Should the Falcons really extend Austin Hooper?

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The Falcons have a crucial decision to make regarding Austin Hooper. He’s set to become one of the highest-paid tight ends in football, but Atlanta is cash strapped and can’t afford to extend another player to a deal they will regret in a couple of years, as they did with Devonta Freeman. If that happens, the championship window with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones might close for good, without one Super Bowl on their resumé.

However, if you follow the site, you know what the consensus has been among us — the Falcons have to bring back Austin Hooper. Athletic tight ends that are such a threat in the receiving game are like gold, and when you find one, you better hold on to him as long as you can. Hooper has progressed every season he’s been in the league, becoming a safety valve for Matt Ryan in critical situations, and he is still only 24 years of age. Looking at the stat sheet, the Falcons should do everything in their power to hold onto him, but not everybody seems to think that will — or should — happen.

Recently, ESPN released their bold offseason predictions for all 32 teams, where Falcons beat writer Vaughn McClure doubled down on what he has been saying since the start of the offseason — Atlanta will lose Austin Hooper in free agency.

Sure, they’ll offer Hooper a contract before free agency, but it won’t be enough to satisfy the two-time Pro Bowler. And the Packers, with more cap space and coach Matt LaFleur’s familiarity with Hooper, will make a move.

The Packers have been looking for answers at the tight end position for nearly a decade now. They signed Jimmy Graham to a three-year, $30 million contract in 2018, hoping to find some of the magic the Saints were able to get out of him, but the experiment failed, and he’s a candidate to be cut this offseason. So not only is there a need, but Matt LaFleur is familiar with Hooper from his days with the Falcons. It makes perfect sense for him to land in Green Bay if Atlanta doesn’t make him a competitive offer.

McClure doesn’t think the comments from Dimitroff and Blank about potentially not being able to afford Hooper this offseason are for show. Tough decisions are long overdue for this franchise, and whether Hoop is worth the money or not, the Falcons may not have a choice but to walk away from the table in order to fill other positions of need. But according to Pro Football Focus, that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

On PFF’s list of the top 100 free agents this offseason, Hooper comes in at #37, between safety Jimmy Ward and wide receiver Breshad Perriman, and they aren’t shy about suggesting Hoop is a candidate that is about to get overpaid because of the situation he was in last year.

Hooper has developed into a solid receiving option, but he’s more of a dependable, complementary piece rather than a mismatch creator. Since 2016, Hooper has gained 75.5% of his receiving production on targets defined as holes in zones or underneath the defense (think drag routes, flat routes) — by far the highest percentage in the league. Add to it that Hooper has just a 58.9 receiving grade against single coverage since 2016, and it’s clear that his production has largely been a product of the situation in Atlanta. All that said, Hooper is a mid-tier run blocker who can take advantage of being surrounded by good playmakers on the outside, and he has value as a complementary piece in the passing game

This confirms many of the concerns I had regarding a Hooper extension at the beginning of last season. The Falcons have so many playmakers that Hooper often receives little attention, which allows for inflated stats. Combine that with the fact that Dirk Koetter is obsessed with getting his tight ends the ball, and you have the making of a potential career-year for Hoop, which is what happened in 2019. This is not to say Hooper hasn’t improved each season, but it should concern any team planning on offering him a four-year deal in the $50 million range.

I still believe the Falcons will use the franchise tag in an attempt to leverage negotiations and sign Hooper to a more reasonable contract — somewhere in the four-year, $44 million range. However, this is not an open and shut case. The Falcons have plenty of offensive firepower, and the advanced stats do not lie, Hooper is making the most of his situation. This might finally be the time where the Falcons walk away from one of their own, even after a breakout campaign.

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