant action of the offseason is looking promising.

Atlanta was in a pretty public contract dispute with TE Austin Hooper, who was coming off a 2019 season that saw him rack up a career-high 787 yards and 6 TDs. He was an unrestricted free agent looking to make some coin after being named a Pro-Bowler for the second straight season. Tag-and-trade seemed like an option, but most thought he would just be tagged while an extension was worked out. 

Next thing we knew, Hooper signed with the Cleveland Browns for four years, $42 million — the highest in NFL history at the position until Kelce, Kittle, and Henry received new deals shortly after. Atlanta fans were hurt, especially once they saw Hooper’s cap hit for 2020 was a meager $4 million and only $9 million for 2021, which seemed affordable for his production. However, Thomas Dimitroff looks to have pulled the right strings to replace him much more affordably. 

As you may recall, fan-favorite Mohamed Sanu was traded to the New England Patriots for a 2nd round pick. At the time, it seemed like a win-win for both teams. Sanu had his best years in Atlanta, and in the seven games he played for the Falcons, he was averaging 9.5 YPR. The problem was — the Falcons were 1-6 and looked to be tumbling down the draft board. Atlanta netted an extra 2nd rounder, and Sanu did next to nothing for the Patriots before being cut right before Week 1 of this season. 

The Falcons beefed up on some draft capital and won one of the most lopsided trades of the 2019 season. With the extra pick, Atlanta decided to make a move for Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst. Many fans weren’t too fond of the trade due to Hurst’s age and lack of production, but I saw the vision. 

The former first-round pick out of South Carolina is exceptionally athletic. However, Hurst’s production suffered because he was featured in an offense with Mark Andrews and run blocking extraordinaire Nick Boyle. The potential, though, has always been there:

 

 

Flipping the pick netted the Ravens, JK Dobbins, who I think is perfect for their offense and will be an upper-echelon RB in this league in short order. He’s already averaging 7.8 YPC with 2 TDs on the season. That adds an extra layer of pressure to the whole deal. Hurst hasn’t blown the roof off of Mercedes Benz Stadium, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far.

 

Hayden Hurst 2019: 30 catches, 349 yards, 2 TD, 11.6 YPR (16 Games)

Hayden Hurst 2020: 8 catches, 110 yards, 1 TD, 13.8 YPR

Hayden Hurst AAV: $2.76 Million

 

Austin Hooper 2019: 75 catches, 787 yards, 6 TD, 10.5 YPR (13 Games)

Austin Hooper 2020: 4 catches, 37 yards, 0 TD, 9.3 YPR

Austin Hooper AAV: $10.5 Million

 

Don’t take this as me dancing on Austin Hooper’s grave. He could blow up at any time and start producing at a level higher than Hurst. That isn’t the point. With Atlanta’s sheet as tight as it is, you can’t understate how vital Hurst’s cap hit is. 

The AAV is $2.76 million, but the cap hit itself is only $1.48 million. The Ravens will still be eating his $3 million signing bonus for 2020, and Hurst has another year on his deal before his 5th-year option vests, so he’s under team control until 2023. As team-friendly as his contract is, his play has been very encouraging. Hurst gave the Falcons another glimpse of his athletic prowess on this tight end leak:

 

 

I still love Austin Hooper, but he’s nowhere close to producing at the level he’s being paid. Losing him may have hurt at the time, and the front office has given the Falcons’ faithful little reason to trust them. However, they pulled off a coup getting a 2nd rounder for Sanu, and they used that pick to fill a massive hole left by a soon to be $17 million player. The sample size so far is small, but it’s looking like Atlanta dodged a bullet. As hard as I am on the front office, this seems like a very prudent move that could save Atlanta’s cap sheet substantially down the road.

Photo: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

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