The clock is ticking on Austin Hooper’s time with the Falcons, as they have less than two months to get a deal done before he hits the open market. That’s still plenty of time if both sides get their rears in gear, but certainly there is a sense of urgency that only grows over time.
Given that, I thought we’d look at when the team’s real or imagined deadline for signing Hooper is, what might happen if a deal isn’t done by mid-March, and what alternatives to bringing Hooper back the Falcons actually have.
How long does the team have to negotiate?
Technically, the Falcons have a long time. They could negotiate with Hooper’s representation well into the spring, but that would be a world where Hooper’s services weren’t in demand.
I view the actual deadline for signing Hooper to be March 18th, and even that’s pushing it. That’s the official date that free agency opens, at which point Hooper and his agent are going to be flooded with offers from teams. The legal tampering period, which leads up to March 18th, is a bit of a soft deadline, given that the conversations happening then can do little but drive the price up for Atlanta.
Basically, I’m suggesting that given the lack of movement to this point and warm and fuzzy language on both sides, the Falcons will lose Hooper if they let him get to the open market.
What happens when free agency opens?
Hooper will immediately get some lucrative offers, to put it mildly. Even in a fairly loaded free agent class, he’s probably the best option, given that he has a better track record of good health than Hunter Henry. There are teams all over the NFL starved for the kind of production and all-around skill set Hooper offers at tight end, including the Patriots, Cardinals, Jaguars, and Packers (Jimmy Graham is getting up there). He won’t lack for suitors.
That’s why there’s something of a deadline for the Falcons to get a deal done, if indeed they plan to. If they’re not simply outbid by teams like the Cardinals and their loads of cap space, the price will be driven up to the point where Atlanta likely will end up paying more than they want to in order to retain their star tight end.
What are the stumbling blocks for a new deal?
Money, of course.
Hooper’s justifiably going to be looking for a deal that will make him one of the highest-paid tight ends in the NFL. He has improved every single season he’s been in the league thus far, is a two-time Pro Bowler, and is coming off his finest year yet. He also won’t be 26 until the end of October, meaning any team that signs him to, say, a 4-5 year deal is going to get the prime years of his career at a price that he’ll likely justify with his production.
The Falcons are sticking to their “we’re not in cap hell” talking points, as you’d expect, but they’re going to have to pinch a few pennies this offseason whether they care to admit it or not. Atlanta’s going to be chopping payroll in order to make additions, and the cost benefit analysis is going to come down to whether Hooper’s worth $10-plus million to this team, or whether that money could be better spent at other positions. At the very least, they’re going to want to make the deal as team-friendly as possible, which may in and of itself prove to be an issue.
What alternatives do the Falcons have?
There are not alternatives that translate into having a player of Austin Hooper’s caliber playing tight end for them in 2020. Let’s get that out of the way right now. The question is whether the offense can still hum along at a high level if you subtract Hooper and add someone else, and the jury is very much out on that.
The first and least palatable alternative would be to sign a mid-tier free agent, pair that guy with Jaeden Graham and Luke Stocker, and keep trucking. Someone like Tyler Eifert, Eric Ebron, or Lance Kendricks would give them a solid receiving option in two tight end sets and would take some of the pressure off Graham to be an impact player. Stocker would continue to function as a top-shelf blocker and Graham would get more development time and would take on a larger role by default, a role his talent suggests he’d do well in. Just because Graham thrived in very limited looks in 2019 does not mean he’s a lock to be a starting-caliber player going forward, however, and this group would obviously struggle to approximate what Hooper brings to the table all by himself.
A better option would be to draft someone with a lot of upside, but this isn’t a very deep class. Adam Trautman is a name to watch because he’ll be one of the top tight ends in this one and the Falcons have already shown real interest in him via the Senior Bowl, but Notre Dam’s Cole Kmet, Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam, and Washington’s Hunter Bryant will all likely go in the first 3-4 rounds and could be options for Atlanta. Getting one of those players to pair with Graham and Stocker might not be a massive 2020 lift, but it would matter for the long haul, and you have to think of the long haul if you’re going to let Hooper walk.
The final option would be to make a trade, and while it’s easily the most far-fetched option on this list, I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. Dirk Koetter and Ben Steele spent a lot of time with O.J. Howard in Tampa Bay, and he has been marginalized under Bruce Arians, carries a relatively affordable 2020 cap hit, and is in the final year of his rookie deal with the fifth-year option looming. If Atlanta wanted to audition him for a long-term role and get a very capable 2020 replacement, they could see if a 3rd-to-5th rounder would pry Howard away from the Bucs.
Basically, the Falcons would have to be ready to enjoy lesser production at tight end in 2020 in the interest of saving money. That’s not super palatable for a team that more or less has to contend this year, lest they once again find their front office staff and coaching staff on the chopping block, but perhaps it’s a risk the Falcons will be willing to take.