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How the Falcons tight end position could and should shake out in 2019

The youth movement should remain in full swing in Atlanta.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

As I noted this morning, the Atlanta Falcons put together a pretty solid group at tight end in 2018. Austin Hooper, Eric Saubert and Logan Paulsen are hardly an elite trio, but they blocked well, Hooper and to a lesser extent Paulsen produced, and for the first time in many moons tight end didn’t seem like sort of a liability. That’s encouraging.

Now the Falcons have to head into the offseason with some decisions to make at the position, however minor they may seem. Austin Hooper is virtually locked in as a starter unless the Falcons surprisingly decide to invest a first or second day draft pick at tight end, which feels like it’s unlikely in the extreme. Saubert should once again be a reserve, with the chance to take over as Hooper’s backup and counterpart in two tight end sets looming large. That leaves one spot to fill, and for once, it doesn’t feel like the Falcons need to dip into the free agent market to do so.

Let’s take a closer look at what might be ahead.

Free agency

There are actually some intriguing options out there. Jared Cook is coming up as a free agent after a 68 reception, 896 yard and six touchdown season, which he’s always had the talent for but has rarely actually come close to doing. His paycheck will likely be too large for Atlanta, but if they wanted to add another dangerous weapon at the position to complement Hooper, Cook’s the best on the market.

The Falcons could also explore players like C.J. Uzomah and Jeff Heuerman who are solid if unremarkable receiving options, or take a flyer on the oft-injured but still talented Tyler Eifert, who may not be back in Cincinnati. There are plenty of vaguely interesting names out there, and the Falcons have always seemed to prioritize having one of those on hand in years past, regardless of Hooper’s fortunes.

Or, you know, they could just bring back Logan Paulsen. The veteran was occasionally effective as an option in the passing game, reeling in all of his nine targets and scoring once, and has consistently been a useful blocker. If the Falcons don’t think Saubert’s ready to take on a bigger role and they’re not that interested in this draft class or their 2018 practice squad options, Paulsen’s an affordable, sensible choice, and the guy likeliest to actually (re) sign.

The draft

The Falcons have invested in tight end twice in the last three seasons, snagging Hooper (3rd round) and Saubert (5th round) in that span. They need to add talent across both lines, will definitely sniff around a quality linebacker class, have indicated interest in cornerback, and love receivers so much I imagine they’ll take one. To me, their needs indicate that tight end won’t be a priority in the draft, but they could tackle some of those in free agency and wind up (mildly) surprising me.

Who’s out there? The top targets should be Irv Smith Jr. out of Alabama, a promising receiving option with solid blocking chops; Albert Okwuegbunam out of Missouri, who has an impressive blend of size and speed; Noah Fant, who is an effective receiver with a lot of work to do on his blocking; and Kaden Smith, who went to Stanford and is therefore a real threat to be taken in the middle rounds by the Falcons. Zach Gentry out of Michigan and Foster Moreau out of LSU are two of the better blockers in this class, if the Falcons want to add a reliable option a little later who can approximate or better Paulsen’s value.

The relative depth of this class means you shouldn’t be shocked if the Falcons do add to tight end, in other words, though I’m very skeptical it’ll be an early round selection with Hooper looking pretty good.

What should happen

I’d take a swing at Tyler Eifert. His injury history is brutal and sad, but his last (mostly) healthy season back in 2015 saw him go to the Pro Bowl after scoring 13 touchdowns. Even a relative shade of that player could be an interesting piece of this dynamic offense, and he should be both cheap and guaranteed little with the Falcons having a starter and rising young option in place. Generally I tend to advocate for the Falcons to sign guys you know can play, but moving forward with Eifert and keeping Alex Gray, Jaeden Graham or both around as insurance on the practice squad is something I’d like to see.

What will likely happen

I’m genuinely not sure what the Falcons think of Saubert at this point, given that they’ve talked him up routinely but haven’t given him many chances. Given their purported fondness for him and his athleticism, I think Dirk Koetter will wind up rolling with him as the de facto #2 tight end, with a Day 3 rookie joining up to develop and perhaps surpass Saubert if he falters. Alex Gray starts the year on the practice squad and hopes to get a call-up after spending the last two years hanging out there.