If there’s one thing the Atlanta Falcons have been good at in recent years, it’s keeping their guys.
Since Thomas Dimitroff ascended the general manager throne in 2008, he’s made it a distinct priority to hold onto the players he strikes gold (or at least silver or bronze) with in the NFL Draft.
The second contract success story
Just look at this retention rate of drafted starters/key contributors: he’s signed Matt Ryan, Sam Baker, Harry Douglas, William Moore, Kroy Biermann, Garrett Reynolds, Julio Jones, Matt Bosher, Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Levine Toilolo, Kemal Ishmael, Jake Matthews, Devonta Freeman, Ricardo Allen, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones.
With Vic Beasley, he exercised a $12 million option on a fifth-year deal, which is basically the equivalent of an extension for your first-round pick. Ditto Keanu Neal, whose fifth-year option kicks in this fall. He’ll likely do the same for Takkarist McKinley.
Curtis Lofton, Tevin Coleman, Sean Weatherspoon, Jacquizz Rodgers and Corey Peters are the highest-profile players not to get second contracts who have had starting or substantial reps, and you can make fair, roster-driven cases for all of those on not retaining them.
With all due respect to TeCo in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, the team has never looked awful for letting any of them walk. In his decade-plus of running the organization, Dimitroff has made his fair share of mistakes. But retaining top-flight talent has not been one of them.
This spring, for the first time in what feels like forever, the Falcons are facing losing a top-flight talent to free agency, and it might buck against everything TD has done in his Falcons tenure thus far.
I, like many of you, was dismayed to see the ESPN prognostication surface of rising tight end Austin Hooper walking in free agency. It’s just a prediction, sure, but a very informed one, coming from beat reporter Vaughn McClure. In it, he speculates Hooper will make upwards of $10+ million per annual with an organization not based on Atlanta.
The team also has De’Vondre Campbell, a sound starting linebacker on the strong side, and Wes Schweitzer, a guard starter-in-a-pinch, reaching the market, but it never seemed likely either one of them would stay with Deion Jones getting his extension and Schweitzer likely headed into a competition to start elsewhere.
Hooper, though, is not the type of player Dimitroff has let walk in his tenure.
Since drafting him in the third round of the 2016 draft, Hooper has had a steady rise to be the Falcons starting tight end, and a dang good one at at that.
This past season, he played in 13 games and amassed 787 yards and 6 touchdowns, a career season for the former Stanford tight end. If he hadn’t missed three games midseason, he might’ve gotten close to 900 yards.
His 2019 yardage is good for sixth in the NFL at the position, and his touchdown production is tied for fourth with Zach Ertz and Kyle Rudolph. He was third on the Falcons roster for yardage behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, and he tied Julio for touchdowns received.
Ryan has always utilized the tight end well, particularly in a Dirk Koetter offense (he had Tony Gonzalez for two-thirds of Koetter 1.0, and 2014 starter Toilolo still came in fifth that season in receptions behind the wideout quartet of Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester). In 2015, his second-leading receiver was Jacob Tamme with 657 yards, to underscore the importance of the position in a Ryan-led offense that’s not reaching 2016 historic heights.
In Koetter’s Falcons offense, the tight end has always at least been in the top five in yardage production. When you have an especially good one (2012/13 with Gonzalez, 19 with Hooper), they at least make the top three in yardage.
To be short, the tight end position is of great importance to the Falcons starting quarterback and 2020 play caller. When the team has a high-quality one, that position tends to do well and justifies any resources you allot for it.
So how on Earth are the Falcons in an internal debate on whether to keep their good one?
The case against letting Hooper walk
For keeping Hooper, money is the issue, certainly, with there being no substantial football reasons to not keep Hooper. He has no successor-in-the-waiting, and the free agent market really does not portend to have an equal replacement. The team also would be unwise to use draft capital on a top-50 pick for the position with other needs are surely to exist, including getting a Campbell replacement and the continual adding to the trenches.
Hooper is in a name-heavy free agent class at his position alongside Hunter Henry, Eric Ebron, Darren Fells and Nick Vannett. He’s clearly the best option available of those guys, though, so he will certainly have a ton of clout if he wants to get a big deal with another organization.
Spotrac estimates he will get one at around $9.9 million per season, which the Falcons should be able to afford.
When you consider the cap space that’s being given to Jamon Brown, James Carpenter and Ty Sambrailo is at roughly $17 million for this year, and you note that none of those guys are guaranteed to play a substantial, if any, role with the team in 2020, you openly wonder why the team would not have the money to keep a budding elite player at the position, one they’ve developed in-house and have watched grow on the job.
Keeping Hooper should be a no-brainer for this team. No player in this draft at tight end will give you what he will right away, if ever, and this regime’s future rests on the offense getting back to its high-flying ways. Hooper needs to be part of that equation.
It’s just not likely they’ll be as good in Koetter’s offense as they could be if Hooper is not in the mix. The team needs to get its salary cap in order and find the resources to keep an integral part of the offense. There are no excuses.
Don’t let Hooper walk. If he does, the 2020 Falcons will already have a loss to their record, one that was totally avoidable.