<
>

Austin Hooper could be the next Falcon to cash in

play
Who belongs at the top of the power rankings? (0:49)

Tim Hasselbeck breaks down the top teams in the Week 5 NFL Power Rankings. (0:49)

There haven’t been many bright spots so far for the 1-3 Atlanta Falcons, but tight end Austin Hooper qualifies.

Hooper, now in his fourth season, continues to evolve as a top pass-catching threat. Through four games, he leads the Falcons with 28 receptions, which ranks fifth-most among all pass-catchers in the league. Hooper has been targeted 33 times and has 307 receiving yards, two touchdowns, 14 first downs and 131 yards after the catch. Although the attention given to wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley opens up underneath opportunities for Hooper, it doesn’t diminish how great a weapon he's been for Matt Ryan.

"I think Austin has played really well for us," Ryan said. "He’s been very consistent in the pass game. He’s very reliable. When we target him, he’s coming down and making plays with the ball. We’re happy with what he’s done, and I expect that to be the case all year, with the talented guys we have around."

Hooper’s play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the front office, which is why general manager Thomas Dimitroff said signing the 2016 third-round draft pick to an extension is a priority.

"Austin is one of the next important players in line," Dimitroff told ESPN. "That said, however, we are not sure of the timetable."

The Falcons have already rewarded extensions to wide receiver Julio Jones, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones this year.

The highest-paid tight end by average per year is veteran Jimmy Graham of Green Bay at $10 million per year. Three players average $9 million-plus per season: Jordan Reed of the Redskins ($9.35 million), Travis Kelce of the Chiefs ($9.195 million), and Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings ($9 million), with Zach Ertz of the Eagles right behind ($8.5 million). Taking into consideration that Hooper is 24 and has outgained Graham, Reed and Rudolph over the past two seasons, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Falcons make Hooper the highest-paid tight end now, before a significant jump in the market, with the possible extensions of the 49ers' George Kittle and Giants' Evan Engram coming after the 2019 season.

Hooper, a one-time Pro Bowler in the final year of his rookie deal, isn’t focused on a contract extension.

"It’s definitely an honor to even be having this conversation, that something could possibly happen, but I’m not really worried about it," Hooper said. "I’m in the middle of the season, doing my job. All that stuff will sort itself out over time. I’m just concerned about trying to help us win games. Right now, we need to step it up -- everyone, myself included."

If the Falcons are going to turn things around, Hooper is expected to be a significant part of it from an offensive perspective. It certainly helps that he’s put in extra work to establish chemistry with Ryan.

Connecting with Ryan

Sometimes the trip from his home in the Bay Area to Southern California would take six hours, but Hooper never thought twice about it.

He’d jump in his Mercedes at the last minute and make the drive, if that’s what Ryan wanted him to do. He catered to his quarterback’s offseason schedule knowing how much he would benefit in the long run.

Hooper started having the one-on-one throwing sessions with Ryan in Southern California during the 2017 season, as Ryan worked with Tom House and Adam Dedeaux of 3DQB training. Those workouts intensified his past offseason, when Hooper and Ryan got together there on three separate occasions.

"What has gotten me better? I’d probably say it was time I’ve spent with Matt," Hooper said. "You spend 1,000 reps working on the same thing. So, Matt and I are on the same page. I feel like that’s the biggest difference with me now. Like, I didn’t drop 3/10 off my 40 time this past offseason or anything like that."

While working with Ryan, Hooper stayed at his younger brother’s apartment on the campus of UCLA. Justin Hooper, a 6-foot-8, 238-pound pitcher, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 14th round, so his apartment was vacant for the summer.

But despite having a place to lay his head, Austin Hooper still bounced between Northern and Southern Cali. Back at home in San Ramon, he worked with the same speed-and-strength coach he’s had since he was 12 years old: Dave Spitz of California Strength. Spitz is the senior international coach for USA weightlifting.

"Just working on his athleticism," Spitz said. "He came out [of college at Stanford] so young, he was only 21 years old. We’ve just every offseason tried to improve as an athlete. I think you’re seeing the pinnacle of that expression on the football field now. He’s as good of an athlete as he’s ever been."

Striving for perfection

While reflecting on last week’s 24-10 loss to the Titans, Hooper didn’t mention catching nine passes for a career-high 130 yards. He didn’t reflect on his 28-yard reception in the first quarter that helped set up running back Ito Smith's touchdown.

Instead, Hooper talked about a late first-quarter throw from Ryan that he didn’t come up with, a throw that seemed to be a bit behind him.

"I dropped a ball I definitely thought I could have had," said Hooper, who wasn’t credited with a drop on the official stat sheet. "That changed the game. And my holding penalty ruined a drive. It’s just one thing here and there.

"Offensively, we just have to execute at a higher level. I’m definitely guilty of not doing that, at times. That’s why I’m challenging myself to be better. I’ve made tougher catches before. Every ball that’s thrown to me, I should catch."

Hooper also has make a concerted effort to improve his blocking, something that wasn't his strength coming into the league. Focusing on self-improvement is why Hooper has gained the respect of his teammates and coaches alike.

"I think Hoop has done a really good job of being where he’s supposed to be, catching the football, and running after the catch," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "Getting vertical and getting those tough, extra yards and splitting two defenders after contact, I think he’s done a really good job."

Hooper isn’t content with being good. He strives to be elite.

"Honestly, I don’t really concern myself with comparisons," Hooper said. “I just try to be a better version of myself, and let other people talk about [comparisons]. I feel like I’m competing against myself. I feel like if I continue to compete against myself, I’ll continue to develop. I’m not concerned with tight end rankings. I want to be the best version of myself to help us win games."