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Is this Austin Hooper’s time to shine?

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The second-year player is coming into 2017 as the #1 TE in the potent Atlanta offense. Is Hooper poised for a breakout season?

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons offense in 2016 was a thing of beauty. A unit led by MVP Matt Ryan and superstar WR Julio Jones finished among the top-10 offenses of all time, and it was genuinely a joy to watch. That group also featured a very good offensive line, impressive WR depth, and a stable of TEs that were able to get the job done consistently when called upon.

What that unit lacked, however, was a truly dynamic threat at TE. The starter going into the season, Jacob Tamme, played well until going down with an injury. Levine Toilolo was perhaps the best blocking TE on the team, but didn’t offer much as a receiver. UDFA Josh Perkins showed off some interesting traits, but didn’t get on the field much.

That left rookie Austin Hooper, who started slow but gained traction as the year progressed. He gained rapport with Matt Ryan, and began making plays more consistently as the Falcons entered the playoffs. At the conclusion of the postseason, Hooper had quietly made a name for himself as a good route runner and athletic receiving option with quality blocking ability.

Now, Hooper enters 2017 as the favorite to become the primary target at TE. Jacob Tamme is gone, and the only other addition to the group is fifth-round draft selection Eric Saubert. While Saubert certainly has potential down the road, he isn’t likely to challenge Hooper for significant playing time at this point. That all points to Hooper receiving the lion’s share of targets during the 2017 season.

We’ve heard whispers that new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is likely to deploy more multiple-TE sets, and he was known for featuring receiving TEs during his time at Washington and USC. There have also been tidbits about the growing relationship between Ryan and Hooper:

There’s certainly a great deal of positivity surrounding the second-year TE out of Stanford. The question is: can Hooper become a true difference-maker at the TE position in 2017?

The answer is yes, and the reasons are many. He’s developing a strong relationship with Ryan, who has been known to rely on and target his TE often in the past. Hooper has also continued to develop his blocking ability, making sure he can remain on the field for all four downs. He possesses good athletic ability and improving technique as a route runner.

With Tamme gone, Toilolo largely a blocker, and Saubert and Perkins more developmental options, Hooper has an excellent chance to see the bulk of the work at TE. He’ll need to continue his development and refine his blocking, but Hooper has the makings of a high-upside starter going into the 2017 season.

Will he have a truly dominant season—something along the lines of 1000 yards and 10 TDs? Probably not. But he could easily be the most talented TE the Falcons have had since Tony Gonzalez retired, and that would be more than enough to help the offense continue to operate at a scorching pace this season.

What do you think about Hooper’s prospects in 2017? Could he be primed for a breakout season? Will he become an upper-echelon TE in the NFL this season, or sometime in the future?