Falcons seek to fill out tight end room with only one under contract

Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst (81) dives for the end zone as he is held by Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebacker Lavonte David (54) during the second half Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. Hurst was stopped short of the goal line. (Jason Behnken/AP)

Credit: AP

Combined ShapeCaption
Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst (81) dives for the end zone as he is held by Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebacker Lavonte David (54) during the second half Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. Hurst was stopped short of the goal line. (Jason Behnken/AP)

Credit: AP

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series looking at Falcons position groups going into the offseason.

The big news Friday is that the Falcons hired Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to be their new coach. Given Smith’s experience as a former tight ends coach (assistant tight ends coach with the Titans from 2013-15, tight ends coach from 2016-18), that particular position group likely will see a makeover in how it is used.

In 2020, Hayden Hurst was the only tight end targeted with consistency in the passing game. Much of that had to do with the Falcons’ talent at receiver and the preference in spreading the ball to those players.

With Smith becoming the Falcons’ next coach, his new approach could be to revamp the tight end position with multiple pass-catching options. Here’s an early look at where things stand at tight end entering the offseason with Smith on board.

Contracts expiring: The Falcons carried three tight ends on the active roster in 2020, with Jaeden Graham and Luke Stocker’s contracts expiring. Graham was playing under a two-year deal he signed in 2019. Stocker, initially cut before the 2020 season, was brought back on a one-year deal. Jared Pinkney, who spent the year on the Falcons’ practice squad, was allowed to leave and signed a reserve/futures deal with, ironically, the Titans.

Still under contract: The only tight end under contract for the 2021 season is Hurst, who the Falcons traded for last offseason after Austin Hooper left to join the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Hurst was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens in 2018, with the 2021 season potentially being the last of his rookie deal. The Falcons will need to decide this offseason whether to pick up Hurst’s fifth-year option.

2020 performance: Early in the year, it took some time for Hurst to gain the needed chemistry with quarterback Matt Ryan in the passing game. Not having OTAs or exhibition games didn’t help either. By the end of the season, Hurst showed he can be a reliable weapon as a receiving target.

Hurst finished the season with 56 catches, 571 yards and six touchdowns. Often split out as a receiver, Hurst caught the third most passes on the roster and accounted for the fourth most receiving yards. Behind Hurst, Stocker caught seven passes for 63 yards and Graham grabbed three passes for 25 yards. Stocker was used primarily as a run blocker with Graham backing up Hurst, who appeared in every game.

Offseason outlook: A lot of what the tight end group will look like depends on what direction the offense takes under Smith’s new leadership. If it’s to cater to Ryan and the passing game, another receiving tight end might be added to the roster. If it’s to focus more on the run, some bigger blocking bodies might be coming to town. Under Smith’s offensive leadership, the Titans relied primarily on a rushing attack that saw running back Derrick Henry total 2,027 yards and 16 touchdowns. Naturally, the tight ends played a big part in blocking for Henry.

Tennessee’s top receiving option at tight end was Jonnu Smith, who caught 41 passes for 448 yards and eight touchdowns. The Titans also used tight end Anthony Firkser in the passing game, as he caught 39 passes for 387 yards and a touchdown. Those tight ends finished the season third and fourth on the Titans in receiving yards.

The Falcons need dramatic improvement in their run game, and part of that will include at the tight end position group.

2021 draft options: The top option at the position in the first round is Florida’s Kyle Pitts. At the fourth overall selection, that’s a bit too high, so snagging him would involve a trade back. A couple of day two options include Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth and Miami’s Brevin Jordan.

Conclusion: The Falcons’ tight end room needs to be much more well-rounded. That means that not only should the tight ends act as receiving threats, but that they are able to move people off the snap in the run game. If Ryan is the Falcons’ starting quarterback next season, his chemistry with Hurst should only continue to grow. But given that he’s the only tight end under contract, the Falcons will need to revamp the group with some players who also can help improve the Falcons’ stagnant rushing attack.

Previous stories in this series

Mixed results lead to questions with Falcons’ special teams

Falcons’ defensive line needs better sack production in 2021

Falcons linebackers offered stability on struggling defense

Next staff will have some retooling to do in secondary