The Atlanta Falcons are still tweaking their roster as the pads go on in training camp. The top of the depth chart is the most notable change, with the Falcons failing to offer Austin Hooper a contract extension. It seems the team had other, cheaper plans in mind, and determined the best plan was to jettison their top tight end since Tony Gonzalez retired.
Let’s take a look at the new tight end group.
Hayden Hurst, TE1
The Falcons must have a lot of trust in their newest weapon, the former Baltimore Ravens first-round pick who fell out of favor after the emergence of Mark Andrews. It’s too early to call him a bust—even if that’s sort of what I like to do—but the soon-to-be 27-year-old pass catcher comes to Atlanta with only 512 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns.
The numbers fail to tell the whole story, as Hurst provides some impressive athleticism and more dynamic speed than Hooper. He will be expected to focus on catching the ball as blocking is far from his expertise, though hopefully he’ll still bring something to the table there.
You would hope for fewer question marks for the second-round pick the Falcons gave up for Hurst, but his risk and upside are absolutely enticing. The alternative, of course, was either paying Hooper or scrounging for scraps like Eric Ebron or whatever is left of Jimmy Graham.
Luke Stocker, TE2
Dirk Koetter’s occasional red-zone target is back, hopefully with a better gameplan than 2019. Stocker, now 32, is the definition of a blocking tight end who can provide some oomph in the run game (just not as much as he usually could in 2019). The Falcons likely considered upgrading over Stocker during this offseason, but with the lack of preseason games and the limited training camp, were left with few realistic options.
With Stocker back, he should slot immediately into the TE2 spot and see the field primarily on running downs.
Jaeden Graham, TE3
Some thought Graham would be given a shot at replacing Hooper in 2020, after he showed up big in spot-duty in 2019 when Hooper was out due to injury. The undrafted player has nice speed and some decent hands. Obviously, that never happened after the Hurst trade, but Graham’s athleticism and strong fill-in performances for Hooper suggest he’ll have a role and will be a capable starter for a game or to if he needs to be.
Khari Lee, Potential Practice Squadder
Lee was going to be Stocker this year until the Falcons signed Stocker, if that makes any sense at all. The former XFLer was known chiefly as a blocking tight end and might stick on the practice squad as Stocker insurance. The question really is whether the team will go with the more experienced, block-first Lee or the upside associated with the next guy on our list.
Jared Pinkney, Potential Practice Squadder
The rookie UDFA saw his draft stock crater after enduring awful quarterback play his senior season, but before that he had early round buzz as an extremely athletic pass catcher at the tight end position. Pinkney likely won’t crack the depth chart this year—Hurst is the guy and Stocker and Graham feel pretty locked-in to reserve roles—but he becomes very intriguing in 2021 and beyond when the team is going to have to lean heavily on high-upside, inexpensive options.