No. 85 -- Eric Saubert, tight end. The Falcons drafted Saubert in the fifth round of the 2017 draft out of Drake. Last Falcons to wear it: Leonard Hankerson, wide receiver.
Photo: Damian Strohmeyer/AP
Photo: Damian Strohmeyer/AP

In second year, Saubert’s blocking out and catching on

You might think he’s faster. Perhaps he’ll look quicker off the ball. Chances are he’ll make a few nice blocks, some on running plays and others in pass protection. 

These are payoffs for a young man growing into the game.

Saubert had more than the usual growing to do after being drafted in the fifth round in 2017 out of Drake University, an FCS program in Des Moines, Iowa, far from the SEC, the ACC or big-time college football.

He began drawing extra attention in the spring, during OTAs, and has continued flashing through training camp and into the first preseason game, where Friday he caught two passes for 15 yards against the Jets.

This summer feels light years ahead of last because Saubert knows what he’s doing, and better believes he can do it.

“Yeah, absolutely. The second year I just have way more confidence in knowing the system all the way around, and being able to look at not just your assignment but what the defense is doing,” he said of his knowledge acquired and applied. “(The game is) definitely slower this time around.

“It was definitely significant. Everybody here, it’s the best of the best and we don’t have that in the FCS. You definitely have to adjust a little bit, and I think that’s behind me now. Now, I’m just trying to home my craft and do more for the Falcons.”

That sounds about right. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound native of Chicago figures to do quite a bit more this season. He stayed busy on special teams as a rookie, playing on kicking and punting units in 14 games, yet registered not a single reception. He logged just about three dozen snaps on offense.

Combine the Falcons’ release of backup tight end Levine Toilolo in the spring with Saubert’s development, and you may be about to get to know No. 85 a little better.

He’s been catching the attention of coaches and teammates all spring, and is in-line -- which was new to him last summer as he worked out of a spread offense at Drake, and frequently was split out wide -- for more playing time.

“We certainly see it growing,” coach Dan Quinn said. “Last year, he was really learning it but he seemed more guarded, (like) ‘I just want to do it right, I just want to do it right. . . .’”

“What I’ve seen from him this year, his speed and athleticism have really jumped out. Yes, his role would be increased both offensively and on special teams. He’s definitely someone who’s made the jump from year one to year two. He’s not only impressed me in camp, but all the way back to the spring.”

Saubert has picked up on the nuances of his position.

“There’s countless, just being so much more confident in the system. For instance, last year I may not have communicated something with an offensive lineman on a block that I might have this time around,” he explained. “There’s so much more mentally that you have to take on in our position.”

Tight ends were a modest part of the offense last season, at least with the ball. Less than 18 percent of the team’s passes were thrown their way as starter Austin Hooper caught 49 passes for 526 yards and three touchdowns and Toilolo caught 12 balls for 122 yards and a score. 

No other tight end caught a pass.

Perhaps the growth of Hooper, who is entering his third season, Drake and offseason addition Logan Paulsen, a nine-year NFL veteran, will lead offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to bump up those numbers. 

Tight ends, after all, had the highest catch rate on the team, pulling in 77.2 percent of the passes thrown in their direction, where wide receivers caught 64.5 percent (on 64.2 percent targeting) and running backs caught 70.8 percent (on 18.6 percent targeting).

“The more we can distribute the ball to where we can maintain balance to where it’s, ‘Who are you going to cover next?’ That should make us harder to defend,” Sarkisian said. “It’s just maximizing those opportunities, whether the tight ends are the matchup is really big for us.”

Saubert’s emerging athletic ability is helping in more than one way. He’s become more effective as a blocker, and tight ends coach Wade Harman is just as pleased by that. 

There was, after all, plenty of evidence coming out of college that he could catch the ball. In four seasons at Drake, he caught 190 passes for 2,253 yards and 21 touchdowns, including a senior season where he had 56, 776 and 10 in 11 games.

“He’s working on his technique, his track, his hands. He’s definitely making a lot of progress on his footwork,” Harman said. “(Blocking) is one of the hardest things you have to do. 

“They have a pretty good idea of the passing game and understanding some of those things, but being in-line against the level of competition they have to block. ... I mean these guys get paid a lot of money.”

Saubert has help.

Paulsen may be new to the Falcons, but he’s been around the blocking with the Redskins, Bears and 49ers. He has 92 receptions in eight seasons, and cut his NFL teeth in Washington, where former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was running the show.

“This is one that I’m very familiar with because it’s a derivative of Kyle’s offense,” Paulsen said. “Obviously, I also have to do some learning on my end to understand the differences and what they’re emphasizing. In terms of the outside zone-blocking and the protection schemes, I’ve had a lot of exposure to that.

“Saub played in a spread in college, so he didn’t have a lot of exposure to in-line work necessarily, and that’s something we might talk about.”

Neither Blocking nor heft came naturally to Saubert, who reported to college at “about 185, 190 pounds,” and, “had to eat to the point I was just about to throw up every day. To put on 50, 60 pounds is a special place in hell for the amount of chickens I ate.”

He said he still has to eat a lot to keep his weight up, and he’s throwing it around better than ever, not that he’s likely to rival Paulsen in the hammering category. 

Perhaps the Falcons will throw him the ball more.

“He’s definitely getting better, and I just think he’s more comfortable second year, but it is always going to be a challenge (blocking),” Harman said. “You can tell he’s not thinking out there. He knows what he’s doing. It’s really freed him. Less hesitation on the snap. He’s not taking it slow like, ‘Am I going the right way?’ He’s flying off the ball.”

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