Atlanta heads into the year with a tight end situation that is not among the league’s most exciting—especially since the Bucs with O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are in the same division—but their depth chart should quietly be excellent.
That’s chiefly due to Austin Hooper, who still feels like an underrated player despite having a Pro Bowl season where he was one of the league’s better receivers at the position and a fine blocker as well. The addition of Luke Stocker to a group that already had Eric Saubert, (eventually) Logan Paulsen again, and two interesting practice squad stashes in Alex Gray and Jaeden Graham should make for an eventful summer.
We’re particularly interested in the battle for the third tight end gig. It’s not yet clear whether the Falcons will keep four at the position—Dirk Koetter likes having a lots of tight ends when he can—but that fourth guy is likely to be a gameday inactive a fair amount of the time. The third player here could have a real role, especially if Stocker takes on a part-time gig as the team’s de facto fullback.
We talked about Saubert’s chances yesterday, so won’t spend a ton of time on him in this particular battle preview. Who wins?
Logan Paulsen, 32, entering his 2nd season with Atlanta
Paulsen would feel like a slam dunk if not for the addition of Stocker. He’s coming off a season where he was extremely effective as a reliable set of hands when called upon (which was rarely, but still) and a terrific blocking tight end. You can’t lay much of the fault for this team’s sometimes shaky ground game on him.
The problem for Paulsen really is just that Stocker is now here, and while duplicating a well-rounded player is not a problem, the Falcons would basically be leaning on two guys who have combined for about 150 career receptions in 15 seasons if anything happened to Hooper. The Falcons don’t exactly have a bunch of quality pass catching options behind Hoop to begin with, but what does Paulsen offer that Stocker doesn’t?
The biggest thing might be that he’s actually a semi-proven receiving tight end. He caught every ball thrown his way in 2018 and once put up 53 receptions and 4 TDs in a two year span in Washington, so if a larger role was needed, Paulsen could do the job. Otherwise, his best case is what he’s been his entire career: A very good blocker and a useful player overall. If he winds up being the third tight end, I’ll be a little disappointed that we’re not going to get to see Saubert turn into anything in Atlanta, but it’ll be perfectly justified based on his track record.
Eric Saubert, 25, entering his 3rd season with Atlanta
We talked about Saubert yesterday and how he needs a good summer to carve out any kind of a real role, but his upside is still interesting due to his athleticism. At the very least, Saubert has improved as a blocker and has carved out one of the team’s larger roles on special teams, even if that’s on shakier ground with a new special teams coordinator joining the team. Another strong summer could give Saubert a strong case, given that he’s under contract for the next two seasons.
Alex Gray, 28, entering his 3rd season with Atlanta
Gray is deeply intriguing but basically unknown. It’s not just that we’ve never seen him play, but that he was formerly a rugby guy (that’s the official term) in England and thus we have virtually nothing to go on in terms of what he can do on a football field. Gray’s had two seasons on the practice squad and has consistently drawn praise for how far he’s come, but again, there’s nothing to indicate how strong his chances of hanging on are.
The big pluses: He’s athletic, has had two years to absorb everything he can and he’s just signed a two year deal, meaning the Falcons are at least hopeful he can contribute. For now, Gray’s more of a name to file away as a sleeper than anything else, but with Koetter coming to town it’s possible he could push his way into a roster spot and a real role.
Jaeden Graham, 23, entering his 2nd season in Atlanta
The odds don’t seem to favor Graham, which is a shame because he’s also an interesting player. He snagged four touchdowns in just ten starters as a senior at Yale, turned in solid-to-strong measureables ahead of joining the Falcons, and briefly shone in preseason in 2018. He’s a strong candidate to stick on the practice squad for a second season, but it’d be a major surprise if he pushed his way into a roster spot, much less the third tight end gig.
The winner is...
I still think it’ll be Saubert, who has shown some growth over the last two seasons and has enough upside as an option in the passing game to be worth Koetter’s time. He’ll likely be locked into a battle with Paulsen throughout the summer, while Alex Gray will push for a fourth spot on the depth chart if there’s one to be had. The team will be strong and pretty deep at the position, probably the strongest and deepest they’ve been since Tony Gonzalez was still in town.