Austin Hooper is Falcons’ top offseason priority

Austin Hooper open to returning to Falcons next season. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Falcons coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the co-team builders, are ready to dive into the offseason with glaring roster issues.

“We look forward to where we’re headed,” Quinn said. “Having guys that are in leadership spaces — Dirk (Koetter) and Raheem (Morris) and (Jeff) Ulbrich and Ben Kotwica — in their space, that’s a big deal for us to make sure that continuity of how we want to teach and where we want to go (moving) forward.”

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Quinn and Dimitroff retained decision-making authority in the latest front office restructure. Quinn remains over the 53-man roster and Dimitroff the draft, but both will report directly to president Rich McKay.

“We’ll have an opportunity to discuss on a lot of levels what needs to be adjusted and changed, some areas more than others,” Dimitroff said. “We think that it’s going to be, along with what we’ve learned this season, I think it’s going to be helpful for us, again, moving into the future.”

There's a large class of potential unrestricted free agents, including tight end Austin Hooper, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley and kicker Younghoe Koo.

The Falcons spoke glowingly of Hooper. The tone was different when discussing Campbell and Beasley, who they may be resigned to lose on the open market. Koo, unlike Giorgio Tavecchio last season, will face competition.

“We haven’t made any solid decisions at this point,” Dimitroff said.

Hooper had career highs in catches (75), receiving yards (787) and touchdowns (six) in 13 games. He missed three games with a knee sprain.

“He’s been a guy that has shown the production,” Quinn said. “Down the field, seam pass, he’s got really good hands. He's an excellent red-zone target.”

The Falcons also are fine with Hooper’s in-line blocking.

“Some guys may be somebody that can just play in the passing game, and some guys can play just in the running game,” Quinn said. “The fact that this is a guy that plays all downs in all spots, he had an excellent year.”

Hooper's market value is five years, $49.9 million, according to salary-cap website Spotrac. That might be a little steep for the Falcons, who would then have to consider the franchise tag to keep Hooper. The franchise tag was $10.3 million for tight ends last season.

Campbell led the team in tackles with 129 and Beasley in sacks with eight.

“They factor into what we’re doing with the roster, no question about it,” Dimitroff said. “We have not extended anything at this point.”

The continued rebuilding of the offensive line, which gave up 50 sacks (tied for 28th out of 32 in the NFL) and 135 quarterback hits (31st), remains a priority.  Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 48 times.

The Falcons spent $80.3 million on the offensive line last offseason.

“We’ll continue to build, for sure,” Dimitroff said.

The Falcons are pleased with the first-round draft picks Chris Lindstrom (right guard) and right tackle Kaleb McGary (right tackles), but the main free-agent signees, James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, were disappointments. Carpenter mostly because of injury and Brown for his performance.

McGary received low marks (grade of 53) from Pro Football Focus as he gave up 13 sacks. Lindstrom missed 11 games with a broken foot. The Falcons were 4-0 upon his return.

“Obviously, in this league, there are a lot of injuries along the offensive line,” Dimitroff said.

The Falcons need to add a left guard and possibly an heir apparent to center Alex Mack, who’s 34.

“I love where we are with our developing young guys, and those guys got some serious reps right away,” Dimitroff said. “They’re tough dudes who work hard, who are really driven.”

Senior Bowl executive Jim Nagy contended it's a down year for offensive line talent in a December interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Dimitroff took umbrage with that assessment.

“It’s an interesting draft,” Dimitroff said. “We have some young guys there that are, of course, of interest to us. We’d like nothing better than to continue to, again, build both sides of our lines, and back to what Dan said about the toughness and setting the tone, we know where that’s going to start.”

The players had their exit interviews Monday, the 6-2 second-half record will make it hard for the Falcons to watch the playoffs.

“Obviously, the season wasn’t everything we wanted it to be,” Hooper said. “I think toward the end we found a working formula that worked for us, players and coaches that we have. It’s a little disappointing to think about what could (have been), but at this point it’s all about rest and recovery. Getting your body right and getting ready for next year.”

Campbell said: “It’s always good to finish a season on a high note. We didn’t start the way we wanted to, but we finished strong, and that’s all that matters.”

Beasley isn’t sure if he’ll be back, but he thinks the Falcons are headed in the right direction.

“We turned things around,” Beasley said. “I know people wished we’d started it a little earlier. There’s a lot to look forward to next year.”

Quinn believes the younger players, who were overconfident heading into the season, learned how hard it was to win the NFL.

Other lessons learned included the importance to the turnover margin, penalties and field position.

"When you add the scheme (changes) part of it and get going, that's when we became more difficult to play against," Quinn said. "There are too many times when you beat yourself and have to play the other team. That's not a good recipe."

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