Each year gamers scour the recesses of positional depth to find key sleepers who could emerge from seemingly nowhere. One name on the list of players I am frequently asked about is Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper. My immediate reaction the first time was something like, “Hooper? Why do you ask?” Several asks later, it seemed like I may have been overlooking something about the second-year tight end, so it was time to dig a little deeper.
The question to answer was clear: Could Hooper produce fantasy-relevant numbers with all of the playmakers around him?
A quick recap of Hooper to date. He was drafted in the third round a year ago from Stanford, which speaks to his intelligence. The school has produced several NFL tight ends in recent years (Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, Jim Dray, Levine Toilolo).
Hooper was used sparingly in 2016, catching a mere 19 passes on 27 targets over 11 appearances. He mustered a healthy 271 yards and scored a single touchdown in three contests before adding one in the Super Bowl. Hooper’s greatest involvement came in Week 8 in a shootout win versus Green Bay in Week 8 when he snatched five balls on as many targets. The next week Matt Ryan went to him six times (three catches) against Tampa Bay in a blowout win. He wasn’t looked to more than three times in any other regular-season game.
As you can see, my initial reaction to Hooper questions was justified. In all likelihood, the reason for the questioning was this statement by Matt Ryan:
When the reigning NFL MVP speaks highly of a player, fantasy owners tend to listen.
The most practical reason for such a reaction isn’t based on what a player has done but the situation he enters. Hint: It’s not a great one for tight ends. The Falcons have a new offensive system under first-time NFL offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. While he may involve tight ends slightly more than his predecessor, Atlanta still has a wealth of talent spread across the skill positions.
Pretend all of the Falcons tight ends were one player last year and we have 83 targets, which would be second on the team for any individual player behind Julio Jones’ 129. Mohamed Sanu was next with 81 targets, followed by Devonta Freeman’s 65, Taylor Gabriel’s 51 and Tevin Coleman’s 40. Those 83 targets for the position would rank15th as an individual player based on last year’s data.
Positional involvement ranked 62.3 percent by wideouts and 22.1 percent for running backs, whereas the tight ends were last at 15.7. On average, this breaks down to tight ends seeing 5.2 targets per game. Running backs were at 7.3 and wideouts combined to average 21 targets each week.
Assume again all things remain relatively equal at running back and wide receiver in terms of year-over-year involvement. The majority of an increase in targets would come from Hooper’s fellow tight ends. Jacob Tamme paced the team at 3.9 per contest, and he is no longer on the roster. D.J. Tialavea (1 target) has moved to offensive tackle. Levine Toilolo (19 targets) is a fine blocker, and that is about where it ends. Rookie Eric Saubert was a fifth-round addition and doesn’t figure to see much time. It is easy to see a reasonable increase in work for Hooper.
Now if we grant him a few targets at the expense of the running backs and Sanu, since they’ll be the most closely related as checkdowns, Hooper could be nearing that mid-teens range of league-wide tight end involvement. Given his ability to stretch the field more than average. No tight end who played every game came close to his 14.3 yards-per-reception average, and only three of the top 40 most targeted at the position (Ladarius Green, Vance McDonald and Rob Gronkowski) averaged more yards. The trio combined for 24 games played. The top 50 at the position averaged 11.1 yards per catch.
Fantasy football outlook
Barring a major injury to a key player in the passing game, it is awfully difficult to find more than about 75 targets for Hooper. Let’s presume he maintains his 15th-ranked receiving efficiency (percentage of targets caught), Hooper would be good for 53 receptions.
Split the difference in average yards per grab and we’re talking basically 660 yards. Touchdown efficiency is extremely variable and more dependent on the system than the tight end. Doubling his fifth-ranked rating of a year ago is still slightly better than last year’s positional average of a score every 13 grabs among qualifiers. Hooper would project to four scores, or only one more than last year.
Without having much reference material in regards to the system itself, greatly increasing Hooper’s target share over the positional count from last year is a leap this prognosticator cannot make.
Safely, he’s a matchup-play TE2 with a serious downside for providing almost little more in the way of weekly than he offered last year. Hooper is a fine addition for daily fantasy sports lineups, best-ball drafts and in leagues that require two tight ends in the starting lineup. Otherwise, he can be left on the waiver wire for traditional setups due to inconsistency.
So, the answer to the question of whether Hooper can be relevant in fantasy this year is … “sort of.”