The Falcons elected not to use one of their draft picks on a tight end, suggesting they are more than comfortable with Austin Hooper serving as the starting tight end for the second year in a row. Hooper showed progress in his second season, but there is no reason to believe he will break out all of the sudden and become anything more than just an average option at the position. With backup tight end Logan Paulsen possessing limited ability in the receiving game, it might be the right move for Atlanta to add one of the veteran tight ends currently on the market.
Antonio Gates is going to be the first name that comes to mind, as he was one of those tight-ends that changed how we view the position today. That also serves as a testament to just how old Gates is. At 37, it seems like Gates is still interested in playing, I just do not see him being able to bring much added burst to an already explosive Falcons offense. This move makes a little sense if the Falcons are planning to use him kind of like they used Dwight Freeney in specific packages with a limited role. He could possibly serve as another red-zone threat at Ryan’s disposal. Though, it should not surprise anybody if we have seen the last of Gates in the NFL.
The Saints recently released Coby Fleener, a 29-year old that seemed to really underachieve in the New Orleans offense. There were high hopes that Fleener could develop into one of the top tight-end options with Drew Brees as his quarterback. Those hopes were never realized, and Fleener’s time with the Saints was short lived as he was cut after just two seasons. Fleener could serve as a counterpart to Hooper, but his tape during his time with New Orleans is rather disappointing.
After Gates and Fleener, it is slim pickings at the position. One guy that has surprisingly remained a free agent throughout the process is Julius Thomas. Thomas had breakout seasons with Peyton Manning at quarterback in an explosive Denver offense. Those seasons led to him signing a monster five-year deal with the Jaguars. His talent never came to fruition in Jacksonville, who traded him for a late-round pick to the Dolphins prior to last season. He was cut this offseason after catching just 41 balls for 388 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2017. Injuries have also slowed down the once deadly red zone threat.
Of these three options, Thomas makes the most sense. People will point to his decline in production from Denver to Miami, but there is also evidence that neither Jacksonville or Miami knew the type of player they were getting. He is not or never was an explosive yards after the catch guy like Gronkowski, Graham or Ertz. He has and always will be a red-zone threat. The year before Thomas received his massive contract he only caught 43 balls for 489 yards but had 12 touchdowns. In a terrific Denver offense with an elite quarterback, Thomas was able to shine. He would be in a similar situation in Atlanta and could become a valuable red zone threat once again.
Atlanta needs to find answers in the red zone. With the addition of Calvin Ridley to the receiving core, the organization may feel they have found their answer. There are no signs that the Falcons are worried about Hooper anchoring the position for another year. The Stanford product recorded a career high in catches (49) and yard (526) last season in his first year as a starter. Those numbers are a nice start for a second-year player, but Hooper must prove this season he can be an effective threat in the red zone. If he cannot do that this season, it will be time for the Falcons to start looking for a more permanent option at tight end.