FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – As the Falcons begin to evaluate their current roster with 2019 and beyond in mind, Austin Hooper's play this season should be a bright spot.
The third-year tight end has become a reliable part of Atlanta's offense, and he's putting up career-high numbers in every major statistical category. Hooper has 64 receptions through 13 games, which is fourth among NFL tight ends and 15 more than he had in all of 2017. His 557 receiving yards are also a career high, as are his four touchdowns and 81-percent catch rate.
With three games still to play, Hooper is on pace for 79 catches, 685 yards and five touchdowns. Those are strong numbers for a player who is arguably the third or fourth option on an offense that has talent at the skill positions.
"I've seen a lot," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Hooper's growth. "What I have also seen is his ability to finish plays … So I've been really impressed with his yards after the catch, his reliability. I thought he was one of the players that have made a significant jump for sure. He's certainly getting the looks."
While the improved stats are certainly reason for optimism about Hooper, who is only 46 days older than rookie receiver Calvin Ridley, they don't even tell the whole story.
During the past two offseasons Hooper has sought out quarterback Matt Ryan to work with him one-on-one to better their chemistry and improve his skill set. That time together has paid off this season as Hooper has become one of the player's Ryan relies on in critical situations.
"It was one of those things we talked right when the season ended about getting together and then he reached out to me pretty early about wanting to know about when I was getting starting throwing and to just send him an outline of what my schedule was going to look like," Ryan said. "He really changed his schedule to make it work with mine and I appreciate that with him."
Ryan has targeted Hooper 20 times on third or fourth down this season, and the duo has connected for a first down on 11 of those targets. This season, Hooper has picked up 26 first downs for Atlanta, which is the fourth-best among Falcons receivers.
Again, those numbers won't blow anybody away, but it's a sign that he continues to fill the role that he's being asked to play. Hooper is not in the same situation as players like Zach Ertz or Greg Olsen, who don't have a Julio Jones or even a Mohamed Sanu on the offense.
This season, Ertz has 129 targets. Hooper has 79. What's more important to recognize for Hooper this year is that he's caught 81 percent of the balls thrown his way. He's been a productive player inside of the red zone, and he's earned the trust of his quarterback.
"I think the work that we put in the offseason, I'm a believer that that stuff pays off and I think he's done an excellent job for us beginning this year," Ryan said.
The Falcons face the Packers at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin this Sunday afternoon. Get your inside look here.