FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – If the Falcons season ended today, it would be hard to argue against tight end Austin Hooper being named Atlanta’s most improved player.
Hooper is playing the best football of his career and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers as the third-year tight end was named an alternate for the 2019 Pro Bowl.
Ready for the scary part?
He’s only 24-years-old and he hasn’t even come close to scratching the surface of his potential.
He even said so himself.
“Keep working … that’s been my mantra since I got here and I’ve just gotten better and better since I’ve been here,” Hooper said. “I’m just going to keep going on that trajectory because I feel like there’s a lot more I can do and I still feel like there’s another level I can go to.”
Since the Falcons drafted Hooper in the third-round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Stanford, he’s improved every year. The statistics show it.
In his first season, Hooper caught 19 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. In 2017, he caught 49 passes for 526 yards and three touchdowns. With two games left to play this year, Hooper has already caught 64 passes for 557 yards and four touchdowns.
Hooper’s progression didn’t happen overnight and certainly without a commitment to improving his craft more than ever.
Following the 2017 season, Hooper made sure to reach out to his quarterback Matt Ryan to let him know when he was going to start throwing again. When Ryan was ready, Hooper was going to be there. No matter the time or the place.
Hooper, a California native, previously spent most of his offseason back on the West Coast.
That wasn’t going to be the case this time around. One or two weeks with Ryan here and there wasn’t enough. He wanted more. Ryan began throwing in March and who was there to catch passes from him? Hooper.
And their improved rapport has been on display all season long.
“It’s just repetition,” Hooper said. “It’s not sexy. You’re getting up there at 8 in the morning, going to an empty park, running routes until Matt says, ‘We’re good.’ It’s just a lot of hard work that nobody saw, it’s just between me and him and I’m glad that work came to fruition.”
Ryan couldn’t have been more complimentary of the work Hooper has put in and how he’s played this season.
“I think Austin has had a really good year for us,” Ryan said. “He’s worked really hard and he’s playing the best football of his career and I think his potential is to keep improving and to get better. I think he’s going to be a really critical and good player for us in this league for a long time.”
One of the biggest areas Hooper and Ryan feel their connection has made the biggest growth is their non-verbal communication. Rather than having to tell Hooper exactly where he expects him to be on a specific play, Ryan can just give him a look or not even having to say anything because they’ve repeated it so many times.
“It’s come a long way,” Ryan said. “Just his understanding of the offense and what our expectations are for him on certain routes versus certain coverage [and] what we expect him to do. He’s been spot on that this year. He’s been in the right place at the right time, given us good opportunities to convert third downs, to get first downs, catch touchdowns. I think that part of that game has improved.”
At 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds, Hooper has the size and athleticism to be an elite tight end in the league. He’s proven his catching radius is something Ryan can benefit from.
While his physical attributes certainly make him a tough matchup week in and week out, the thing that could take Hooper’s to the next level has nothing to do with his physical makeup, it has all to do with the mental aspect of his game.
“I think his confidence has improved,” Ryan said of Hooper. “You see that when he’s making contested catches and big plays and going up and using his size and his length to his advantage.”