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NFL free agency profile: Austin Hooper should be high up on the Patriots’ free agency wish list

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Related: Free agency profile: Patriots could turn to De’Vondre Campbell to bolster their linebacker group

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror, the focus is now entirely on 2020. The next important point on the offseason agenda will be free agency, which starts on March 18 and projects to be a big one for the New England Patriots: not only does the team have 19 players whose current contracts will expire — including quarterback Tom Brady — it also will need to use its limited resources to build a foundation for the upcoming season.

Up until the start of free agency, we will therefore take a look at some players who might interest the Patriots. Today, the series continues with tight end Austin Hooper.

Player profile

Position: Tight end

Opening day age: 25

Size: 6’4, 255 lbs

Experience: A third-round draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, Hooper started his career by immediately showing his upside as both a receiver and a blocker. He went on to improve each of the four years of his rookie contract before delivering his best statistical season to date in 2019: as the Falcons’ number one option at tight end, and a top-three receiver overall, Hooper set new career marks in receptions, yards and touchdowns.

2019 statistics: 13 games; 93 targets, 75 receptions, 787 receiving yards, 6 receiving touchdowns

2019 salary cap hit: $2.21 million

Free agency status: Unrestricted

View from Atlanta

We asked Dave Choate from The Falcoholic to share his thoughts on Campbell:

If Hooper makes it to free agency, he’s going to be highly sought after, and for good reason. Hooper’s numbers have improved every single year, and he’s probably the most well-rounded player on the market, with fine blocking skills, quality durability, and excellent hands. He’s going to be expensive, naturally, but there’s no doubt that the effort he’s put into improving his game has paid off to the point where he’s one of the better tight ends in the game. Every team that doesn’t have a George Kittle or Travis Kelce should want an Austin Hooper.

The big question with Hooper is whether he can be more than a chain mover in a different offense, because that’s typically how he’s been used in Atlanta. According to Pro Football Focus, some 75% of his production has come on holes in zone or underneath routes, making him a supremely dependable, Michael Thomas-esque option on shorter routes but only occasionally a potent downfield option. I’d submit the talent is there for him to do more than that, but it likely will depend on where he lands.

Patriots fit

You may have already heard it by now, but the Patriots got little production out of their tight end group following Rob Gronkowski’s retirement last offseason: Matt LaCosse, Benjamin Watson and Ryan Izzo each failed to provide quarterback Tom Brady with consistent options in the passing game — thus playing a big role in New England’s struggles through the air — and were also unable to deliver any notable sparks as blockers in the running game.

For the Patriots, adding Hooper to the roster would therefore mean killing two proverbial birds with one million-dollar stone. After all, Hooper is a proven commodity as a receiver especially in the underneath portions of the field (where he could help lift some pressure off veteran wideout Julian Edelman) and also capable of serving as an in-line blocker. In both areas, he would immediately become New England’s clear-cut number one tight end.

While there is obviously no guarantee that Hooper, like any outside addition, would find success in the Patriots’ notoriously difficult system, his past production and athletic skillset should make him a natural fit and therefore an intriguing free agency target: even though he would be a downgrade from Gronkowski, he would still project to be a worthy successor to the future Hall of Famer that could have an enormous impact on New England’s previously inconsistent offense.

Verdict

From the perspective of pure talent in combination with need, going after Hooper seems to be a no-brainer from the Patriots’ perspective. It would therefore not be a surprise if he is high up on the team’s free agency wish list — as he should be. The main question, however, will be the financial aspect of possibly acquiring the 25-year-old who indicated that he would like to test the open market before thinking about a potential return to Atlanta.

The Patriots, at the moment, are projected to have around $29 million in salary cap space available and as noted above have a long list of free agents to take care of. Is adding Hooper to this equation financially feasible if he commands to be paid like one of the NFL’s top tight ends (which he is) and get upwards of $9 million per season? Considering New England’s offensive struggles last season and how closely they were tied to the lack of production from the tight end spot, an argument can be made that the Patriots need to find a way to answer this question with “yes.”