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How will a modified preseason affect the Falcons’ tight end depth chart?

Fact: Jaeden Graham frequently mixes his Chick-fil-A dipping sauces

NFL: DEC 22 Jaguars at Falcons

Do you miss Austin Hooper yet? If you replied, “no,” fair enough. The former Falcons tight end’s departure was, in a word, “controversial.” While some Falcons fans saw it as an eventuality and weren’t too heartbroken, others thought it was a mistake. The Falcons won’t know whether it was the right decision for a year or two, but the addition of Hayden Hurst is at least intriguing on paper. The problem is who will play behind Hurst.

The tight ends on the current Falcons roster not named Hayden Hurst have a 11 combined catches and 1 receiving touchdown in the NFL. That’s an underwhelming statistical reality, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the Falcons are lacking talent at tight end. In fact, they may wind up having surplus of it. But at present, the Falcons are in a difficult position, because they must resolve the uncertainty behind Hurst with no preseason games and a modified training camp.

Let’s start with the obvious: Jaeden Graham is the favorite to serve as the primary backup behind Hurst. In fact, it’s probably safe to go ahead and slot him in as the TE2 at this point. If you recall, Graham started in Austin Hooper’s absence last season and the team is on the record about their fascination with him. The real question is who will win the TE3 job: Khari Lee, Jared Pinkney, or Carson Meier.

Lee is a strong contender. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the XFL’s best blocking tight end. Lee is a quality in-line blocker, but if the Falcons expect their TE3 to catch the ball at some point, then they’d better keep looking. Lee has played in 34 NFL games (7 starts), catching all of 2 passes for 8 receiving yards. What’s more, he’s only been targeted 5 times, and 3 of those targets came in 2015 during his rookie campaign.

Pinkney is Lee’s primary competition. He received rave reviews as one of the best UDFAs available following the 2020 NFL Draft. Pinkney had options as a priority free agent and the Falcons had to sell him on this opportunity. There are reasons to think he can be a legitimate contributor in 2020 and beyond. Remember, this is a guy whose name and the words “first rounder” were frequently uttered in the same sentence as recently as 18 months ago.

Carson Meier is another theoretical option at TE3. He spent time on the Falcons practice squad last season, earning a promotion to the 53-man roster when both Austin Hooper and Luke Stocker were hurt. His blocking chops are what’s keeping him under contract in Atlanta, although he did rack up 4 receiving touchdowns as a redshirt senior at Oklahoma. Meier would have to showcase better blocking ability than Lee and a higher ceiling than Pinkney to stick, which doesn’t seem likely, especially without preseason games. That said, he’s undoubtedly a practice squad candidate, especially with practice squads bumping up to 12 players.

The Falcons waived Caleb Repp last weekend, so they’ve already started this process. It really comes down to Lee and Pinkney battling for the TE3 job. The competition is already underway, and the winner will be crowned based on what happens on the practice field. The loser may not be done in Atalanta. (The recently modified practice squad rules allow teams to carry a 16 player practice squad, and 6 of the 16 spots have no accrued service restrictions. )

How do you see this playing out, Falcoholics?