Editor’s note: This is the ninth of a 10-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before the start of training camp.
If Falcons tight end Austin Hooper had stayed in school at Stanford and took a redshirt year, he’d just be entering his first year in the NFL.
But he came out after his true junior year and was just 21 years old. He had a decent rookie year as a backup, but showed that he and his game needed to mature last season as he took over the starting spot.
The Falcons will give him a shot to grow as a starter when they report for training camp on Wednesday.
“Definitely, you want to get better every year,” tight ends coach Wade Harman said. “I know his work ethic and mentality has been outstanding. He’s spent a lot of time with Matt (Ryan) together doing a lot of one-on-ones, trying to make sure that they’re on the same page.”
Hooper was brought along slowly as a rookie as he backed up veteran Jacob Tamme. After Tamme suffered a season-ending injury after eight games, Hooper took over. He went on to play 37 snaps in Super Bowl LI and caught a 19-yard touchdown pass.
“He was a young kid coming out,” Harman said. “He had two years of eligibility (left) when he was coming out, so he was a young player.”
Last season, that lack of maturity showed in his play and when he dealt with veteran members of the media. After not coming up with a big catch in the Miami game, following the game he brushed off interview requests, walked off to a restricted area and said he had to call his mother.
The Falcons didn’t draft a tight end this year after heavily scouting South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst. They are counting on Hooper to mature. Hurst went to Jacksonville with the 25th overall pick. The Falcons selected wide receiver Calvin Ridley with the next pick.
“He’s got a real good understanding of the offense,” Harman said of Hooper. “So, I think he’s started to pick up more of the details, not just about what my route is, but how to work it go get open. Where’s Matt expecting me on this coverage? What Matt expects me to do if this happens. I think he has a real good understanding and feel with Matt about that. That will be huge for his development.”
Harman, who coached Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe in Baltimore, said Hooper had a strong offseason. Harman coached the Ravens’ tight ends from 1999-2013 and is a two-time Super Bowl (XXXV and XLVII) winning assistant coach.
“It really doesn’t mean much until we put the pads on,” Harman noted. “One thing that we’ve talked about is just being consistent. We’ve done a lot of really good things. This certain block, we did really well nine times, 10 times and the same opportunity came up and we didn’t do it the same way.
“Same thing with routes. Make sure that you are doing the routes right all the time. Seven of them will look really good and two of them we’ll be like ‘what happened?’”
Hooper started with a monster season-opening game against Chicago, but proved to be undependable as the 2017 season progressed. He caught 49 of 65 targets (75.4 percent catch rate) for 526 yards and three touchdowns. He had 265 yards after the catch, which was second on the team.
He didn’t fight back to the ball on a memorable play in a loss to Miami and had three drops.
“Hooper (caught) 49 balls last year and there were a couple opportunities where we had some drops I wish we wouldn’t have had,” Harman said. “Seventy catches? Who’s not going to get the catches? So, are we going to take them away from Julio Jones? The backs, (Devonta) Freeman and (Tevin) Coleman? Or (Mohamed) Sanu?
“There are only so many snaps a year. So, I wouldn’t think I would base anything on the number of catches. Making the most of his opportunities, that’s the No. 1 thing we’ll try to do.”
The Falcons parted ways with blocking tight end Levine Toilolo and signed veteran Logan Paulsen to a one-year, $1 million deal.
Paulsen, 31, is 6-foot-5 and 264 pounds and has played in 105 games and made 55 starts. He has caught just 82 passes for 816 yards and six touchdowns. He was undrafted after playing at UCLA and has been in the NFL since 2010.
“He’s been really good in our room,” Harman said. “Veteran guy. He played in a similar system with (former offensive coordinator) Kyle (Shanahan) in Washington and he played for him last year in San Francisco. So, he really knows kind of where the system came from.”
Paulsen could also be a positive influence on Hooper.
“He’s a veteran guy who’s lasted in this league and there’s a reason he’s lasted,” Harman said. “He’s not the most talented or the fastest tight end in the league, but he’s a very good blocker. He works very hard at his craft and he does a really good job with the young guys. He’s a really good leader.
“He knows what it takes to survive in the NFL.”
Eric Saubert, foreign exchange player Alex Gray, Troy Mangen and Jaeden Graham are the other tight ends on the 90-man roster.
Saubert, a fifth-round pick in 2017 out of Drake, played 30 snaps on offense and 212 on special teams last season.
“He’s really done a good job,” Harman said. “Last year, it was him trying to figure out where to line up and where to motion and what’s my route when the ball was snapped. You saw a lot thinking out there. This year, he’s got a real good understanding of what we are doing.
“So, now you see his speed and athletic ability really starting to show up. Last year, at times, his mind was slowing things down a little bit. You didn’t always see the ability that he has.
“I’m real excited to see what he can do this fall.”
AJC correspondent Kennington Lloyd Smith III contributed to this story.
90-MAN ROSTER ANALYSIS
Part 1: Defensive Line
Part 2: Linebackers
Part 3: Cornerbacks
Part 4: Safeties
Part 5: Special teams
Part 6: Quarterbacks
Part 7: Running backs
Part 8: Wide receivers
Coming Friday: Offensive line
Here’s a look at the projected depth chart heading into training camp:
WR 11 Julio Jones, 18, Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 13 Reggie Davis, 86 Lamar Jordan, 16 Taj Williams
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 68 Austin Pasztor, 76 Daniel Brunskill
LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland, 64 Sean Harlow, 75 Jamil Douglas
C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland, 61 J.C. Hassenauer
RG 65 Brandon Fusco, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 62 Salesi Uhatafe
RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 74 Ty Sambrailo, 77 Matt Gono
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 89 Alex Gray, 80 Troy Mangen, 87 Jaeden Graham
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 17 Marvin Hall, 83 Russell Gage, 15 Christian Blake, 19 Dontez Byrd, 7 Devin Gray
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 9 Grayson Garrett, 6 Kurt Benkert
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 25 Ito Smith, 41 Terrence Magee, 32 Justin Crawford, 35 Malik Williams
FB 40 Daniel Marx, 43 Luke McNitt, 30 Ricky Ortiz
DE 98 Takk McKinley, 50 Brooks Reed, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 96 Mackendy Cheridor
DT 99 Terrell McClain, 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Garrison Smith,
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford, 92 Justin Zimmer, 99 Jon Cunningham
DE 44 Vic Beasley, 90 Derrick Shelby, 55 J’Terius Jones
WLB 42 Duke Riley, 54 Foyesade Oluokun
MLB 45 Deion Jones, 52 Emmanuel Ellerbe, 53 Emmanuel Smith
SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 56 Anthony Winbush, 49 Richard Jarvis
CB 23 Robert Alford, 20 Isaiah Oliver, 28 Justin Bethel, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 39 Deante Burton
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 35 Leon McFadden, 43 Chris Lammons
NB 34 Brian Poole, 27 Damontae Kazee, 42 Tyson Graham, 30 Joseph Putu
FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee, 38 Marcelis Branch, 41 Jason Hall
SS 22 Keanu Neal, Ron Parker, 35 Secdrick Cooper
K 3 Matt Bryant, 1 David Marvin
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
KR 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Marvin Hall, 30 Ito Smith
PR 14 Justin Hardy, 16 Reggie Davis
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher