The Falcons took care of their own this offseason. They avoided the franchise tag with Grady Jarrett by signing him to a four-year deal right before the deadline, extended Deion Jones for four more seasons, and then avoided a holdout with Julio Jones by making him the highest-paid wide receiver in the league. All three were well-deserving, but it doesn’t leave the Falcons much wiggle room with their cap space going forward, and they have several starters set to become free agents at season’s end.
Among those is tight end Austin Hooper. While other impending free agents like Vic Beasley and De’Vondre Campbell have proven to be expendable, Hooper’s trend of yearly improvement has exploded in 2019.
As a rookie, Hooper showed promise, especially after Jacob Tamme was lost for the season. He nearly doubled his production in his second year and upped that again last season with 71 total receptions and 660 yards on his way to his first Pro-Bowl, but that pales in comparison to what he has been able to do under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
We talked in the offseason about how much Koetter loves to use his tight ends, and Hooper is basking in the glory because of it. He leads an offense that also features Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu in receptions (42) and receiving yards (480). Those numbers put him on pace to catch 112 balls for 1,280 yards. Hooper also already has three touchdowns, which is one off of his season-high. The Falcons have made a habit of taking care of their players who not only produce but also exemplify a high character and work ethic, and Hooper has proven to do all of the above.
Two offseasons ago, the Stanford product followed Matt Ryan around all summer to put in extra work and build chemistry with his QB.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That must have been Hooper’s motto heading into this past offseason. Following a Pro-Bowl appearance, he was once again attached to Matt Ryan’s hip last summer, and the results are speaking for themselves.
He leads all tight ends in receptions and is 8th among all pass-catchers in receiving yards. At 24, some team is going to whip out their checkbook for this young man, and the Falcons are going to want to match it. He represents everything this organization is trying to be and is a critical element to a potent offense. However, a tight cap could make it difficult to complete a deal that both sides deem suitable.
The Falcons do not have the necessary cap space to try and work something out during the season – at least right now. That could potentially change if they were to make some midseason trades, which is not out of the realm of possibility considering their 1-5 start. With that being said, Hooper will most likely test the open market. That will lead to a bidding war – one that will be challenging for the Falcons to win.
Given how many players Atlanta has tied up to lucrative long-term contracts, I don’t see how they could pull off re-signing Austin Hooper on the open market. Whoever signs him will have to overpay, and the Falcons aren’t in the position where they can do that. Now, they will likely part ways with several key contributors following this season, like Vic Beasley, Devonta Freeman, Mohamed Sanu, among others, but those players will also have to be replaced, and the Falcons have a bevy of other holes that need to be patched up as well.
Hooper is everything a team could want in their tight end. He’s a first-class player and teammate, only 24 years old, and has shown substantial improvement in each season. Because of that, it’s not preposterous to believe he will become the highest-paid tight end in football. Whoever wants to lock him up will probably be looking at offering him at least five years and $50 million.
Is he worth that type of money? Perhaps, and I’d love for the Falcons to hold onto him. He’s been one of the lone bright spots amid a very sore season. But I have no idea how they are going to pull it off and address other needs – ones that are much more pertinant than holding onto another offensive weapon.