Austin Hooper, a Background
Last year’s week one, as is typical, saw a rush of fantasy GM’s trying to pluck the undrafted “gems” who exploded in their opening contest. Of the fools gold variety, was Atlanta Falcon’s tight end, Austin Hooper, a 3rd round pick out of Stanford from the 2016 draft, and the most utilized tight end on the team since then. He has seen 92 targets since his rookie year, compared to 69 targets (per Pro Football Reference) to all other Falcons tight ends in the same timeframe. So why do I think Austin Hooper will not break out in his 3rd season? Volume, and a renewed set of weapons.
By The Numbers
Last year’s 65 target stat for Hoop is just fine, but let’s examine how he got there. We know the best offensive weapon is Julio Jones. Double teamed or not, he’s going to get looks, and he more than doubled Hooper’s targets at 149. Runner-up was Mohammed Sanu at 97, then Hooper. I don’t want to say Hooper underwhelmed with that number, so much as the whole offense struggled. They stepped back from 38 to just 21 touchdowns through the air. Considering that, Hooper’s ability to match Jones’ 3 TD’s with a fraction of the target share – but he will not repeat as Matt Ryan’s number 3 receiver.
As the offense struggled, so did Taylor Gabriel. From 2016 to 2017 his receiving TD numbers regressed from six to one, despite seeing two extra targets. I heard Gabriel on air saying that almost every time he was in the slot the DB’s were yelling “Screen! Screen!” This is just one example of the offense struggling under 1st-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Gabriel and Jones’ TD count decreased; The Falcons had a loss of 17 TDs on offense. Hooper scoring 3 TD’s in both seasons, despite being targeted 41% more in 2017. The Falcon backfield saw 23 fewer targets in 2017 than they did in ’16, and this is where the overall increase in targets for Hoop came from. Now that we have a better understanding, let’s look at two reasons the Stanford grad will not break out this year.
Trouble From the Backfield
Arguably one of the best running back duos in the league is Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Together they made up 16% of the passing targets (86) in 2017, down from 19.5% in 2016. For comparison, Todd Gurley saw 87 passes last year. They are both able to produce in the passing game, providing 11% of passing touchdowns for the team since 2016. Much like Gabriel, the duo lost 6 TD’s from 2016 to ’17, although they actually did lose target share. All of this is to say, they are both highly capable, highly comparable backs who I expect to bounce back.
New Bird, New Tricks
The Falcons picked Calvin Ridley in the first round of this year’s draft. Ridley is an Alabama product who amassed more than 2,700 receiving yards and 19 TDs for the Crimson Tide. Ridley is a more versatile receiver than Taylor Gabriel. During camp, Ridley was in the slot, out wide, and may eventually end up the main return man. As for Gabriel, he was almost always a slot receiver. Eliminating Gabriel’s predictability, while simultaneously giving a more capable receiver to Matt Ryan will open up the run game. Additionally, the Falcons will be able to utilize the running backs more in the passing game.
With the addition of Ridley, Matt Ryan has 5 potential options capable of stretching the field in all areas before he needs to look to Hooper. Remember the 2016 campaign where the Falcons did score 38 TD’s through the air? Taylor Gabriel was explosive that year, and Austin Hooper only caught 19 passes while leading the TE group in production. Not to mention Greg Knapp, the new QB coach in Atlanta, who was Mike Vick’s OC, will be able to add some flair to the offense too. All of this signals to me that Matt Ryan will have better options than Austin Hooper, and he will not repeat as the 3rd most targeted receiver for the MVP quarterback.
What to Take Away
I am not saying Hooper will be irrelevant. What I am saying is that he is no longer the 3rd best option in the Falcons pass game, nor does he need to be. Adding Calvin Ridley will eliminate that need, and the rookie can replace the explosiveness Taylor Gabriel provided two seasons ago.
If you look at tight ends in the league, only the elite players crack the top three on their team consistently. Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz were both top two in targets on their team each of the last two seasons. Rob Gronkowski was on pace for 76 looks in his injury-riddled 2016 campaign, good enough for 2nd best. Last season he was second in targets and led the team in reception yards. We can all agree that Hoop is not in this class. All told, I expect the TE targets to decrease overall, dispersing more to the running backs and slot receiver, much as they were in the historic 2016 Super Bowl season. Whether that slot receiver becomes Ridley or Sanu, we shall see. What’s clear to me is that Austin Hooper will not break out.
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