NFL free agency opened with a flurry of activity at noon EST on March 16. News quickly broke the Cleveland Browns are reportedly the front runners to land prized unrestricted free agent Austin Hooper, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons. Several news outlets have since confirmed the validity of these rumors with early indications saying he will become the league’s highest-paid tight end after signing a four year $44 million contract. Realizing Hooper was leaving town, Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff quickly jumped into action, flipping a 2020 2nd and 2020 5th round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for tight end Hayden Hurst and a 2020 4th round pick. Hurst is under team control for at least the next two seasons, with a team option for a third season should they like what they see.
Based solely on previous experience and success at the professional level, the move from Hooper to Hurst would appear to be a definite downgrade for Atlanta. It is worth noting, however, the Falcons' hands were slightly tied due to the fact that they had less than $3 million in salary cap space available as free agency kicked off. Hooper was arguably one of the most consistent tight ends in fantasy last season, drawing 97 targets over his 13 games played. He caught 75 of those targets for 787 yards and 6 touchdowns on the year, good for the overall TE6 in PPR leagues. Hurst meanwhile was only targeted 39 times this past season in Baltimore, catching 30 of them for 349 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Falcons will certainly be looking to Hurst to take on a much larger role in the passing game, and the former South Carolina Gamecock seems poised to break out in a big way in his third professional season.
Hurst was originally drafted in the first round, 25th overall by the Ravens in 2018. Standing 6’4 and weighing 260lbs, he is built surprisingly similar to the man he is replacing in Atlanta as Austin Hooper is listed at 6’4 and 254lbs. Digging further into the comparisons Hurst actually outproduced Hooper over his collegiate career in catches and yardage, awhile only lagging slightly behind over the pair’s first two seasons in the NFL. Entering his draft class, Hurst profiled as a future starter and safety blanket for NFL quarterbacks due to his sure hands, large frame, and ability to outmuscle defenders after contact. Drawing comparisons to former Colts Pro Bowler Dallas Clark, Baltimore had no issue selecting him as the first tight end off the board in the first round. Unfortunately, he seemed to get lost in the shuffle in a crowded tight end depth chart which included Nick Boyle and 2019 breakout star Mark Andrews. Now with Atlanta - who also released veteran blocking tight end Luke Stocker - Hurst finds himself as the clear-cut number one tight end in an offense that boasts two excellent outside weapons in the ageless Julio Jones and promising third year wideout Calvin Ridley. He will now be catching passes from one of the more consistent veteran quarterbacks in the game in Matt Ryan.
Last season, the Falcons offense targeted tight ends 121 times, which was the ninth highest in the entire NFL. Coach Dan Quinn returns for the 2020 season and will look to continue utilizing tight end, and should be able to find a way to involve his newest weapon early and often. Playing a similar style physical, over the middle style of game and being roughly the same size as Hooper, look for Hurst to develop an early rapport with Ryan and deliver a breakout season with the Falcons across all fantasy formats. In dynasty leagues, your buy window has likely just closed, but if you held on to Hurst in your leagues, his value just got a huge boost which should reward you with a weekly startable tight end. Look for Hurst to finish as a top 10 option at the position assuming he stays healthy and finds his groove early in the season.