Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper will test the NFL free agent market, which is great news for teams in need of an upgrade at that position.
BREAKING NEWS: #Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said TE Austin Hooper, LB De’Vondre Campbell and OG Wes Schweitzer will be allowed to reach free agency. Team stills hopes to re-sign them after they test the market.— D. Orlando Ledbetter (@DOrlandoAJC) February 25, 2020
Hooper has played his entire four-year career with the Atlanta Falcons since the team selected him in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He's coming off back-to-back 70-catch seasons, and his 2019 campaign was pretty impressive. Hooper set career highs with 75 catches, 97 targets, 787 receiving yards and six touchdowns last season despite missing three games.
The 2020 free agent class of tight ends isn't particularly deep, and Hooper is clearly at the top of list. A few of the other notable tight ends available, including Hunter Henry and Tyler Eifert, have battled their share of injuries in recent seasons.
One team in need of a tight end is the New England Patriots, who would be wise to make a run at Hooper in free agency.
The Patriots were never able to replace future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski after he retired in March of last year. No one player was ever going to replace Gronkowski, but the collection of tight ends on the Patriots roster in 2019 didn't even come close.
Here's a quick look at the offensive production from Patriots tight ends last season.
1. Benjamin Watson: 10 GP, 17 receptions, 173 yards, 0 TD
2. Matt LaCosse: 11 GP, 13 receptions, 131 yards, 1 TD
3. Ryan Izzo: Six GP, six receptions, 114 yards, 1 TD
Watson was brought in as a 38-year-old veteran, and he led all Patriots tight ends with 17 receptions, which ranked eighth overall on the team.
Lackluster production at tight end was among the primary issues with the Patriots offense in 2019, and it's a position that must be addressed in free agency and/or the 2020 NFL Draft. In an ideal world, the Patriots would add a tight end from both of those avenues, especially since they are projected to own as many as 12 picks (including compensatory selections) in April's draft.