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Austin Hooper’s future with Falcons feels uncomfortably unsure

Are we really about to lose one of the team’s best players?

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Falcons letting Austin Hooper, one of the league’s emerging forces at tight end, walk in free agency feels like a colossal mistake. It’s also a reset we can’t rule out.

NFL’s Tom Pelissero nearly made me do a spit take when he estimated Hooper could join this elite crop of tight ends who are about to cash in on the market. He guessed the former Stanford standout could command upward of $13 million-plus this March.

If the franchise tag is not an option and Hooper is going to cost Atlanta $13-14 million a season, he will probably not be here this fall.

Maybe blame the timing for it.

The NFL is coming off a Super Bowl where two ferocious offenses (the Chiefs, the 49ers) utilize the tight end to unbelievable success. George Kittle (due a payday) and Travis Kelce (who Pelissero guesses is maybe due a raise) are perhaps the two best tight ends in the NFL, and both of them soared for their respective teams last season.

Tight ends are enjoying somewhat of a resurgence, and NFL teams are likely scrambling to try and find their next Kittle or Kelce. Consider Philadelphia, a recent Super Bowl winner, has Zach Ertz, and the Patriots spent years in the bonus with Rob Gronkowski lighting up the league. Super Bowl favorite Baltimore has a three-pronged tight end attack that served them well this last season.

This is the best time to have a great tight end and the worst time to have to pay one.

The Falcons, of course, find themselves in a time where Hooper’s management team would have to be daft to recommend he take a hometown discount and ignore the likely windfall he’d get by reaching free agency and cashing in. Teams like the Colts, Bills, Cowboys, Broncos, Texans, Seahawks and Dolphins are flush with cap space and could use a player of Hooper’s caliber, and some teams more cash in general to spend could make him the crown jewel of their free agency pushes.

The Falcons sit in the bottom tier of the league with less than $15 million right now before roster cuts, but they’ve also got to make a decision on linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and could wish to finally address its long-dormant pass rush with a splash signing.

From an Xs and Os standpoint, the Falcons don’t need to lose Hooper. It’d be a massive hole to fill, and though he certainly flashed, trusting Jaeden Graham to fill the role is just not fair to him or the people who spend time with this team every Sunday. Luke Stocker is more of a blocking tight end than anything, so the team would either have to downgrade for a lesser contract, make a trade or spend an early draft pick on Hooper’s replacement.

But you know all this. We’ve spent more than a month now grappling with the idea of losing Hooper, and owner Arthur Blank hasn’t even used his “Falcon for life” moniker yet that he’s used with eventual re-signings in the past when discussing Hooper’s future with the team.

It’s fair to wonder if the slope is beginning to tilt downwardswith Hooper’s future with the Falcons, and if the talented, young tight end is about to deservedly break the bank with another team.

It’ll be a setback for a team that just can’t afford another one, and is going to complicate life for Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff, who are working to keep their jobs right now. It’ll be—it had better be—strike 3 if the team fails to get back to the playoffs this season, and losing one of your best players because you couldn’t afford him doesn’t help you do that unless you come back with a heck of a countermove.

We’ve still got a month to go, so maybe the team will clear enough space out from the roster to feel comfortable with re-signing Hooper. Maybe they’ll stick the tag on him (estimated to be about $10 million) and control the situation early. Maybe we’re headed into the unfortunate reality of being one of those teams that had just one too many good players to keep for the long haul.

The one silver lining is the report from ESPN’s Vaughn McClure that Hooper is signaling publicly a desire to stay here. “I remain very optimistic things will work out,” he told McClure last month. It’s encouraging to hear that, but it’s also nothing to bank on.

No matter what, it feels less likely than it did a month ago that an avenue would open for Hooper to stay with the Falcons. Barring the tight end wanting to take a discount to stay with the franchise, it might be trending toward an exit. At the least, it’s uncomfortable how unsure this situation is shaping up to be.

The Falcons were thankfully able to keep Grady Jarrett last year despite some unnecessary drama. Are they about to lose Hooper, or are we headed for the same sort of outcome this spring and summer?