The Falcons made moves to keep their core of young, bright stars during 2019. They started by making sure Grady Jarrett was inked to a new deal instead of playing on the franchise tag. They followed that up by getting Deion Jones signed as well. That leaves Austin Hooper as the last “Pro Bowl caliber” player who needs to get paid.
When Tony Gonzalez retired in 2014, the Falcons were left with Levine Toilolo as their starter at the position. He was ... underwhelming. Since being drafted in 2016, Hooper has consistently improved and is now one of Matt Ryan’s favorite targets. Let’s take a look at what the team should do about him this off-season.
Through just 13 games, Hooper finished with 787 yards and 6 touchdowns. That was good enough to finish 6th and 4th in those categories among tight ends. He was also targeted 97 times (75 receptions) which was 2nd behind only Julio Jones. Yes, he was targeted more than Calvin Ridley (who also only played 13 games). It’s clear that Hooper has become one of Matt Ryan’s favorite targets and he’s delivering at a high level.
This hasn’t come easy. Ryan and Hooper have spent a lot of time together the past few off-seasons to build that trust and chemistry and it’s now paying off.
Where tight end contracts in the NFL are concerned, the highest average per year belongs to Jimmy Graham, who is now 34. His contract is averaging 10M per year. Behind him are Travis Kelce (31, 9.368M/yr), Jordan Reed (30, 9.350M/yr) and Kyle Rudolph (31, 9.025M/yr). The NFL franchise tag for tight ends in 2019 was just under 10.4 million, so it will likely creep up closer to 11 million for the 2020 season.
Given that Hooper is still only 25 years old, you can bet he and his agent are looking for something that will average at least 10.5 to 11 million per year.
The first option is to let Hooper walk. Of all the options, this seems the most illogical. The Falcons went several years without a good tight end after Tony Gonzalez retired and now they finally have one. I’ve seen arguments over whether Hooper is a top-5 or top-10 player at his position, but that’s a pointless conversation. He’s a favorite target for our QB. He’s highly productive. He’s improved every year he’s been in the league and he’s still young. Most of the guys at the top of the pay scale are on the wrong side of 30. Letting Hooper walk would be a major mistake. The lack of good free agent options and the slow learning curve for most rookie tight ends only makes it worse.
The second option is the franchise tag. In fact, there’s some chance the team will do this if initial talks go nowhere. However, using the franchise tag will have a deleterious impact on the cap space for the team in 2020, as the full amount of the tag (presumably around 11 million) will count towards the 2020 cap.
The third and best option is to get a long-term deal worked out. Atlanta will likely give him the biggest contract ever for a tight end (probably averaging 11M per year), but it won’t last too long once players like Hunter Henry and George Kittle get their paydays. When you look at the average salary per position in the NFL, tight end is one of the most affordable. Given Hooper’s importance to the team and the lack of viable options behind him (unless you really believe Jaeden Graham is about to make a major leap), getting him paid makes the most sense.
What do you say? Is the cap too tight to make keeping Hooper viable? Or should he be the priority signing for the Falcons this off-season?