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The Falcons can franchise Austin Hooper starting Thursday, but there’s no indication they’ll do it

We’re drawing ever-closer to Hooper hitting the open market.

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

Perhaps the most buzzed-about topic of the offseason for the Falcons, both here and out in the larger world of NFL analysis, is Austin Hooper. Throughout the season it seemed like a slam dunk that he’d be the nice man in line for a big contract extension, but since we’ve hit the offseason talk from both Hooper’s camp and the Falcons has cooled things down significantly.

There’s another milestone looming Thursday, when clubs can first franchise or transition players for 2020, as the NFL and NFLPA agreed to push things back a couple of days due to a new CBA not being complete. The original draft of this piece called tomorrow the deadline, but the deadline is actually March 12th and Thursday is the first day, so it’s not quite so pressing a deadline.

The Falcons move quietly during every offseason, which makes the possibility of a surprise (and rare) tag something that can’t be totally dismissed. Tagging Hooper would give the Falcons months to get a long-term deal done and would keep other teams from stealing him in the interim. If Atlanta’s desperate to keep their Pro Bowl tight end around, a franchise tag is probably the most straightforward, effective tool at their disposal at the moment.

However, there are several reasons to believe that Hooper is not going to get the tag.

Here’s three:

  • The Falcons have made it clear through their words and actions that Hooper is someone they’re thrilled to break the bank for. Some of that is undoubtedly hoping to jockey for leverage on their inevitable offer, but compared to past offseasons and talk about ensuring Grady Jarrett and Julio Jones are happy and well-compensated, the language from the team and reporting around the team has been glum in this regard. If you’re not willing to pony up huge money for the guy, you’re probably not willing to pony up for the franchise tag.
  • The Falcons just navigated around a franchise tag last year for the first time since 2012, a necessity because they were struggling to get a deal done with Grady Jarrett. It’s fair to say that their cap flexibility was impacted throughout the offseason, and while they made poor decisions with the cap they did have, I can’t imagine they’re eager to repeat that in 2020.
  • The Falcons are tight on cap space at the moment, a product of waiting around for a new CBA to be finished and not making any cuts. They would likely be able to fit Hooper’s $11 million franchise tag into their current cap space, but it would be by the narrowest of margins, and they’d have virtually no wiggle room to bring back anyone else if they wanted to until they made cuts.

All of this suggests to me that the franchise tag is not a strong possibility for Hooper and the Falcons, though we’ll find out for certain between now and March 10. If I’m correct, that would leave Atlanta with less than a month to get a deal done before Hooper hits the open market and likely starts fielding massive offers the team can’t or won’t match. If they want to keep him, they can’t be on the sidelines with their cuts much longer, but we’re still trying to figure out how badly they want to keep him in the first place.

I’d still buckle up for the possibility of him not returning, is what I’m getting at.