The salary cap makes matters imperfect -- the Falcons currently have about $200 million in contract commitments for 2020 -- which is why Hooper’s future with the franchise is unclear.
Both general manager Thomas Dimitroff and team president Rich McKay said they are not concerned about the team’s salary-cap situation heading into 2020. And there’s been some restructuring already with the contracts of quarterback Matt Ryan and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to create a little more cap space. But that doesn’t mean the Falcons are prepared to offer Hooper a lucrative deal that resets the tight-end market, like what his camp is expecting. And the team is hesitant to go the franchise-tag route knowing it would mean a cap hit of about $10.7 million in 2020.
Just imagine the financial demands Hooper could have made had a sprained MCL not thrown off his torrid pace. Through the first eight weeks of the season, he ranked fifth in the NFL among all receivers with 52 receptions. He finished the season with a career-best 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns despite missing three games.
"Austin has improved every single season, earned the first of many Pro Bowls , and is coming off a career season at just 25 years old," said Steve Caric, Hooper’s agent who has yet to discuss an offer with the Falcons. “He’s a top-5 tight end in the NFL right now and his best football is in front of him. I expect an aggressive market for him."
We’ll see how everything plays out for Hooper, who told the Atlanta media he would be open to returning to the Falcons depending on whether an offer is made. The chemistry Hooper has established with Ryan through their offseason workouts in California can't be overlooked. Whatever the case, Hooper is arguably the most intriguing of the Falcons’ pending free agents.
Here's how things could play out:
Austin Hooper, tight end
Notable numbers: 75 receptions, 787 yards, six touchdowns, 96 targets, one drop, 313 yards after the catch, 41 first downs in 2019.
2019 earnings: $2.025 million
Quoting Hooper: “I’m not going to speak on [the contract situation] too much. It’s a business. Obviously I would like to be here. I’m open to coming back here. But I know that I haven’t received an offer yet. If I do, I’d definitely like to be here."
Projecting the outcome: The Falcons, with so much money tied up in top players such as Ryan, Julio Jones, Jarrett, and Deion Jones, will pass on signing Hooper to a lucrative extension and let him sign elsewhere. And Hooper will exceed $10 million per year with his new team. Meanwhile, the Falcons will see what they have in Jaeden Graham, who filled in nicely when Hooper was hurt this past season and is due to make $585,000 in 2020. The Falcons also will look hard at the draft class to find a potential pass-catching threat.
Vic Beasley Jr., edge rusher
Notable numbers: Beasley, who led the league with 15.5 sacks in 16 games through the 2016 season, recorded just 18 sacks in 46 games from 2017 to '19. He enjoyed a surge in the second half of 2019, with 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles through eight games.
2019 earnings: $12.81 million (fifth-year option)
Quoting Beasley: “I’m excited. I’m at peace. I’m just going to continue to work. We’ll see [about re-signing with Falcons] when the time comes. Right now, I’m going to enjoy this offseason and just take it a day at a time."
Projecting the outcome: The Falcons, who dangled Beasley before this past season’s trade deadline with no takers, will let him walk and start over elsewhere as they focus their attention on shoring up the pass rush via free agency and the draft. It might be a little hard to swallow for head coach Dan Quinn, considering Beasley was his first draft pick. Some in the front office actually had sights set on running back Todd Gurley in that draft, according to league sources. But Quinn will swallow the loss knowing Beasley just wasn’t consistent enough to warrant a lucrative extension or even another one-year "prove it" deal.
De'Vondre Campbell, linebacker
Notable numbers: Campbell led the Falcons in 2019 with 129 combined tackles, including 75 solos. He also led the team with three forced fumbles and had two sacks and six tackles for loss. Campbell also had two interceptions.
2019 earnings: $2.025 million
Quoting Campbell: “I would love to be here. I'm used to the city. I just don't want to have to pick up and go figure out a new city, a new coaching staff. But if that's what I have to do, that's what I have to do. I know they appreciate me, but business is business. And sometimes, no matter how much you appreciate somebody, it doesn't always work out like that."
Projecting the outcome: Sure, the Falcons would like to have Campbell back, and assistant head coach/linebackers Jeff Ulbrich has a strong affection for a guy he personally scouted during the draft process. But the Falcons would have to re-sign Campbell to a bargain deal, and power agent Drew Rosenhaus is going to get the most for his client and sell teams on Campbell’s size and production. Campbell’s confidence is through the roof but the knock has been his lack of instincts.
Younghoe Koo, kicker
Notable numbers: In eight games with the Falcons in 2019, Koo made 23 of 26 field goals with a long of 50 yards and made 15 of 16 extra points. He also handled kickoffs and showed a great proficiency with the onside kick -- not to mention he recovered a fumble.
2019 earnings: $570,000 base (prorated over eight games)
Quoting Koo: “I’m grateful for the opportunity they have given me -- I think it was Week 8 -- and I just tried to capitalize on my opportunities whenever I got my name called. This is what you dream of. This is what I’ve dreamed about. Hopefully I can stay and just try to do my job as best as I can."
Projecting the outcome: In the postseason news conference, Quinn said he would open up the kicking job to competition yet added how Koo made a strong case for himself. The Falcons won’t want to dig around for another leg knowing Koo is capable -- although they did not give his representatives any indication they'd re-sign him immediately. Having Koo return will be the best option for a team looking to rebound and make a playoff run in 2020.