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How tight ends fare in a Dirk Koetter-led Falcons offense

It’s all about opportunity.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When Hayden Hurst joined the Falcons, we briefly explored the ways in which Dirk Koetter has prioritized tight ends and found roles for them in the past. Whether it was Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta, Cameron Brate in Tampa Bay, or I guess Marcedes Lewis in Jacksonville, tight ends have tended to do quite well in Koetter offenses.

Today, I wanted to take a bit of a deeper dive into that and see how tight ends have tended to do in Koetter’s offenses in Atlanta and what it might augur for Hurst.

2012 Tony Gonzalez

Gonzo had been in Atlanta for two years already at this point. He had received 108 and 116 targets each of the past two years with Mike Mularkey at the helm, but had just 70 and 80 catches to show for it. In other words, while he was heavily utilized, there was a fair sense that the team could be doing more with the future Hall of Famer.

Enter Koetter. In Julio Jones’ second year and one of Roddy White’s finer seasons, Gonzo still led the team in receptions and was third in targets in one of the more efficient passing attacks Koetter has ever put together. Gonzalez finished with 93 receptions (his highest total since 2008), 930 yards (ditto), and 8 touchdowns (ditto yet again), becoming an even more reliable short-to-mid range option for Matt Ryan.

Gonzo’s usage that year foreshadowed what Koetter would later do with Austin Hooper, which we’ll get to soon enough.

2013 Tony Gonzalez

With Julio Jones missing much of the year, Roddy White missing three games, and Harry Douglas having to carry the load, Gonzo’s final year in Atlanta saw him land at second on the team in both receptions and targets. He was less productive than the year before, both because he didn’t have other options to take the pressure off him and because he was clearly declining, but once again Koetter found plenty of shorter routes to get Gonzalez open on and Gonzo obliged with a product year featuring 83 receptions, 859 yards, and 8 touchdowns. In both years in Atlanta, he average just around 10 yards per reception.

2014 Levine Toilolo and Bear Pascoe

This was the only time in Koetter’s Atlanta tenure that he did not have a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end to work with, and it was probably this experience that convinced him and team brass to go out and get an option with that kind of upside. It did not go well.

Levine Toilolo was 5th on the team in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns, with a final line of 31 receptions, 238 yards, and 2 touchdowns. Bear Pascoe caught 2 balls for 3 yards and a touchdown, making these the least productive tight end group Ryan had to work with since his rookie season in 2008, when Justin Peele and Ben Hartsock combined for just over 20 receptions. Toilolo averaged a brutal 7.7 yards per reception, making him a short yardage option only for Koetter.

Would it be fair to say this season scarred Koetter? I think so. He has never had such an unproductive, untalented tight end group since.

2019 Austin Hooper

Hooper obviously enjoyed the most productive season of his career in 2019, finishing 2nd on the team in targets, receptions and touchdowns and finishing 3rd in yardage. He filled that 2012-2013 Gonzalez role with aplomb, as Koetter used him a ton on shorter-to-mid-range routes and reeling in most of his targets. Hooper was (and is) a good enough athlete to make that work and did a ton of damage despite missing games.

It’s not a profound truth or anything, but the tight ends in Koetter’s Falcons offense have tended to be top three options in the passing game, have tended to eat on shorter routes, and have gotten plenty of opportunities so long as they’re talented enough to make the most of them.

Hurst is getting some hype for his ability to stretch the field, but Koetter hasn’t used his tight ends in that fashion in Atlanta, and he was only a little more inclined to do so in Tampa Bay, primarily with O.J. Howard. Chances are good that Hurst will get a little more work downfield than Hooper and Gonzalez, but that he’ll also be the guy the Falcons lean on most heavily behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and a safety valve on shorter routes with his quality hands. All that assumes he shows himself worthy of that kind of workload, but Koetter (and of course Ryan) like to get the ball into the hands of talented tight ends when they’re able.

Based on all that, it’s safe to say Hurst is heading for a prominent role. We’ll hope he thrives in it.