‘Tis the season for the “best shape of my life” declarations in the NFL, where players hoping to improve on their 2020 seasons show up ready to make an impact and looking the part.
Hayden Hurst is a particularly interesting example of this, and he was the recipient of Scott Bair’s writeup at the Falcons site the other day. In it, we learned Hurst isn’t sore about having his fifth year option declined (at least outwardly), is “definitely a man on a mission this year,” and is down to nearly 8% body fat. I respect the hell out of that last piece in particular, because despite an offseason’s effort, I am decidedly not.
But beyond the encouraging bits about the kind of shape Hurst is in, we learn that he’s excited about Arthur Smith’s offense and anticipates having a significant role in it. Hurst’s frustration with his role last year was not exactly out in the public eye—these Falcons are all pros, and despite a losing season with plenty of offensive hiccups, they’re not going to say it—but it’s clear he welcomes the new offense. Atlanta talked up his involvement as a vertical threat heading into last season, but the actual track record of that usage and its effectiveness was mixed under Dirk Koetter.
From Bair’s piece:
“What I bring to the table is pretty unique as far as my vertical speed and how I’m able to move at my size. The way I play in games, my tempo is a match [to the system]. I think it’s a great offense and I’m excited. I think that, in my fourth year, I’m going to get utilized vertically. That’s what I was able to do in college. Finally, an offensive coordinator can see that and utilize it this year.”
Per Pro Football Reference, Hurst’s average depth of target in 2020 was 6.8 yards, compared to 8.5 the year before in Baltimore, and his yards before the catch per reception fell almost a full yard. Compare that to Calvin Ridley (14.3) and Julio Jones (11.2) and even Russell Gage (8.5) and you see that Hurst’s deep speed was not exactly the most commonly utilized facet of his game. He was certainly more involved in the passing game than he was with the Ravens, but obviously Hurst is hoping to see more downfield usage.
Hurst’s role in Atlanta this year remains to be seen, obviously, but Smith’s fondness for two tight end sets should help him get on the field plenty. If Atlanta does end up trading Julio Jones, Hurst and Kyle Pitts may even line up at receiver at times, because Pitts is a terrifying matchup who should be moved around the formation and Hurst is comfortable and capable split out wide, as he showed in 2020. Whether he’ll get the chance to fly down the field is open for debate, given that Jonnu Smith’s average depth of target was 5.5 yards and Anthony Firkser’s was 7 in Tennessee’s 2020 offense, but given that he’s a credible receiving threat and at least a passable blocker he’ll find his way onto the field plenty even if Kyle Pitts is a monster right out of the gate. If Julio is moved, Hurst may well become the 4th option in the passing game, behind only Pitts, Ridley and Gage, and he’s clearly eager to show he can deliver more than he did during a solid enough first season in Atlanta.
As Hurst says himself in Bair’s article, he won’t lack for motivation in 2021, given that he’s clearly itching to improve on last season and free agency is looming in 2022. We’ll hope he can be an effective piece of a resurgent Falcons offense.