Editor's note: This is the 10th and final story in a 10-part series counting down the top 10 Atlanta Falcons players our writers believe are most likely to have a breakout season in 2020. The definition of breakout, for the purpose of this list, is a player who shows sudden significant improvement.
Hayden Hurst was considered the top-rated tight end prospect in the country when he entered the 2018 NFL Draft. The Baltimore Ravens selected him with the 25th overall pick, right before the Falcons picked Calvin Ridley at No. 26.
What if Hurst was still on the board when the Falcons were on the clock? Would they have considered picking the former South Carolina standout at 26? The Falcons did their homework on the tight end prior to the draft and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said they liked what they saw in Hurst.
The Falcons coveted Hurst's speed and athleticism so much that they sent a second- and a fifth-round pick to the Ravens in exchange for Hurst and a fourth-round selection after Austin Hooper opted to sign with the Cleveland Browns in free agency.
Despite being a first-round pick, the 26-year-old Hurst fell short of expectations and down the depth chart in Baltimore. Now that he's a part of Atlanta's potent passing attack – one that includes Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Todd Gurley – the stage is set for Hurst.
TOP 10 BREAKOUT SEASON COUNTDOWN
Body of work
As noted above, Hurst has been in the league two seasons. He's appeared in 28 games and made just four starts.
Hurst was targeted 39 times in the Ravens' run-heavy offense and caught 30 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns in 2019. As a rookie, he was targeted 23 times, caught 13 passes for 163 yards and one score.
It's worth noting that Hurst suffered a stress fracture in his foot during his rookie season and missed the first four games of the season. Aside from missing time, the setback proved even more costly as Mark Andrews took advantage of the opportunity. Over the same two seasons, Andrews has made 98 receptions for 1,404 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
For the sake of comparison, Hooper caught 73 passes for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns over the last two seasons in the Falcons' offense. Now that he's taken his talents to Cleveland, Hurst has an opportunity to fill that void and then some.
Poised for a breakout
If you're looking for positive signs and any early indicators that Hurst should thrive in the Falcons' offense, there's more than a few out there.
For starters, QB1 – Matt Ryan – has been impressed with what he's seen during workouts together this past offseason. Ryan called him "one of the fastest and most athletic tight ends" he's ever played with.
"I've been incredibly impressed with Hayden's work ethic," Ryan said. "He's got great speed, great athleticism. … He's a mismatch problem, he's going to create separation and win in different ways than those guys did."
In case you're wondering, Hurst ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds at the NFL combine, which was slightly faster than Hooper's time of 4.72 seconds. Size-wise, Hurst is 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds while Hooper was also 6-foot-4 but weighed in at a slightly lighter 254 pounds.
That optimism is shared within the halls of the Falcons training facilities as well. Dimitroff, who stopped short of making any sort of prediction, said he likes the talent the Falcons have assembled during an aggressive offseason.
"There are high expectations coming into this season," Dimitroff said on Bird Noises podcast. "Everyone knows that. No one is shying away from that. Dan and myself included. … I feel like we've definitely gotten better."
Even some national news outlets and fantasy football writers are jumping on the Hurst train.
NFL.com writer Marc Sessler put Hurst on his list for one future first-time Pro Bowler for every NFC team. Pro Football Focus even wrote a piece outlining why Hurst is a fantasy football breakout candidate in 2020.
So, will Hurst step in and pick up where Hooper left off? Hurst seems to like his chances.
"Being 6-foot-5, 265 pounds and being able to run the way I do puts a lot of stress on linebackers and safeties," Hurst said. "I think I'm able to stretch the field vertically really well. I'm so excited for the opportunity, I think it's going to be awesome for my skillset."
We think so, too. And that's why he tops this list.