Atlanta came into last season with a legitimate breakout candidate as their starting tight end, plus a couple of interesting backups. They left the season with some major question marks looming at the position, and tight end has become a little bit of a lightning rod in early offseason discussions.
That’s because, bluntly, the position disappointed. Austin Hooper did not take the great step forward many of us thought he would, and that colored our perception of the (largely fine) year he did have. Levine Toilolo and Eric Saubert were pretty quiet, all told, and unfortunately the lasting memory of Toilolo’s season may be him running wide open for three agonizing seconds while Matt Ryan stared at him and had an existential crisis.
Let’s break down the position.
Stats: 49 receptions, 526 yards, 10.7 yards per reception, 3 touchdowns
The Falcons reportedly scouted tight ends at the Senior Bowl, Hooper was roundly criticized for effort and production all year, and there’s a legitimate chance he won’t be the team’s starting tight in 2018. What happened?
First of all, I think our expectations for Hooper were like our expectations for the offense: Too much. I thought Hoop had a legitimate chance at double digit touchdowns in a productive passing attack, but as the passing attack cratered throughout much of 2017, Hooper proved to be a less-than-stellar red zone option. Despite his size, speed, and obvious ability, he rarely got the kind of separation he seems capable of, and he did have a small handful of ugly, costly, memorable drops.
For all that, do I think Hooper is a lost cause? Far from it. He turned in a solid season, he’s still an underrated blocker, and he’s still extremely young. The Falcons may want to add another legitimate pass catching tight end to the roster, but at worst Hooper should be the team’s long-term #2 at the position. I don’t think we’ve seen his best days in this offense yet.
Stats: 12 receptions, 122 yards, 10.2 yards per reception, 1 touchdown
We all know exactly what Toilolo is at this point: An above average blocker in most situations, and a sporadically useful receiving option. He is not particularly fast, does not have great hands, and does not use his height to his advantage very well in the red zone. He is no better than a #2 tight end, and on some teams, he’d probably be a #3.
The Falcons paid him and keep him around because he’s good enough at everything they ask him to do. In a pinch he’s a fine fourth or fifth receiving option, he certainly blocks as well as he’s asked to, and every now and then he looks like the red zone option I think the Falcons envisioned when they drafted him all the way back in 2013. As a backup and prominent part of two tight end sets, he continues to be fine.
The Falcons will have to eat $2 million in dead money if they cut him this year, and only $1 million in 2019. It would not surprise me at all if they drafted his successor in this upcoming draft, and pushed him out in 2019. Until then, he’ll continue to be fine, at worst.
2017 Stats: N/A
Saubert was just drafted in the fifth round, and brings some appealing tools to the table. He’s got size, speed, and physicality on his side, and he was a prominent part of Atlanta’s special teams units.
That said, it does not seem to be a particularly good sign for him that the Falcons are sniffing around tight ends at the moment. Saubert didn’t get on the field much at all on offense, and while he was expected to be raw there, I did think he’d manage to find his way into some kind of role in Steve Sarkisian’s offense. He may run out of time to develop before he’s buried on the depth chart.
Tight end’s a little murky this upcoming season. If the Falcons are seriously considering a tight end in the draft, they could very well bring in someone who pushes Austin Hooper for snaps right away and pushes either Eric Saubert or Levine Toilolo off the roster entirely. There’s little point in disputing that a legitimate receiving option at tight would benefit this roster, especially if the Falcons roll out two tight end sets with Hooper and the new guy.
It’s too bad, in a way, because this is a solid group. Hooper has talent in spades and just needs to put it together, Toilolo is a perfectly fine and useful backup, and Saubert has enough talent to someday be at least a situationally useful receiving option. I’m not going to quibble with adding talent to this group, especially after 2017, but I think it could come together better in 2018 than many suspect.