Thomas Dimitroff going out and acquiring Tony Gonzalez from the Chiefs for a second-round pick will go down as one of his many successful imaginative moves that have vastly improved the team. Gonzalez caught at least seventy passes and six touchdowns in his final five seasons with Atlanta. He was not only a playmaker in the middle of the field but a safety blanket that Matt Ryan could count on in critical situations. Unfortunately, the Hall-of-Famer finally decided to hang it up after 17 seasons in 2013, and the Falcons have struggled to find anyone to fill the void.
Veteran, Jacob Tamme had some success at the position in 2015, but he was never a long-term option. That led to the Falcons finally using a decent draft pick on a tight end in 2016. The selection: Austin Hooper out of Stanford.
As a rookie, Hooper only caught 19 passes for 271 yards and 3 TDs. Those numbers might be pedestrian at best, but it should be noted that very few tight ends ever light up the league as rookies. Even Rob Gronkowski only caught for 546 yards his rookie year, and Jimmy Graham hauled in 356.
It was plays like his catch in Super Bowl 51 that sold the organization on Hooper.
— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) February 6, 2017
They hoped those flashes of brilliance would lead to something in year two as they handed him the starting job. However, Hooper did not see the type of jump that Gronkowski or Graham did, where they became 1,000-yard receivers. He improved, catching 49 passes for 526 yards and three touchdowns, but was inconsistent and only recorded two games with fifty yards receiving. The final seven games of the seasons he only caught for 146 yards and failed to record a touchdown.
Even if he did not really live up to expectations in 2017, the Falcons are still confident about their tight end heading into this season.
Matt Ryan has been quoted speaking highly of the third-year tight end, saying Hooper is “a lot more polished” than he was in his first two seasons. The two have developed quite a relationship since Hooper joined the team. Last offseason, Ryan worked out with Hooper in his home state of California. This offseason, Hooper stayed around Atlanta to practice with Ryan privately.
A lot of NFL players take time off during the summer, spending time in tropical islands or with their friends and family. For Hooper, he seems to only have one thing on his mind.
“If you want something, you’ve got to sacrifice something else,” Hooper told Mathew Tabeek of Atlantafalcons.com. “I sacrificed spending time with family and friends, and doing vacations, and doing all of this quote-unquote fun stuff to get to work with Matt. Matt’s twins were on the way, and I knew he wasn’t going to be on the West Coast after the season ended so I made the executive decision like, ‘OK, wherever Matt’s going to be this offseason, I’m going to be a part of it.’
According to Dan Quinn, the extra work is paying off. “Hooper’s been like a dog this offseason — over and over, he’d catch everything Matt threw and bring it back,” Quinn stated to Peter King of NBC Sports.
The 6’4″, 255-pound target may not see an uptick in targets due to the addition of Calvin Ridley to an already loaded offense. However, yards will never be how Hooper is judged. Ryan needs a broad safety blanket that he can rely on in key third downs and in the red zones. The Falcons think Hooper can be that guy, but as he begins his third season, it is time he starts to prove it.