The assumption for a while now has been that Austin Hooper will be the priority of the offseason for the Falcons. De’Vondre Campbell has been viewed as the second priority on that list, with Vic Beasley likely to walk. It’s not ideal to lose contributors, but if you’re going to lose some in the service of keeping others, I think the widespread assumption here and elsewhere is that Hooper is the most vital player, given how much he does in this offense.
I’m not saying you should blow those assumptions up just yet, but ESPN’s Vaughn McClure has a pretty steely-eyed piece that projects all three will leave in free agency. If they did, they’d lose their sack leader, leading tackler, and one of their leading receivers all in a single offseason, after explicitly keeping the coaching staff and front office together to reload, not rebuild.
Let’s focus on Hooper, for the moment. Why would the Falcons even consider that?
One of the answers to that question is Jaeden Graham. The second-year tight end played in all 16 games, wound up having a major role on special teams, and did a nice job in his limited opportunities, reeling in 90% of his targets and scoring a touchdown on the season. He has an intriguing set of skills, but it’s worth noting that he had just ten targets on the year, and there’s no way Atlanta’s so confident in a breakout that they’d pass on re-signing Hooper purely for Graham. He’s also a free agent after the 2020 season.
The other answer, then, would almost surely be a draft pick. Burning draft capital on a position where you have a top tier option would be aggravating, to say the least, especially because the Falcons managed to snag Austin Hooper in the third round. If they were committed to doing so, they’d likely snap one up on the draft’s second day, which could preclude them from taking Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet but could put Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins on their radar. If they think Graham could be special as the guy atop the depth chart, there are likely to be options later.
The biggest answer, however, is still cap space. The Falcons have had a curious habit over the last couple of offseasons of pretending all is going according to plan even when it’s pretty obviously not, with the Matt Bryant fiasco and four car pileup at the guard position serving as two good examples. Similarly, if they let Hooper strike it rich elsewhere in free agency, it will be in major part because they think dropping a huge sum of money on a tight end is not a wise investment when cap space is limited. They will not necessarily say so—especially after declaring him a top priority—but it would be a reason.
Should you start girding your loins for this eventuality? No. It’s early January, the fact that Hooper’s agent Steve Caric is quoted in McClure’s piece using hardball language, and the fact that the Falcons aren’t exactly flush with other options at tight end make it likelier than not that this is the beginning of some protracted tug of war between the two sides, not a death knell for a new contract heading Hooper’s way.
Even so, the lack of a contract offer from Atlanta thus far, plus their cap picture, means you should at least entertain the possibility that three key players who have been around for most of Dan Quinn’s tenure will be headed elsewhere. The pressure on this team to unearth good players is only going to increase if that’s the case.