In 2017, the Atlanta Falcons got four touchdowns in total from its tight end position.
That, dear friends, is what we call a problem.
Compare that to 2016, when the Falcons, under OC Kyle Shanahan, had 11 touchdowns come from the mix-and-match tight end group of Jacob Tamme for eight games, a rookie Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo, rookie Joshua Perkins and D.J. Tialavea.
Historically, when the Falcons get down into the red zone, Matt Ryan loves to utilize the tight end. It’s his safety net, and Shanahan did a wonderful job scheming to get his tight ends open for either long completions in busted coverage, or in pinpointing them to go to the right spot in the end zone.
The problem with 2017 was that Steve Sarkisian didn’t use tight ends much to help spark the red zone production. Hooper was the lead guy last season, and only had three touchdowns, one of them an obvious busted coverage against the Bears that featured Hooper blasting a poor Chicago DB into another realm with a stiff arm.
One nicely brought out play action to get Hooper open on the goal line against the Cowboys, the other one against the Jets shows Hooper getting off a block, and wiggling around a defensive back to get open in the back of the end zone for Ryan to find and hit for the score.
The first highlight was a happy accident; the other two show that Hooper does possess the ability to get involved in goal line offense. It’s rather curious that Sarkisian wouldn’t give Hooper more chances there, though his lack of attacking the ball in that Dolphins loss that led to the game-sealing interception might’ve put him in the doghouse for a bit in terms of trust.
Hooper will be a good tight end in the league; he had 544 yards in total during the regular and postseasons, and again, flashed the kind of play that indicted there is more to work with for his future.
Bleacher Report ranked Hooper 21st among all active tight ends, and summed his year up.
In his second season in the NFL, Austin Hooper nearly doubled his yards tally from 2016. He wasn’t, however, as dominant in the passing game as you would expect from someone as talented as he is. After a massive Week 1 performance against the Bears, in which he totaled 128 yards and a touchdown, Hooper was quiet as a receiver for the rest of the season. He displayed his above-average athleticism, but he had too many drops and wasn’t as dynamic in the passing attack as he should have been. Hooper did drastically improve as a blocker, specifically in the running game, but he has the talent and the potential to be a much better receiver as well. Hooper was better this season than he was as a rookie, but he is nowhere near his ceiling.
Hooper reminds me a little bit of Vic Beasley. You can see the talent and the athleticism, but it’s a little frustrating to see him not quite live up to the potential that’s clearly there. Beasley, as we know, turned it around in 2016, and wound up leading the league in sacks. Some circumstances beyond his control held him back in 2017, but he’s been a different player ever since that 2015 season.
Beasley credits some of that development to the Falcons bringing in veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney, who all at once played QB mauler and team mentor. Pass rusher Brooks Reed also saw a bump in pass rush ability when Freeney came to town, and credits it thusly.
Hooper needs a Freeney, and the Falcons need a veteran who can come in and play that dual role of contributor and teacher.
I break a cardinal journalism rule by burying the lede this far, but the Falcons need to sign Antonio Gates yesterday.
Okay, so maybe after May 8 so those comp picks can settle in, but still, the Falcons need to sign Gates and get him into this offense.
Gates is a future Hall of Famer who played his entire career with the Chargers and nearly that entire stretch with QB Philip Rivers. His numbers stand at 11,508 total career yards and 114 touchdowns, and he’s got a good record of durability to boot. He’s a pro’s pro at the position, and when he’s done, will one of the best to ever play tight end.
He’s also been jettisoned from his longtime team, ironically, in exchange for Hooper’s 2016 draft contemporary, Hunter Henry.
Gates has indicated he still wants to play, and forgive us for connecting the dots here, but this seems awfully Freeney-like.
In 2017 in a reduced role, Gates still had 316 receiving yards and three touchdowns (which is only about 200 yards less than Hooper’s season), and it’s fair to speculate he’d have better numbers if not for Henry’s emergence. In 2016, Gates posted up 548 yards and 7 touchdowns in Henry’s rookie year. 2014 was his last year as a dominant starter, with 821 yards and 12 TDs.
The Falcons don’t need 2014 Gates, though if he happened to still be out there, he’d be welcome. The Falcons need a true TE2, and Gates is the best available person for that role at the moment.
Before you bring up Logan Paulsen, consider that he’s not caught an actual pass since 2016, and has not scored a touchdown since 2014. Paulsen is a good veteran blocker, but that will be his role with the Falcons. It’s a smart move to keep Ryan clean, but not a move in any way, shape or form to give the QB help in the passing game.
Gates can help there, and the greats just don’t disappear. His 2017 stats indicate he’s ready to go, and the clips of his ‘17 TDs show his red zone prowess. Just look at this one he had against the Jets. Or this one against the Dolphins. He’s still got it, and should be on a roster in 2018.
Why not Atlanta’s?
Having Hooper and Gates would give Ryan the pair he needs to get this offense really clicking again in the red zone. Gates’ veteran ability to get open down low would give the team an additional wrinkle for Sark to scheme for, and would give someone Ryan could trust where it matters.
Plus, it gives the team a guy that could mentor Hooper, and help him elevate his game. Just look what Gates did for Hunter Henry. The new Chargers starter counts Gates as a key mentor for his career.
GOAT! This guy took me under his wing and treated me like brother. Thankful for my 2 years with him. He is special. I can’t wait to be there when he is getting inducted into the Hall of Fame! #beast https://t.co/L5ZuHJsQtu— Hunter Henry (@Hunter_Henry84) May 1, 2018
Gates could be that guy for Hooper, too. Now, having Paulsen around now is a smart move for some of that learning. Though, the team also needs that guy to contribute on the field, something Paulsen hasn’t done in some time. Gates could help Hooper tap into his potential, as well as get involved in the passing and scoring games. He could also help a guy like Eric Saubert out, who still has some hurdles to jump before becoming an NFL contributor.
Gates feels like Freeney to me: a guy you bring in on a one-year deal to help out in various roles both on and off the field. That 2016 pickup gave the Falcons reliable veteran snaps at a position of need while also helping a high draft pick realize his potential with veteran mentorship.
The former Charger and future gold jacket-wearer could fill that role for Atlanta in 2018. It’d be a genius signing for the team to make, and one that could help them in a big way on offense. You’d also be getting a player nearing the end of his career without a ring who would be joining a team desperate for redemption in that arena. The motivation speaks for itself.
This is me waving my hands at the Falcons front office for them to make this move. It could be what helps Hooper realize his potential, and what completes this potentially-scary 2018 offense.