Austin Hooper

Extension Candidate: Austin Hooper

With the Falcons’ front office focusing its efforts on star wide receiver Julio Jones at the moment, it stands to reason that contract negotiations for other key players would take a temporary backseat. But once the Jones situation is resolved, Atlanta could turn its attention to an extension for tight end Austin Hooper, who became a reliable target for Matt Ryan in 2018 en route to his first Pro Bowl bid.

Now that Hooper has completed his third year in the league, he is eligible for a new contract. And since the Stanford product was a third-round selection, he cannot be kept under club control via the fifth-year option, so he will become an unrestricted free agent next year if he and the Falcons do not agree to an extension before then.

The market for tight ends has not taken off in the same way that the markets for edge rushers and quarterbacks have, so it would behoove the Falcons to commit a relatively small percentage of their cap space to a rising player who could be a fixture on the offense for years to come. Two of the best tight ends in the league, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz, are making less than $10MM per season, and even Rob Gronkowski was unable to crack the eight-figure barrier before his retirement. The Bears gave Trey Burton a four-year, $32MM pact last offseason based largely on Burton’s upside rather than his production to that point in his career, so it may take a little more than that for the Falcons to keep Hooper. Given the ever-rising salary cap, though, that does not seem like too steep of a price to pay.

Hooper lasted until the third round of the 2016 draft due to concerns about his hands and route-running, but he has largely quieted those concerns over his first three years in the league. And while his receiving ability is going to be what gets him the payday he’s seeking, he was an above-average performer in terms of run-blocking and pass-blocking last year, per Pro Football Focus’ metrics.

Advanced analytics from PFF and Football Outsiders still peg Hooper as more of a solid player than an elite one, but his trajectory is quite promising just the same, and when a club extends a player, it often makes sense to pay for trajectory rather than past performance.

In 2018, Hooper caught 71 passes — on 88 targets, for a league-best 81% catch rate — for 660 yards and four touchdowns. He may never become the threat that Kelce and Ertz are, but the Falcons don’t necessarily need that. They need a dependable outlet for Ryan who catches passes that are thrown his way, who can create mismatches over the middle of the field, and who can make defenses pay for focusing their attention on other players (like Jones).

Hooper represents all of those things, and he should only get better. A five-year, $42.5MM pact with $20MM or so in guarantees seems to make sense for both sides.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2019 Proven Performance Escalators

According to the NFL’s contractual bargaining agreement, players drafted in rounds three though seven are entitled to raises during the fourth year of their respective rookie contracts. The pay bumps are tied to playing time — a player must have played in 35% of his team’s offensive or defensive snaps in two of his first three seasons, or averaged 35% playing time cumulatively during that period.

If one of these thresholds is met, the player’s salary is elevated to the level of that year’s lowest restricted free agent tender — that figure should be around $2MM in 2019. Players selected in the first or second round, undrafted free agents, and kickers/punters are ineligible for the proven performance escalator.

Here are the players who will see their salary rise in 2019 courtesy of the proven performance escalator:

Bears: RB Jordan Howard, LB Nick Kwiatkoski

Bengals: LB Nick Vigil

Broncos: G Connor McGovern, S Will Parks, S Justin Simmons

Browns: S Derrick Kindred, LB Joe Schobert

Buccaneers: G Caleb Benenoch, DE Carl Nassib, CB Ryan Smith

Chargers: LB Jatavis Brown

Chiefs: CB Kendall Fuller, WR Tyreek Hill, S Eric Murray, WR Demarcus Robinson

Colts: QB Jacoby Brissett, T Joe Haeg

Cowboys: CB Anthony Brown, DT Maliek Collins, QB Dak Prescott

Dolphins: RB Kenyan Drake

Eagles: CB Jalen Mills, T Halapoulivaati Vaitai

Falcons: LB De’Vondre Campbell, TE Austin Hooper, G Wes Schweitzer

Jaguars: DE Yannick Ngakoue

Jets: LB Jordan Jenkins, CB Rashard Robinson, T Brandon Shell

Lions: C Graham Glasgow

Packers: LB Kyler Fackrell, DE Dean Lowry, LB Blake Martinez, LB Antonio Morrison

Patriots: G Joe Thuney, LB Elandon Roberts

Rams: G Austin Blythe, TE Tyler Higbee

Ravens: DE Matt Judon, OL Alex Lewis, CB Tavon Young

Saints: DT David Onyemata

Steelers: DT Javon Hargrave

Texans: DT D.J. Reader

Titans: S Kevin Byard, WR Tajae Sharpe

OverTheCap.com was essential in the creation of this post. Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. 

Falcons Sign Entire Draft Class

The Falcons have now signed their entire draft class, as Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com writes. Strong safety Keanu Neal (whose signing was completed days ago), linebacker Deion Jones (second round), tight end Austin Hooper (third round), linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (fourth round), guard Wes Schweitzer (sixth round), and wide receiver Devin Fuller (seventh round) have all put pen to paper. Deion Jones (vertical)

Jones, an LSU product, finished out his college career in style with 88 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, one forced fumble, and three passes defensed. Jones started only one game through his first three years in Baton Rouge, but he exploded when given the opportunity in his senior season. Jones impressed scouts with a 4.38 second 40-yard-dash at his Pro Day and despite concerns about being undersized, he drew interest from a host of teams looking for a tough linebacker.

In other Falcons news, linebacker O’Brien Schofield is lobbying hard for a reunion. Meanwhile, free agent cornerback Leon Hall remains on the open market after his visit with Atlanta.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Draft Rumors: Robinson, Panthers, Jets

Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson will visit the Lions, Panthers, and Jets in the coming days, Eddie Borsilli of SiriusXM tweets. Robinson, who likely projects as a defensive tackle for a team running a 4-3 scheme or a defensive end for a 3-4 defense, is considered one of the top defensive linemen available this spring. A Consensus All-American in his junior year, Robinson recorded 46 tackles (7.5 for a loss) to go along with his 3.5 sacks. After helping his team win a National Championship this past season, Robinson seems poised to enter the league as a first-round draft pick.

The latest draft rumors:

  • Multiple teams have taken Bowling Green wide receiver Roger Lewis and Arizona wide receiver Cayleb Jones off their boards due to off-field issues, Matt Miller of Bleacher Report tweets.
  • UCLA offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch is set to visit the Titans and Texans, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. The athletic offensive lineman is widely viewed as a second-round prospect.
  • Stanford tight end Austin Hooper visited the Titans and Bears earlier this week, Rand Getlin of NFL.com tweets. The 6’4″, 254-pound athlete is a likely top-50 pick, Getlin adds.
  • So far, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds has had workouts with the Ravens, Patriots, and Titans, according to freelance reporter Jenna Laine (via Twitter).
  • Ohio State safety Vonn Bell has (or has had) meetings, workouts and/or visits with the Falcons, Steelers, and Titans, Rand Getlin of NFL.com tweets.
  • Houston corner William Jackson III visited the Ravens last week and will meet with the Raiders on Tuesday, Aaron Wilson of The Houston Chronicle tweets.
  • Norfolk State linebacker Deon King has worked out privately for the Broncos, Raiders, 49ers, Colts, and Washington and will visit with the Cowboys, according to Wilson. King finished his collegiate career with 372 tackles, 52.5 tackles for losses, 22 sacks, five fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles and three interceptions. King was an All-American selection and a three-time all-conference selection.

NFC Draft Rumors: Eagles, Lynch, Washington

The Eagles will work out Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch and it’s not just for kicks, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. Despite having Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel under contract, Rapoport says they’re serious about Lynch and they’re taking owner Jeffrey Lurie on each trip.

While we wait to see if the Eagles’ QB situation could get even weirder, here’s a look at some more draft news from the NFC:

  • Boston College linebacker Steven Daniels worked out for the Eagles on Wednesday, according to Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net (for WalterFootball.com). Daniels has also auditioned for New Orleans.
  • Coach Jay Gruden says he wants Washington to draft a developmental quarterback, as Tarik El-Bashir of CSNMidAtlantic.com writes. “You have your starter. You got your quality backup. And you’ve got to have [another] one in the [quarterback meeting] room—whether it’s your third on the active roster or a practice squad guy—that you can develop,” Gruden said last week. Of course, Kirk Cousins will be the team’s starter with Colt McCoy as his primary understudy. However, Gruden would like to add a young QB who can be groomed without an immediate timeline.
  • The Buccaneers worked out UTSA tight end David Morgan on Tuesday, according to Jenna Laine of Sports Talk 1040 (on Twitter). Morgan also worked out for Philadelphia recently.
  • The Falcons were at Stanford on Wednesday to work out tight end Austin Hooper and linebacker Blake Martinez, according to Tony Pauline for Walter Football. On Tuesday, Atlanta coaches were at Washington State to scope out Washington State offensive lineman Joseph Dahl, receiver Dominique Williams, and defensive lineman Destiny Vaeao.

Extra Points: Draft, Titans, Gabbert, Manning

While none of this year’s crop of collegiate quarterbacks are projected to be as successful as Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, NFL personnel men do see four QBs — Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, Cal’s Jared Goff, Michigan State’s Connor Cook, and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz — as being worthy of a first-round pick, according to Charlie Campbell of WalterFootball.com.

Elsewhere in draft-land, Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net reports that Penn State signal-caller Christian Hackenberg, once projected as potential first-rounder himself, is likely to enter the draft, and will probably announce as such in the near future. Two other collegiate players — Boise State edge rusher Kamalei Correa and Stanford tight end Austin Hooper — are intent on entering the draft, as well, says Pauline.

  • Free agent corner Cary Williams, who visited with the Titans yesterday, is still drawing the attention of the club, tweets Terry McCormick of TitansInsider.com. Tennessee management will reportedly make a decision on whether or not to sign Williams at some point early next week. Williams, who was cut by the Seahawks on Monday, has also garnered interest from the Rams.
  • In other Tennessee news, Titans linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil suffered torn patellar tendon in practice on Thursday and will require surgery, meaning he’ll miss the rest of the season, reports McCormick (Twitter link). Practice squad ‘backer J.R. Tavai is a candidate to be promoted to the active roster, adds McCormick.
  • Veteran receiver Anquan Boldin believes Blaine Gabbert can be the 49ers‘ quarterback of the future, writes Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com. Gabbert has led San Francisco to a 2-2 record in his four starts, averaging 240 yards per game while throwing five touchdowns and three interceptions. For what it’s worth, he’s only signed through next season, with a 2016 cap charge of $2.25MM.
  • Peyton Manning has $4MM riding on whether or not he gets to start in the playoffs — as Mike Klis of 9 News writes, Manning could earn $2MM for winning the AFC Championship Game, and another $2MM for winning the Super Bowl. Manning must start those games, adds Klis, meaning he can’t earn the bonuses by coming on in relief. At this point, though, it’s hard to see how the Broncos can turn back to Manning given how Brock Osweiler has played.