Falcons: What kind of role could Hayden Hurst carve out in Arthur Smith’s offense?

hurst hayden 2020

Hayden Hurst‘s role in Arthur Smith‘s offense depends entirely on him. Kyle Pitts will be the defacto TE1 on the depth chart, and Hurst is expected to play a supplemental role as TE2. The drafting of Pitts sparked some thoughts about trading Hurst for salary cap relief; he’d carry no dead cap and save the Falcons almost $2,000,000 against this year’s cap. Since Terry Fontenot and the front office declined Hurst’s fifth-year option, it seems this could be on the table.

There is also the possibility that Atlanta brings Hurst back after agreeing to a new contract with a lower cap figure because once an option is exercised it becomes fully guaranteed. It is all predicated on how much he improves over the year with the new coaching staff, but all signs point to heading into the season with a depth chart of Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst, and Lee Smith as the top three tight ends. Tight ends coach Justin Peelle essentially confirmed Hurst would be on the roster in 2021 after telling the media he and Pitts will be on the field simultaneously, noting Hurst’s improvement as a player since coming out of the draft.

Arthur Smith will give Hurst every chance to make an impact in this offense. Smith’s love for tight ends has been established, and his five years of experience coaching the position makes him an ideal mentor for both Pitts and Hurst. He revived Delanie Walker‘s career and aided Jonnu Smith in his ascension to Pro Bowl honors. Hurst’s obvious attribute that is holding him back in this offense is his blocking.

It improved a season ago, but he was a well-below average blocker in 2020. If he can be serviceable in that area, that’s all Smith needs. Successful run blocking is some effort and attitude, but hand placement, leverage, and footwork are the physical techniques that must be present. Smith can scheme Hurst into more favorable blocking situations, as there are many ways to do so — down blocks, chipping, double teams, and alignments (better leverage). Smith and Peelle seem to know what they’ll be able to get out of Hurst, which means that he will try to deploy his two most threatening receivers from the tight end room.

Lee Smith has a role in this offense, which I’ll get to later, but Hurst’s role with Pitts on the field is the more intriguing topic. 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.

Depending on the game plan, which is always week-to-week, Pitts will be accompanied by [Lee] Smith or Hurst, with a smaller portion of snaps coming with all three on the field. [Arthur] 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). But in the situations that call for it, an offense with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst, and Smith’s choice of running back has incomprehensible potential.

With two tight ends in the formation, the defense has a choice: stay in base personnel or switch to a nickel subpackage. There has to be a response, and many defensive coordinators either deploy a 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 alignment. Big nickel is a term coined for a safety playing in the box as a hybrid linebacker. Essentially, 12 personnel forces defensive coordinators to defend the run with smaller-bodied defenders or defend the pass with bigger-bodied defenders.

If an opposing defense chooses to have a light box, Hurst and Pitts will be tasked with blocking those smaller-bodied defenders. If defenses decide to go a more traditional route, Hurst and Pitts will be matched up against bigger-bodied defenders in their routes. Either way, an offense that deploys two receiving threats at tight end such as the Falcons will give defensive coordinators fits. This all hinges on the production Smith can get out of Hurst’s blocking. If he improves from where he was last year, this offense will be extremely flexible in 12 and 13 personnel.

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