If you’re an Austin Hooper enthusiast or fantasy footballer who loves tight ends, you’re probably one of the people most whelmed by the addition of Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator. Throw in Luke Stocker, and you’ve got a recipe for some quality tight end play.
What about Eric Saubert, then? When Saubert first arrived in Atlanta, following up a relatively quiet rookie year for Hoop, his athleticism and upside made him a deeply intriguing prospect as a backup. In the two seasons since, he’s played in 30 of a possible 32 games but has just five receptions for 48 yards, with most of his snaps coming as a blocker or a special teamer. There’s been nothing from a production standpoint to suggest he’ll take a leap, but he’s only 25 and those brilliant moments at Drake are still intriguing.
So let’s take a quick look at what might be ahead for Saubert.
On one hand, Dirk Koetter is a tight end-friendly offensive coordinator. The switch from Steve Sarkisian to Koetter is still one with questionable upside—Sark had his legitimate, maddening troubles but Koetter also has through much of his career—but his appreciation for tight ends bodes well for everyone on the depth chart. The two men ahead of him are formidable, but his direct competition for snaps as a receiving tight end has 68 receptions for 577 yards in eight NFL seasons. Saubert put enough on film as a blocker late in the year to think he can be at least capable in that regard, and we’ve never gotten close to seeing what he can do as a receiver with significant snaps. Koetter is coming in with few preconceived notions about the players on this roster that he doesn’t know from his first stint in Atlanta, and Saubert and his team-friendly deal might well factor in now and in 2020.
On the other hand, there are real obstacles in Saubert’s way. Chief among them is Austin Hooper, fresh off a Pro Bowl stint and heading into the year as a slam dunk candidate to be one of the ten or so best tight ends in football. If he was the only obstacle it wouldn’t doom Saubert—two tight end sets are real and spectacular—but Luke Stocker also exists. Stocker’s a Koetter and Mike Mularkey favorite and exactly the kind of versatile, block-first tight end a team turns to when they want to rev up a run game and complement a talented receiving option, which could leave Saubert out in the cold. He’s also not Koetter’s guy, not that Hooper is either.
So where does that leave Saubert? As is the case with many others who have been hanging out at the fringes of the roster, the third-year pro needs a very strong summer to push for a larger role. Koetter used a lot tight ends in 2017, his final season as Tampa Bay’s full-time play caller, and if Saubert ends up the third tight end he’ll have his chances to contribute. But for a player as athletically gifted as Saubert, particularly one who showed off better blocking chops late in 2018, it’d be a disappointment if all he wound up doing was playing special teams. He’s never going to be that late round-to-surprise starter here, but I’m optimistic Saubert can carve out a little bit of a larger role this year and push for something larger in the years to come. It may be his last opportunity to do so.