One of the most intriguing storylines entering the 2020 season is how Hayden Hurst, who is replacing two-time Pro-Bowler Austin Hooper, will fare in a lead tight-end role.
The University of South Carolina product was the 25th overall pick in the 2018 draft by the Baltimore Ravens, seven spots ahead of where they drafted Lamar Jackson. It often takes a bit of time for tight ends to transition from college to the NFL successfully, and we’ve seen that thus far from Hayden Hurst in two seasons.
Hurst only caught 13 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown in 2018. However, a foot injury before the season cost him four games and surely hindered his development. In his absence, a member of his draft class, third-round selection Mark Andrews, took over as the lead tight end and thrived while also developing critical chemistry with Lamar Jackson.
In 2019, Hurst was healthy, participating in all 16 games and hauling in 30 passes for 349 yards and two scores. He also didn’t drop any passes. The traits that made him a first-round selection were evident, but playing in a run-first offense behind Mark Andrews limited a lot of his game-changing ability.
This offseason, the Falcons decided against paying Austin Hooper the big bucks, and he wound up signing with the Cleveland Browns for four years and $44 million. Instead, Atlanta opted to use one of their second-round picks in a trade for Hurst, viewing him as a high upside player on a much cheaper contract. He may have fallen into the shadows in Baltimore, but in a high-flying Atlanta offense where he will receive mostly one-on-one coverage, he can be a matchup nightmare. And that’s what Matt Ryan has been saying all offseason.
A couple of months ago, Ryan said he worked out with Hurst and proceeded to call him one of the “fastest and most athletic tight ends I’ve ever played with.” That’s pretty significant considering he just played with Austin Hooper, who is coming off back-to-back Pro-Bowls. And of course, Ryan was also teammates with Tony Gonzalez to end his career, who is arguably the best tight end of all-time and a two-sport athlete.
Well, Hurst is a two-sport athlete as well. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 draft and signed with them. After two underwhelming years in the organization, he called it quits and walked on to the South Carolina football team. The rest is history.
Hurst was an elite college player and a combine warrior, which led to him becoming a first-round pick. Now, he finally has a chance to be a TE1, and his former teammate, Mark Andrews, believes he will thrive in his new situation.
Mark Andrews on Hayden Hurst: "He's going to go to Atlanta and thrive. He's a really good player, a special player. He just needs a chance." Said he will miss Hurst, but happy he'll get an opportunity to be lead TE.
— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiec) August 10, 2020
The Falcons don’t need Hurst to put up the same numbers as his former teammate or Austin Hooper. That would be nice, but Ryan has plenty of explosive pieces to share the ball with. Hurst will be most valuable in the red-zone and in one-on-one opportunities. If he can win those more often than not, the Falcons offense will be challenging to hold under 28 points a game.
In a tight end friendly system — with weapons like Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Todd Gurley around him — Hurst is in an ideal position to put up numbers. If he can’t thrive with the Falcons, he may not be cut out for the role of a lead tight end.