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Austin Hooper, Falcons

How Austin Hooper makes the Browns better

At the NFL Combine, new Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry promised to be aggressive in player acquisition. As free agency began at noon on Monday, the Browns agreed to terms with former Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper on a four-year deal worth $44 million, making him the highest-paid TE in NFL history. Hooper may seem expensive at first, but he could end up being a bargain in a few seasons, and his addition makes the Cleveland offense significantly better.

Cost

An average of $11 million annually with $18.5 million guaranteed is a steep price for Hooper. But Hunter Henry, George Kittle, and Travis Kelce are just a few TEs who will top Hooper’s deal once they become free agents. Additionally, tight end is consistently one of the most underpaid positions in terms of impact, especially for teams that use two TE sets frequently, like the Browns are expected to. The Chicago Bears gave Trey Burton $22 million guaranteed back in 2017, so is Hooper really an overpay?

Production

Austin Hooper was the 81st pick of the 2016 Draft and will turn 26 in November. His targets, catches, and receiving yards have increased each year of his career, with his best season coming in 2019, when he caught 75 of 97 targets for 787 yards and six touchdowns.

He had just two drops, and Matt Ryan had a 114.5 QB rating when targeting Hooper. He earned a 78.3 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, including an 80.5 receiving grade. Hooper may not be as dynamic as a Kittle or a Kelce, but he’s consistent and reliable, and will be as successful as the offensive scheme allows him to be.

Fit with Browns

In 2019, Baker Mayfield targeted Browns tight ends only 69 times. That’s a ridiculously low amount, even accounting for the fact that starter David Njoku played just 99 snaps. The tight end position was not used much in former head coach Freddie Kitchens’ offense, but that will change.

New HC Kevin Stefanski engineered a strong Minnesota Vikings offense last season, and used two tight ends on 57% of snaps. Minnesota’s O was built around the wide-zone run, and play action passes off of it. Neither Hooper nor Njoku is a strong blocker, but Hooper is the better of the two. Njoku will be entering his fourth season, looking to rebound from a 2018 campaign lost to a wrist injury.

Njoku has failed to get anywhere close to his potential thus far, but is still just 23 years old and one of the most athletic TEs in the league. The addition of Austin Hooper doesn’t mean the Browns are moving on from him; both will be utilized.

Hooper likely won’t be making any Pro Bowls, and may not repeat last season’s statistical performance, but he gives Mayfield a reliable option at TE, something the young QB has lacked in the NFL. He had a great rapport with Mark Andrews at Oklahoma, but has been unable to form that chemistry with Njoku to this point.

With Austin Hooper and Njoku running the seams off PA, Mayfield should be able to find plenty of success over the middle in 2019.