When you look at the Atlanta Falcons roster, the easiest and hardest thing to do is acknowledge that the cupboard is beginning to look full.
From the quarterback position to the secondary, the team has plenty of guys to compete at virtually every spot on the roster. Heck, they have two punters! It’s hard not to at least give them credit for coming into 2020 with options, especially since they’re probably not done adding at positions like kicker and a;long the defensive line.
Whether or not those options are up to par with your expectations of how the roster should look is certainly up to you. The team will probably like certain guys more than you do, but they have depth, at the very least.
Such is the nature of roster building in the NFL. It’s a delicate balance of waiting for some guys to bloom while finding new seeds to plant. Most everywhere on the roster, I get the plan. The secondary may be young, but Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield should improve even more than they did last year. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t draft high when they cut Desmond Trufant at the position, hence taking A.J. Terrell.
The tight end spot, though, is the one spot on the roster that gives me pause. Should it?
Yes, the tight end spot, where former Pro Bowler Austin Hooper is no more, and neither is veteran Luke Stocker. Now, the team has free agent acquisition Hayden Hurst, former UDFA Jaeden Graham, UDFA Jared Pinkney and XFLer Khari Lee. That’s an unproven group.
Knowing how drastically important the position is in Dirk Koetter’s offense and in Matt Ryan’s history in success as a quarterback, this is going to be an eternal need for the Falcons. Just watching the quarterback’s more-than-decade run, you understand how important it is for him to have that safety valve in the intermediate passing game and in the red zone.
It’s not always been perfect (see 2014), but most of the time, the team has equipped Ryan with a suitable option at the spot, and it’s helped him play the kind of football the QB wants to play.
Adding Hurst is the closest thing Ryan has to that this season, and it’s hard to know if that’s going to be enough. It’s also fair to wonder if it is.
Hurst is brimming with potential and deserves a chance to be a feature TE in an offense. It’s not his fault the 2018 first-round pick saw a better player taken later in that draft in Mark Andrews in Baltimore, and that the Ravens offense wasn’t nearly as pass-happy as Hurst probably would’ve thrived in.
Football Outsiders likes Hurst a lot, ranking him fifth in 2019 in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average, meaning that FO weighs his production against the opponent he goes up against) and tenth in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement, with FO says is about putting the DVOA against a replacement-level baseline rather than the league average at the position). In other words, he’s a good player in their eyes.
Hurst has been driving back-and-forth this offseason from his home in Jacksonville to Atlanta to work out with Ryan, which will only help them establish chemistry right away. Perhaps my hand-wringing over the tight end spot will be eased by Hurst living up to the potential and added reps.
The former Raven could be what we thought would ail the team in the event of Hooper’s departure, at a fraction of the cost. That’d be a massive win for this front office and offense, and would justify not paying Hooper what he got with the Cleveland Browns.
But if Hurst doesn’t hit the ground running, the team must turn to a lot of inexperience to make up the difference. That’s a bit intimidating when you consider how much historically Ryan leans on the position when receivers don’t open up in the passing game. Koetter could scheme more dink-and-dunk slant routes and short passes with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but you want those guys stretching the field and being utilized creatively.
The team has Russell Gage and Todd Gurley, too, so it’s not like it’d be doomsday, but that type of passing attack is what the tight end is best used for. You don’t need me to tell you why that’s important down low in the scoring zone. Short-yardage receiving is an art in and of itself, and the team right now is hoping Hurst can be that expert for them like Hooper was.
Our Kevin Knight outlined some potential tight ends that could be out there, mentioning guys like Delanie Walker, Charles Clay, Ed Dickson and Stocker, who could hypothetically be re-signed at the right deal. Clay catches my eye because he’s been a relatively durable, sound option for teams in the past, and he’d immediately be the elder statesman on the roster. Jordan Reed, if he at all could and should play with his extensive health history, also could be an intriguing option.
Some believe Pinkney out of Vanderbilt could fill that role after not having much of a QB presence in his senior season with the Commodores, affecting his draft stock. Some feel Graham is ready for the spotlight after flashing here and there last season. You’d have to wait for preseason to know exactly where those guys are.
Having a veteran tight end, though, might be worth it. Just someone who has played in the NFL for a while and could get in rhythm with Ryan pretty quickly. Jacob Tamme wasn’t a world-beater, but in the year before the team drafted Hooper and saw Kyle Shanahan go galaxy brain with his play calling, he had 657 yards and a touchdown as the team’s top option at the spot. That’s not amazing, but it did the trick enough to make him a competent starter.
Maybe that’s the bar for Hurst: Be a Tamme right now while you continue to grow. If he surpasses that, it gives you hope that the team really is set at the tight end position right now and that the trade was quite worthwhile. If he, for whatever reason, isn’t that to start his time here, the team needs a veteran option to keep the passing game humming.
We’ll see how this all shakes out, but at the very least, it does seem like the Falcons need to keep a few phone numbers in their back pockets. A lot depends right now on Hurst showing he can succeed right away as to whether or not the team should be eyeing the tight end free agent pool.