Cover 9@9: So, is Austin Hooper worth $50 million?

Falcons tight end Austin Hooper runs for a first down against the Tennessee Titans Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Falcons tight end Austin Hooper runs for a first down against the Tennessee Titans Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Welcome to the Cover 9@9 blog - our weekly list of nine things that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons.

1. The No-Spin Zone. Falcons tight end Austin Hooper is the team's No. 1 free agent and will be ranked as the top player at his position if he reaches the open market in March.

He had another stellar season and was on his way to a mega-season before he suffered a knee injury and missed three games.

Hooper's price tag is steep. His projected market value is five-years, $49.9 million, according to Spotrac. They selected players based on age, contract status and statistical production to compare with Hooper. The comparisons were: Travis Kelce, who signed a five-year, $46.8 million deal at age 26; Jordan Reed, who signed a five-year, $46.7 million deal at 25; Zach Ertz who signed a five-year, $42.5 million deal at 25 and Trey Burton who signed a four-year, $32 million deal at 26.

Hooper, who was taken in the third round of the 2016 draft, turned 25 in November. Los Angeles tight end Hunter Henry, who was selected ahead of Hooper in the second round (35th overall) by the Chargers, has not been as productive. His market value is projected at four years, $35.5 million.

The Falcons said they aren’t in a salary-cap bind.

“I am not overly concerned about the salary-cap situation,” President Rich McKay said. “I have lived in the salary cap since 1993. I remember a time when we used to not be able to sign practice-squad players because we couldn’t afford the cap hit of $20,000 to sign them, so I’ve seen the tight cap.”

In addition to Hooper, the Falcons have some decisions to make, which will include cutting some veterans.

“It makes you make hard decisions,” McKay said. “It makes you be very, very certain in what you do — whether it’s in free agency or whether it’s in re-signing or whether it’s in re-structuring — but it is all doable.”

Teams were informed in December that the salary cap will be between $196.8 million and $201.2 million.  The current cap is $188.2 million.

“You’re living in a world of a $200 million cap,” McKay said. “Yes, we have some really big contracts for some really good players. That’s a really good problem to have. But I believe that from a salary-cap standpoint, we’ll be just fine.”

The Falcons are $2.8 million over the cap counting the top 51 salaries, according to Spotrac. The Falcons have $4.06 million in salary-cap space, according the NFLPA public report.

Based on the cap going up to $200 million, the Falcons will have $11.3 million in salary-cap space, according to Over The Cap.com. The Falcons also have $4.3 million in dead money on the salary cap.

Last season, the Falcons manipulated the cap to sign some veteran free agents such as defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, defensive end Allen Bailey, defensive end Adrian Clayborn and guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown.

The major contract last offseason was defensive tackle Grady Jarrett’s deal.

The Falcons’ hands were tied because the Jarrett and Julio Jones’ negotiations dragged out. Jones received the $15.2 franchise tag to buy them more time to negotiate.

At the end of the season, Hooper had not received an offer yet.

There is no update at this time.

2. Top 5 tight ends. Here are the potential top five free-agent tight ends and their market value: 1. Hooper (5 years, $49.9 million), 2.  Henry (four years, $35.5 million). 3. Eric Ebron — (four years, $29.9 million; 4. Darren Fells, Hou — 1 year, $4.3 million; 5. Tyler Eifert (made $4 million last season).

3. Unrestricted free agents. Here are the players slated to be free agents for the Falcons:  Defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley, defensive tackle Jack Crawford, punter Matt Bosher, Clayborn, quarterback Matt Schaub (club option), wide receiver Justin Hardy, cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, safety/linebacker Kemal Ishmael, Davison, safety J.J. Wilcox, defensive end Steven Means, running back Kenjon Barner, fullback Keith Smith, safety John Cyprien, punter Ryan Allen, cornerback Jamar Taylor, Hooper, defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, offensive lineman John Wetzel, safety Sharrod Neasman, quarterback Matt Simms and offensive guard/center Wes Schweitzer.

4. Welcome to the NFC South. Carolina named Matt Rhule as their head coach and showered him with $60 million over seven years, according to multiple reports.

His only NFL experience was as the New York Giants’ offensive line coach for one season, 2012 under his mentor Tom Coughlin. He’s also a stickler for players being on time. So, you better be at least five minutes early to all meetings.

Panthers owner David Tepper was impressed by Rhule’s turnaround work at Temple and Baylor.

5. Falcons in the playoffs. In the wild-card round this year, there was Andre Roberts (2017) returning kicks for the Bills, Justin Bethel (2018) on special teams for the Patriots, Duke Riley (2017-19) on special teams for the Eagles, Mohamed Sanu (2016-209) at wide receiver for the Patriots, cornerback Akeem King (2015) playing 11 snaps on special teams for Seattle, and tight end Joshua Perkins (2016) playing for the Eagles.

Roberts returned a kickoff for eight yards in the Bills’ loss.

Bethel played 20 snaps on special teams while Sanu caught 1-of-5 targets for the Patriots.

Riley had a tackle on special teams for the Eagles.

Perkins, who was on the Falcons’ Super Bowl LI team, played 17 snaps from scrimmage and 15 special teams.

6. Draft picks. The Falcons will have four picks in the top 100 players selected in the NFL draft, which will be held April 23-25 in Las Vegas.

The Falcons will pick 16th (first round), 47th (second), 55th (second from New England), 78th (third), 109th (fifth), 140th (sixth) and 206th (seventh).

The league’s official draft order, with compensatory picks, will be released after the Super Bowl. The Falcons are not projected to receive any compensatory picks in 2020.

7. Needs. In the short term, the Falcons need a left guard and a center to eventually replace Alex Mack.

So, it makes perfect sense to start studying the interior linemen invited to the Senior Bowl.

Kentucky’s Logan Stenberg, Clemson’s John Simpson (a second-team All-American), Ohio State’s Jonah Jackson, Washington center Nick Harris, Michigan’s Ben Bredeson and St. John’s Ben Bartch are the guards who have accepted Senior Bowl invites.

St. John's is in Collegeville, Minn., and plays Division III. Bartch is 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds.

8. All-American interior linemen.  Ohio State sophomore Wyatt Davis and Louisiana-Lafayette's Kevin Dotson were the first-team All-American guards. Wisconsin center Tyler Biadasz was the All-American center.

Oregon’s Shane Lemieux and Simpson were the second-team All-American guards. Oklahoma sophomore Creed Humphrey was the second-team center.

NOVEMBER 20, 2015-POWDER SPRINGS:  McEachern's # 76 Tremayne Anchrum Jr during practice before their play off game against the Archer Tigers at home in Powder Springs on Friday November 20th, 2015. Special request from Omaha (Neb.) Word-Herald. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
NOVEMBER 20, 2015-POWDER SPRINGS: McEachern's # 76 Tremayne Anchrum Jr during practice before their play off game against the Archer Tigers at home in Powder Springs on Friday November 20th, 2015. Special request from Omaha (Neb.) Word-Herald. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

9. Anchrum watch party. Also, Clemson's Tremaine Anchrum, who played at McEachern, could play guard at the NFL level. He's 6-foot-2 and 315 and has accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl.

Anchrum became the starter at right tackle in 2018 and has played in more than 53 games, including 35 starts entering the Bowl season.

The Falcons can scout him in Monday's national championship game.

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