Austin Hooper was Atlanta’s best tight end drafted since Alge Crumpler waaaay back in 2001, though obviously Kyle Pitts will be coming for that crown. It took some time, but Hooper gained an almost telepathic connection with quarterback Matt Ryan.
Hooper became an integral part to Atlanta’s offense as a short to intermediate target who could give Ryan an outlet when coverage was sticky up top or the offensive line fell apart. In 2019, Hooper finished with almost 100 targets despite missing three games.
Shockingly, due to a series of bumbling decisions, then-current general manager Thomas Dimitroff failed to even offer Hooper a new contract. Doubling down on the buffoonery—you can argue that Hooper was too expensive, but the team still had a vacuum at tight end—Dimitroff traded a second-round pick for Hayden Hurst. Hooper was signed by the Cleveland Browns while Hurst never came close to matching Hooper’s performance.
While those moves are in the past, can new general manager Terry Fontenot fix what Dimitroff ruined? The opportunity may arise in this offseason.
Hooper has struggled in Cleveland while behind David Njoku in a Baker Mayfield-restricted offense. Hooper had 787 yards in 2019 but dropped to 435 yards in 2020 and 345 in 2021. This year, Hooper has a $9.5 million base salary without any guaranteed money remaining. The Browns do not intend to make Hooper a starter after franchising Njoku.
Hooper never found his footing in Cleveland and appears almost certain to be cut. Still (and shockingly) only 27, Hooper may struggle to find a starting job across the NFL, and may instead wish to rehab his value and work on a new deal at age 28.
Could that perfect landing spot be with the Falcons? Atlanta has its starter in Kyle Pitts. Outside of Pitts, there are no weapons on Atlanta’s offense. With Julio Jones traded and the ongoing Calvin Ridley saga taking him out of the equation until at least 2023, Fontenot must be hoping for cheap yet impactful free agents. Hooper could be that.
The Falcons can’t fix its wide receiver problem all in this offseason. Its best hope is to add talent where possible and hope those guys hit like Cordarrelle Patterson in 2021. Arthur Smith can focus on feeding two tight ends to help Matt Ryan move the ball. Once Hooper is cut, which looks to be a near certainty, the Falcons need to reach out and sell Hooper on rehabbing his career and cashing in next offseason.