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The 5 O’Clock Club: The case for signing TE Austin Hooper to the Redskins in March

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This guy is a top-5 player at his position who is likely to be available in free agency just over three months from now

Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Calvin Ridley was expected to emerge as Matt Ryan’s No. 2 target in this offense, but Hooper has been the perfect compliment to Julio Jones. With Jones running deeper routes and often receiving double teams, Hooper is left open underneath for short easy completions.

But don’t think Hooper is simply a weapon for dink and dunk passes. The Falcons tight end is averaging two additional yards per target this season compared to 2018, and he leads Atlanta with 253 yards after the catch this season. Hooper is a safe, reliable target that can move the chains and create chunk plays. He’s also already set a new career high with five touchdown receptions.

Los Angeles Rams v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Even with the awful first half for the Falcons, it’s been a treat watching Hooper develop into one of the best tight ends in the league. Now, the question moving forward will be if the Falcons can keep him in Atlanta with a long-term deal this offseason.

Sports Illustrated, 1 November 2019

Austin Hooper

The Redskins need a tight end. I don’t think many people would dispute that idea. Without knowing the rosters of all 32 teams in detail, I’m guessing that no other team in the NFL has a greater need at the tight end position than Washington. I believe it is the team’s single biggest roster hole, and that the absence of a high-quality receiving tight end for most of the season had a lot to do with the 2019 result.

Free agency is rarely the place to find a top-10 talent at a position, but, as Redskins fans saw with Kirk Cousins, occasionally circumstances arise that cause a team and a top player to part ways.

I believe those circumstances have arisen in Atlanta because of a very bad salary cap situation. The Falcons top brass seemed to swing for the fences and miss in 2019; as a result, they have a roster that simply doesn’t match the salary cap restraints for 2020.

Source: OverTheCap

With just 42 players under contract, the Falcons are projected to be over the 2020 cap by more than a million dollars. Of the top ten players (ranked by salary cap impact) on the roster, 6 of them would worsen the Falcons salary cap position if they were to be cut or traded.

Absent some major contract restructuring (which means pushing cap hits from 2019 into later years as Jerry Jones used to do so often), the Falcons have only a limited number of players they can look to for significant cap savings:

  • Desmond Trufant
  • Alex Mack
  • Devonta Freeman
  • Ricardo Allen
  • Keanu Neal
  • Allen Bailey
  • Ty Sombrallo

Losing any of these players, of course, creates another roster position that the Falcons would have to fill, in addition to the 11 roster spots that are currently projected to be vacant.

I have no doubt that Thomas Dimitroff has a plan for getting the salary cap back in order, but I don’t see how that plan is likely to include re-signing Austin Hooper to a market value contract.

What is “market value” for Austin Hooper?

I went to Spotrac for guidance on that question.

Their answer is that Hooper should command about $9.9m per year, on a 5 year deal worth about $49.9m.

As you can see, they used the contracts of Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed, Zach Ertz and Trey Burton for guidance on the contract value.

Who exactly is Austin Hooper?

Hooper is a 25-year-old tight end who was drafted 81st overall (3rd round) out of Stanford in the 2016 draft. He’s 6’4” and 254 pounds, making him 3 inches taller, 12 pounds heavier, and 4 years younger than Jordan Reed.

Since coming into the league 4 years ago, he has become steadily more productive.

Noting that the 2019 numbers are for only 12 games, receptions and yards have climbed steadily, as has his touchdown production, first down production and the number of plays over 20 yards.

Hooper missed 3 games in November due to an MCL sprain, but seems to have fully recovered, as he had one of his most productive games of the season last week in a win against Jacksonville, catching 7 passes for 82 yards after somewhat lower production in Weeks 14 & 15.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When you look at the statistics and ratings from the 2019 season, one in which Hooper missed three games with injury while playing on a bad Falcons team that struggled on both sides of the ball, he appears to be solidly in the top-10 tight ends in the league, likely ranking in the 4-8 range, with George Kittle, Mark Andrews and Travis Kelce probably comprising the top 3.

Looking at tight end receiving grades for players with a minimum of 20 targets, Hooper stacks up well, especially considering the fact that he had the fewest games (12) of any player ranked in the top 10:

  • Austin Hooper is ranked #7 in the league with an 80.7 PFF rating (George Kittle is ranked #1 at 94.6).
  • Hooper is 5th in receptions with 68 (Kelce #1 with 94).
  • Hooper is 4th among TE in TD receptions, with 6 (Mark Andrews #1 with 10).
  • Hooper ranks 9th in receiving percentage at 79.1% (Foster Moreau #1 at 91.3%).
  • Hooper ranks 6th in total yards at 742 (Kelce #1 at 1,205).
  • Hooper is 7th in yards after contact at 310 (Kittle is #1 at 573).
  • Hooper ranks 6th among NFL TEs in receiving first downs with 38 (Kelce is #1 at 65).
  • Hooper had no fumbles, 2 drops and 3 penalties in 12 games.

Hooper is a good player on a bad team who has become more productive every year. He is likely to hit free agency, not because his team doesn’t want him, but because they can’t afford him.

The Redskins, who are in desperate need of a high-quality receiving tight end, should, in my opinion, make Austin Hooper their #1 off-season priority in free agency. The Redskins have the salary cap space to give Hooper an appealing contract, and, at just 25 years of age, Hooper is young enough to offer the Redskins good value for the next 5 years.

How would Austin Hooper fit into the Redskins roster?

In one way, it’s difficult to project how Hooper would ‘fit’ with the Redskins, since we don’t know exactly who the Redskins will be in 2020. We don’t know who the Head Coach or Offensive Coordinator will be, or what the offensive scheme and philosophy will be.

But, in another way, it’s an easy answer, because Hooper is talented enough to offer value to any offense.

Consider this article that was published following the Falcons Week 6 game against the Cardinals:

With 42 catches this season, Hooper is on pace to catch 112 passes.

“Well, I just think Hooper has been extremely consistent in his level of play,” offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “I feel like for the third week in row after the game and after we’ve watched the tape, I’ve felt like Hooper has played his best game. I’m saying that to myself and to the other coaches the last three weeks.”

Hooper has received his touches in the flow of the offense.

“It’s really not that we’re seeing a mismatch, but he’s in the right place at the right time,” Koetter said. “(Quarterback) Matt (Ryan) is hitting him a lot as a check-down, and then he’s also hitting him sometimes as a primary receiver. Hoop is getting himself open. He has a good feel versus man and versus zone. He’s taking advantage of his opportunities.”

Hooper also has benefited from teams double-covering Julio Jones.

“If you noticed in this game, we had Julio going down the field and Hooper crossing the field underneath that,” Koetter said. “He made some nice plays, including the touchdown, on that type of route concept.”

The Falcons don’t plan to ease up on using Hooper.

“I think we’d be crazy not to design some stuff for Hooper,” Koetter said. “We also have Julio. We also have (Calvin) Ridley and Mohamed (Sanu) and (Devonta Freeman), but for sure, we are trying to work as much stuff in there for Hoop as we can.”

This sounds like a pretty good template for using Hooper in the Redskins offfense.

There are certain known players among the Redskins offensive skill positions for 2020: Haskins at QB, Terry McLaurin at the X-receiver spot, Steven Sims likely to fill the slot receiver role, Derrius Guice and Bryce Love at RB, with Adrian Peterson an almost certainty in that group as well.

Only at tight end does the offensive roster have a big question mark. Jeremy Sprinkle is a fine backup, but the Redskins need a weapon to provide a consistent safety valve for Dwayne Haskins that was missing for most of the ‘19 season.

In my mind, Hooper is the perfect compliment to Scary Terry McLaurin and Speedy Stevie Sims. He is a big bodied player with good hands and the ability to pull down contested catches in the middle of the field, stretch the field at times, and move the chains consistently. In 12 games in 2019, Hooper put up statistics that compare favorably to top tight ends who had played 13, 14 or 15 games.

Hooper is a rare top-tier player who is likely to enter free agency.

If I were in charge of the Redskins front office, I’d do everything in my power to secure Austin Hooper on a 5-year contract the minute free agency opens in March.

Poll

On a scale from 0-5. with 5 being the highest, how do you rate the Redskins need for a tight end for 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    5
    (784 votes)
  • 21%
    4
    (229 votes)
  • 3%
    3
    (32 votes)
  • 0%
    2
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    1
    (7 votes)
  • 0%
    0
    (7 votes)
1062 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Same scale - rate Austin Hooper as a veteran free agent target for the Redskins

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    5
    (490 votes)
  • 37%
    4
    (359 votes)
  • 7%
    3
    (70 votes)
  • 1%
    2
    (12 votes)
  • 0%
    1
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    0
    (9 votes)
945 votes total Vote Now

Poll

What’s your preference for how the Redskins should fill the need for a pass-receiving tight end on the 2020 roster?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Jordan Reed is still under contract; keep him.
    (27 votes)
  • 0%
    Vernon Davis still has gas in the tank. Re-sign him.
    (9 votes)
  • 69%
    You sold me on Austin Hooper
    (684 votes)
  • 5%
    A different, maybe cheaper, veteran free agent option
    (50 votes)
  • 19%
    The draft baby. We need a young TE to go with our young QB and receivers.
    (194 votes)
  • 2%
    I think Sprinkle, Hentges and Caleb Wilson (our current TEs) can get the job done
    (21 votes)
985 votes total Vote Now