Editor’s note: This is the ninth of a 10-part position-by-position breakdown of the Falcons’ roster heading into training camp. Today: Tight ends
Former Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, a three-time NFL head coach, is back with the team coaching the tight end position.
Mularkey played tight end in the league for nine years with the Vikings and Steelers (1983-91). He inherited tight end Austin Hooper, who went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate after catching 71 passes for 660 yards and four touchdown, all career-highs, in his third season.
“He is a threat in this offense,” Mularkey told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Hooper caught 71 of 88 targets last season for an 80.7 percent catch-ratio. The great Tony Gonzalez’s best catch-ratio season was 75 percent (93-of-124) in 2012.
The Falcons are pleased with Hooper’s career arc thus far.
“Hooper, the improvement just keeps getting better,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Now, he’s ready to go to another level, and I’m looking forward to seeing him make that growth. The addition of having Mike here, he’s done everything that Mike has asked in terms of getting him ready. That connection has been good.”
Now, the challenge for Hooper is to keep developing as he strives to become one of the elite tight ends in the NFL.
“I think he can be that way if he continues on the path that he’s taken since his rookie year,” Mularkey said.
Hooper, who was taken in the third round (81st overall) of the 2016 draft out of Stanford, is fine with the expectations. Hooper looks forward to working with his new position coach.
“He kind of outlined his expectations for me, individually, and our tight end group, collectively,” Hooper said. “I’m just excited to learn from him. He brings two, three decades worth of experience in the National Football League as a player and a coach.”
Mularkey has been a head coach for Buffalo, Jacksonville and Tennessee. He was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator from 2008-11.
“I’m just going to try to be a sponge and absorb as much as I can,” Hooper said.
In addition to Hooper, the Falcons brought back tight end Logan Paulsen and signed blocking tight end Luke Stocker in free agency.
“Logan and Luke are like Year 9,” Hooper said. “They both bring experience and veteran savvy to the room. They are a great resource for myself and some of the younger tight ends who have questions on how to approach or do certain things.”
Like the 2018 offseason, Hooper planned to put in some extra work with quarterback Matt Ryan.
“We will continue to solidify that timing relationship that is between a quarterback and a route-runner,” Hooper said. “Just like anything else, I just have to get more reps in ...so that he knows when I’m breaking and he can release.”
Stocker, who could also play some fullback, signed a two-year contract worth $5.5 million March 15. He received a $1.5 million signing bonus.
“We’ve work Jaeden (Graham at fullback) some,” Quinn said.
Tight ends depth chart: 81 Austin Hooper, 88 Luke Stocker, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 87 Jaeden Graham, 89 Alex Gray
Who's returning: Hooper, Paulsen and Saubert were the Falcons' three tight ends last season. Paulsen was re-signed in free agency to a one-year, $1.02 million deal on March 18. He received a $90,000 signing bonus.
Who's gone: After developing Hooper into a Pro Bowl player, the Falcons did not re-sign tight ends coach Wade Harman.
He quickly was snapped up by the Denver Broncos.
Roster competitions: Saubert played in 16 games and made one start last season. He could be the odd man out if the Falcons don't elect to carry four tight ends.
Position-by-position series: July 8: Special teams | July 9: Safeties | July 10: Cornerbacks | July 11: Linebackers | July 12: Defensive line | July 13: Quarterbacks |July 14: Offensive line | July 15: Wide receivers | July 16: Tight ends | July 17: Running backs
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution