It’s only two games, as you’re telling yourself this very moment as you move past the headline of this piece. It’s probably too early to start talking about Austin Hooper.
In case you’ve been living under a rock that doesn’t have your local CBS affiliate, Austin Hooper has four catches for 98 yards in his first two games. He’s been pretty open for those catches, but the fact that Matt Ryan trusts him enough to go deep (which he did twice against the Raiders) would seem to speak volumes. Is Hooper ready to step into a big role?
Why Hooper is probably not ready
Well, it’s only two games. Hooper looked wholly unprepared throughout training camp and preseason, showing little as a blocker, running some weird routes, and dropping a couple of passes along the way. As a third round rookie receiver at a tough position to pick up at the NFL level, he probably simply isn’t ready to be a major contributor just yet.
You do have to add in Jacob Tamme, as well. The veteran tight end had five catches for 75 yards and a touchdown Sunday against the Raiders and has looked very good as a pass catcher in this young season, and even Levine Toilolo got in on the action. Since Hooper isn’t the blocker that Toilolo is and doesn’t yet enjoy the same rapport with Ryan that Tamme does, it’s not like he can and will push either guy off the field.
What if Hooper is ready?
The Falcons have been missing a genuine playmaking tight end since Tony Gonzalez retired, and make no mistake: The offense functioned better when Ryan had that guy. Hooper is no Tony Gonzalez, but he’s got a legitimate chance to be the best tight end to come through Atlanta since #88.
What you’ve seen from Hooper thus far is quality hands (as advertised), the best speed on the team at tight end (also as advertised), and an ability to get open (which we hoped for but hadn’t yet seen until the season started). He’ll need to refine his blocking and route running to really carve out that role, but he belongs on the field, and quality play is only going to help him push for more.
Hooper’s not going to magically leap up the depth chart to be the starter, but after saying he wasn’t ready to make an impact in 2016 earlier this year, I’m already ready to eat those words a bit. Hooper should continue to be involved in the passing attack and could wind up getting five targets a game going forward. If he’s as productive as he was against Oakland, the Falcons will be only too glad to hand him a starting job in 2017, when Jacob Tamme’s contract is up.