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From afterthought to asset: Austin Hooper flourishing with the Falcons

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After struggling to find his niche in his first two seasons, the fourth-year tight end has established himself as a dependable playmaker.

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Atlanta Falcons v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On Dec. 7, 2017, the Falcons were facing the Saints in a crucial matchup. The first half was a stalemate with both defenses elevating their games for the occasion. On the first play in the second half, Matt Ryan tried to hit Austin Hooper on a quick hitch. It was a well-thrown ball that hit Hooper right in the hands.

The pass unfortunately bounced off his hands into the waiting arms of Chris Banjo. It was a costly turnover, as the Saints scored a touchdown four plays later. That was the sixth drop of the season for Hooper. Thanks to a tremendous defensive performance led by Deion Jones, the Falcons managed to overcome three interceptions by Ryan and earn a pivotal win, and things changed for Hooper following the victory.

After a strong start to the season, his role in the offense started to diminish. He became mostly an afterthought during the team’s late-season playoff run and the playoffs themselves. In the last five games of the season, Hooper was only targeted 15 times. The only game he was targeted more than four times was in Atlanta’s playoff win over the Rams.

It was clear Ryan had lost faith in Hooper. If it wasn’t a quick out or check down, Ryan rarely looked in his direction. Steve Sarkisian wasn’t devising plays to get Hooper involved, either. His drops had become problematic. His inability to find space against zone or separate against man was evident from watching film. For all the talent Hooper possessed, the former third-round pick had major work to do going into 2018.

Hooper spent that offseason working frequently with Ryan. Whether it was showing up at the former MVP’s passing camp in California or going to locations to accommodate his quarterback, Hooper made sure to build a stronger rapport with him. Ryan said that “literally, (Hooper) would show up anywhere” to get in extra reps. The sheer determination and focus to evolve is what Hooper needed going into his third season. With expectations higher than ever in Atlanta, the promising tight end had to convert his glimpses of excellence into consistent production. Hooper did exactly that in 2018 with a stat line of 71 catches for 660 yards and four touchdowns.

In the midst of major injuries across the roster and chaos surrounding Sarkisian, Hooper managed to become the dependable weapon Ryan needed at the tight end position. His route running improved exponentially. He showed a much better understanding of coverages. From making more contested catches to rarely dropping passes, Hooper’s overall ball skills were significantly better as well. A successful 2018 didn’t change his mentality. All it meant was more off-season work with his franchise quarterback to get ready for 2019.

Hooper currently ranks among the top tight ends in every major statistical category. While his numbers are slightly inflated because the Falcons are playing from behind often, there is no denying Hooper’s ascendance into becoming one of the top tight ends in the league. Not many tight ends are capable of being effective in a variety of ways. Hooper can line up traditionally next to an offensive tackle, outside, in the slot, in a stack or bunch formation, or even be used as a h-back. Unlike many productive tight ends, Hooper is an above-average blocker. Dirk Koetter will use him in two-tight end sets and design runs going directly behind him. That’s an indication of how much confidence Koetter has in the versatile tight end.

Hooper produced his second 100-yard-plus receiving game of the season last Sunday against Arizona. Some of his production can be attributed to inexplicable coverage breakdowns. The rest of his production comes from precise route running, his ability to use his body in narrow areas, stretch the field, and his chemistry with Ryan.

Look no further than this 15-yard completion, where Ryan hit Hooper immediately on a crossing pattern. Those type of plays are a testament to the work both players put in during the offseason.

Ryan compared Hooper to Tony Gonzalez last August. While it’ll take something extraordinary for Hooper to be near the Hall of Famer’s level, Ryan’s statement does hold weight.

Since Gonzalez retired in 2013, the Falcons missed having a true playmaking tight end who can do it all. They have one now in Hooper.