Falcons tight end Austin Hooper kept quarterback Matt Ryan’s cell number on speed dial over the offseason.
“He would keep calling him and kept going over to the high school and throwing with him,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “That connection, you see is very strong.”
The two would be seen working out at Pace Academy, near Ryan’s home. With the birth of his twin sons, Ryan needed to stay close by. Hooper needed and wanted the extra work.
“We did probably a couple of thousand reps in the offseason,” Hooper said Thursday.
Hooper reached out to Ryan to get an outline of Ryan’s throwing schedule for the offseason.
“He really changed his schedule to make it work with mine,” Ryan said. “I think the work that we put in over the offseason, I’m a believer that that stuff pays off. He’s done an excellent job for us at the beginning of this year.”
That time together is starting to pay for Hooper and the Falcons’ offense.
“After awhile it becomes playing catch,” Hooper said. “I’m wide-open on certain routes concepts that beat a certain coverage. It’s clearly just like playing catch. It’s a lot of fun.”
Ryan concurs with Hooper’s assessment that they are getting some wide-open looks.
“We go out there and do the same things we did at all of the different places that we worked at,” Ryan said. “Just go out there and put it in a spot for him to go out and make a play. You have strong and aggressive hands like he’s had.”
Hooper stepped up and turned in his second consecutive strong game against the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Hooper caught 9 of 10 targets for 71 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs. In the previous game, Hooper caught nine passes for 77 yards in the loss to the Steelers.
“I thought it was another excellent performance by Austin Hooper,” Quinn said. “Sometimes when certain coverage may go to one player, other opportunities are there. He is certainly nailing them.”
Against the Bucs, Ryan had to lean more on Hooper after wide receivers Calvin Ridley (ankle) and Mohamed Sanu (hip) left the game with injuries. Ridley was limited in practice, while Sanu didn’t participate in practice.
“When guys go down, other people have to step up and fill the void,” Ryan said. “He did that (against the Bucs). But he's done that for us even when those guys are up.”
Ryan believes Hooper could be having an breakthrough.
“So his talent level, his hard work is paying off,” Ryan said. “He's doing a really good job for us. Then we're being smart and going to where we're supposed to be going with the football and trusting our guys to make plays in those situations.”
Hooper is starting to get more comfortable with the demands of the position.
“I didn’t really play tight end until college,” Hooper said. “This is my third year in the NFL, so I’ve had like 80 career games at the position. Every game I’ve been in, it was new. The more time that I play this position, the more comfortable I become.”
The Giants also have a fine tight end in Evan Engram, who played at Hillgrove High and in the SEC at Ole Miss.
The Falcons know Engram well. He was selected with the 23rd overall pick in 2017 and was scouted by the Falcons, who ended up selecting defensive end Takkarist McKinley with the 26th pick in 2017.
Hooper was selected in the third round (81st overall) in the 2016 draft.
“A number of those guys we had liked coming out of college,” Quinn said. “We talked about the tight end from Ole Miss (Engram).”
Engram is set to return from a knee injury. He’s missed three games and had 10 catches for 104 yards and one touchdown.
Hooper is more concerned with continuing to master the position. He has caught 30 of 37 targets for 273 yards and two touchdowns this season.
“Running routes from all three positions, inline, flat and outside,” Hooper said. “You have to pass block and blocking. You have to able to block in space as a wide out and inline. For me, it just takes reps. The more you do it, the more comfortable you feel.”
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