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The evolution of the Falcons TE position, 2008-2018

From Hartsock to Hooper, with the team going Gonzo in between.

Detroit Lions v Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons have had franchise greats at quarterback and wide receiver more or less continuously from 2008-2018, and the picture has been pretty similar at running back, with only an injury-marred 2018 and the Steven Jackson years messing that up. It has been a historic run of savviness and good fortune at those positions, I’d say, which makes the positions where that hasn’t happened seem a little...lacking.

The good news with tight end is that the Falcons did have a Hall of Famer holding down the position for five seasons in the last decade-plus, and Tony Gonzalez was on hand for some of the better teams of the era. The bad news is that until Austin Hooper hit his stride in 2017 and then really blossomed in 2018, the picture at tight end outside of gonzo has been...bleak.

Let’s take a closer look.

Falcons TE Evolution

Year TE1 TE2 TE3 TE4
Year TE1 TE2 TE3 TE4
2008 Ben Hartsock Justin Peelle Jason Rader Marcus Pollard
2009 Tony Gonzalez Justin Peelle Keith Zinger Jason Rader
2010 Tony Gonzalez Justin Peelle Michael Palmer Robbie Agnone
2011 Tony Gonzalez Michael Palmer Reggie Kelly
2012 Tony Gonzalez Michael Palmer Tommy Gallarda Chase Coffman
2013 Tony Gonzalez Levine Toilolo Chase Coffman
2014 Levine Toilolo Bear Pascoe
2015 Jacob Tamme Levine Toilolo Tony Moeaki Mickey Shuler
2016 Levine Toilolo Austin Hooper Jacob Tamme Josh Perkins/D.J.Tialavea
2017 Austin Hooper Levine Toilolo Eric Saubert
2018 Austin Hooper Logan Paulsen Eric Saubert

A little background: The Falcons cobbled together a tight end depth chart in Matt Ryan’s rookie season that consisted of blocking TE Ben Hartsock, surprisingly capable receiving option Justin Peelle, and a couple of dudes. That proved to be wholly unsatisfying for the team’s brass, who went out and got Ryan a dream security blanket in Gonzalez. While Gonzo was in town, the Falcons largely elected to back him up with capable role players like Peelle, the immortal Michael Palmer, and a rookie Levine Toilolo. As long as those guys could block, something Gonzo wasn’t known for, the offense tended to hum along just fine. Gonzalez set every major mark for a tight end playing for the Falcons, he was an integral part of a 13-3 2010 team, playoff squad in 2011, and the so-close-it-hurts 2012 Falcons, and the addition of the 6’8” Toilolo and his imagined red zone ability and blocking acumen figured to set the Falcons up nicely as Gonzalez transitioned out of town in 2013.

Of course, 2013 was a disaster for any number of reasons, but simply put the tight end position turned from a relative strength into an active liability pretty quickly. Toilolo was, like fellow Falcons Kroy Biermann, Paul Worrilow, and Harry Douglas, a capable and even terrific role player who did a couple of things very well but was stretched as a starter, and that receiving ability really only materialized in brief spurts along the way. The team’s other additions to the depth chart, like pure blocker Bear Pascoe and lead-footed non-blocker Jacob Tamme, were also useful players but not excellent ones, and as a result the tight end position was somewhere between a major problem and so-so group from late 2013 through 2016.

Happily, the arrival of Austin Hooper largely changed that. Hoop went through a pretty quiet rookie year in 2016 as he adjusted to the NFL, but he emerged as a rock solid receiver and blocker in 2017 and was one of the league’s better tight ends in 2018. As he’s only 24 years old at the moment, it’s probably reasonable to expect even better (or at least 2018 comparable) seasons ahead of him, which makes tight end a position of relative strength again. The team has done a good job of adding blockers with a little bit of receiving ability (Logan Paulsen and now Luke Stocker come to mind), and Eric Saubert looks like he still has some untapped upside heading into the 2019 season. Hooper’s not Gonzalez as a receiver—no one is or is particularly likely to be, especially not know that Rob Gronkowski has retired—but he’s very good and tight end looks like a capable position grouping once more.

The Falcons haven’t really, I’d argue, built toward a cohesive identity at the position until very recently, with Gonzalz serving as a Canton-bound BandAid as they cycled through reserves and tried to figured out ideal roles. Whether tight end will be great in 2019 and beyond depends largely on Hooper and whether Saubert can prove to be the kind of intriguing reserve he looked to be back when he arrived in 2017, but at least the arrow is pointing up.

Next up will be tackle, which has...certainly evolved.