Austin Hooper has a tell.
Matt Ryan knows it.
It was discovered over countless hours this offseason, and it may prove to be a very good thing for the Falcons.
The quarterback-tight end duo put in many early-morning sessions this offseason, just the two of them, working on every nuance of a reception. Rain or shine. Hot or cold. Pass after pass. The two worked in solitude.
“When you are a route-runner, a lot of it is feel, not necessarily routes on paper,” Hooper told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after a rain-soaked training-camp practice Thursday. “It’s what your quarterback thinks it should be, not necessarily how it’s drawn up. The more time I get to be with Matt, I understand what he wants and how he wants things done. Just having that experience being around here longer has been a huge blessing for me.”
So, about that tell?
“It goes back to how the quarterback wants things,” Hooper said. “If he wants it ran at a certain angle, at a certain depth, when you get to the top of a route you do a certain body mechanic and that is your tell that you are moving a certain way so Matt can throw with anticipation. For example, if it’s something over the middle, Matt sees me start to lower my body, he knows I’m starting to break so he can throw the ball so by the time I turn around we beat the defender with the ball. It’s those little timing things that you have to rep hundreds of times before you get that feel. Every route runner Matt has on the team moves different.”
Hooper said he sought out Ryan for the offseason work.
The 23-year-old is entering his third NFL season. The Falcons seriously considered drafting a tight end in April. However, their confidence remained in Hooper, the former third-round pick out of Stanford.
As a rookie, Hooper appeared in 14 games, including three starts, and had 19 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns. He had a 19-yard touchdown catch in Super Bowl LI. Last season, Hooper took over the starter’s role and caught 49 passes for 526 yards and three touchdowns. There also were several mistakes.
“Something I’ve done every year since I’ve been here is improve,” Hooper said. “My rookie year, I didn’t know, really, anything. I was blessed to be on really good team and showed up when I had to in important games and the Super Bowl. Still, I wasn’t there. In my second year I took a big step forward, I feel, in the run game and in my routes.
“At the end of the day, all you can do is improve. People can say whatever, this and that, I know since I’ve been here I’ve genuinely gotten measurably better from fall to spring, from fall to spring. Those six different opportunities I had, I’ve seen a noticeable difference.”
In addition to the individual work, the Falcons have tweaked their offense ahead of training camp. There will be new wrinkles, ones Hooper is not willing to share but eagerly anticipates.
The offense remains loaded with weapons. Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and now Calvin Ridley at wide receiver. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman at running back. Hooper wants to make sure he’s in the group that opposing defenses must account for or pay a hefty price.
“When you get a chance, you win. When the ball is thrown to you, you catch it,” Falcons tight ends coach Wade Harmon told reporters Thursday. “He knows he is one of five eligible (receivers) when he’s out there. He’s got to do his job right.”
To make the most of those opportunities, Ryan and Hooper put in the offseason hours – the work that no one sees often yields the best results.
In addition to the work in Georgia, Hooper joined Ryan for his passing camp in southern California just before the start of training camp.
“That was something that I wanted to attack from last year,” Hooper said of working with Ryan. “I wanted to be on the same page with Matt and take that to another level. If you want to do that, you have to sacrifice some things. I sacrificed my family, vacations, to be here when the weather looked very similar as today in March. … It was just me and him. No rest, not tapping out.”