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Austin Hooper has stepped up in 2018

Hooper is answering a lot of questions posed about him this past offseason.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2018 season, one player who was repeatedly called out and challenged by the fanbase to take that next step was tight end Austin Hooper.

The Stanford product was a third-round draft pick and was facing what was likely a make-or-break season as far as his starting job on the team was concerned. He did well in relief of Jacob Tamme in his rookie season, but then seemingly regressed in year two.

Nearly at the halfway mark of the 2018 season, Austin Hooper has proven his emergence and has stepped up for the Atlanta Falcons.

2017 Struggles

2017 started out so promising for the Stanford alum — he had 128 receiving yards on just two receptions in Week 1 against the Bears, most of which came on this insane catch and run:

Everyone thought that that was Hooper’s coming out party as a top 10 tight end in the league. Following that game, however, he didn’t register more than 50 receiving yards in a single game and scored just two more touchdowns. He also had less than 25 receiving yards eight different times — half a season’s worth of dud performances.

Hooper finished 15th among TEs in receiving yards with 526 last season, and was tied for 20th among TEs in receiving touchdowns, putting him in the same company with the likes of Darren Fells, Adam Shaheen and Luke Willson (all of whom played less games than Hooper).

While it is true that many young tight ends take some time to get accustomed to pro ball, Austin Hooper had to step up in his third year and so far he has.

2018 Improvements

Hooper’s most effective asset to the team, achieved through a combination of route running and scheme design, is his ability to create separation from the nearest defender on pass plays.

Hooper’s average separation (via Next Gen Stats) from the nearest defender at the time of a reception or incompletion thrown his way is 3.9 yards this season, tied for third among all TEs in the NFL. This isn’t anything new, however, as his average separation in 2017 was 3.7 yards, which was second among all TEs.

The main difference this season has been the fact that Hooper has taken better advantage of the opportunities provided to him as a result of that separation. His catch percentage has increased from 75.38% in 2017 to 81.08% this year, indicating that the extra work he did with QB Matt Ryan before training camp may be paying off.

Hooper’s been targeted 37 times this season and has made 30 of those catches, often acting as Ryan’s safety blanket across the middle of the field with defensive attention gravitating toward the outside where Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones reside.

Ryan’s trust for him has been increasingly evident as well, as Hooper has averaged 6.16 targets per game this season in comparison to 4.06 targets per game in 2017, despite the fact that he’s running routes just 58.9% of the time this season in comparison to 62.5% of the time in 2017.

Hooper has proven to be much more trustworthy of Ryan’s attention in general this year. He’s fixed a major problem when it came to dropped passes, of which he had four last season. This year, the Stanford alum hasn’t dropped a single pass. Matt Ryan’s quarterback rating when targeting Hooper is also 115.4 this season — a vast improvement from the 94.8 quarterback rating when targeting Hooper last season.

The result has been an expected increase in the raw statistics as well — Hooper’s 273 receiving yards ranks him 11th among TEs, and he’s just one yard away from Pittsburgh TE duo Jesse James and Vance McDonald who are tied for ninth with 274 yards. Hooper’s two touchdown catches also ties him for fifth in the league among TEs.

The numbers aren’t eye popping, but Hooper has done everything asked of him by the team in this offense this season.

We’re seeing him take the next step into becoming a more prolific receiving tight end in his career, and his improved play will most likely keep the team from searching for another TE this offseason (well, they may look to add a third-string blocking TE). Austin Hooper is a worthy starter in the NFL.