Yes, Austin Hooper just signed a contract that made him the highest-paid tight end in the NFL. And yes, Hooper was on pace for a top-five finish last season despite competing for targets in an offense that featured perennial WR1 Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, a man who many people have pegged as this year’s breakout star at the receiver position. One more thing: I am aware that 2017 first-round pick David Njoku (whom Hooper was supposed to platoon with this season) has demanded a trade out of Cleveland, which would in theory free up even more targets for Hooper. While all of these things are true and valid, I am still skeptical about Hooper’s chances to produce elite TE1 level numbers this season.
For starters, Hooper is joining an offense that already features an accomplished WR duo with Pro Bowl credentials (Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry), a RB group led by two dominant pass-catching backs (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt), and a pair of high upside rookies (Mackey Award-winning TE Harrison Bryant and former five-star recruit WR Donovan Peoples-Jones) along with Njoku (who still hasn’t been traded). With so many mouths to feed it’s entirely possible that Hooper finds himself in a role similar to the one Kyle Rudolph had for Minnesota’s offense last season when the veteran TE finished as the TE14 in most formats (mostly due to his six touchdown receptions).
Given the personnel similarities between Cleveland’s roster this year and Minnesota’s from 2019, I expect HC Kevin Stefanski to install a nearly identical scheme on offense. If my hypothesis is true, then we could expect Hooper’s target share to resemble Rudolph’s from last season, a measly 10.8%. Hooper’s breakout was largely due to his 14.8% target share, which would have been much larger had he not missed three games with a lower body injury. Perhaps more importantly, Rudolph’s already unimpressive 10.8% target share was largely inflated due to the injuries that WR Adam Thielen dealt with for most of the season, as only 18.6% of the tight end’s total targets came prior to Thielen’s initial injury in Week 7. Unless Beckham or Landry are forced to miss significant time with injuries, Hooper will likely be seeing very low volume in Cleveland’s passing attack.
Another element that goes against Hooper’s favor is the sketchy history of top tier tight ends changing teams. In the last decade only 40% of tight ends who finished as top-12 options at their position were able to do the same on a new team the following season. We’ve seen before with rookie tight ends that transitioning to a new system can lead to an awkward adjustment period and the same can be said for veterans like Hooper, especially in this case as the young tight end was relied upon far less for his blocking abilities in Atlanta’s system.
Giving Austin Hooper $40 million so the superior TE can demand a trade is so Browns. https://t.co/6aGioXFDqB
— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) July 3, 2020
While seeing Njoku officially traded would theoretically open up a clearer path to targets, the presence of the rookie Bryant leads me to believe that the team has been prepared to move on from Njoku since before the draft. It’s entirely possible that Bryant will cut into Hooper’s snap count this season, as the draft capital invested into him suggests that the Browns value his skill set. Considering the fact that Baker Mayfield targeted the position just 12.9% of the time last season, it’s hard to envision a world where Hooper sees the volume necessary to deliver as a TE1. That being said, here’s what we have him projected to do this season:
- 58 receptions (-17 from last season)
- 76 targets (-21 from last season)
- 628 receiving yards (-149 from last season)
- 5 receiving TDs (-1 from last season)
- 150.8 fantasy points ~TE11 (-5 spots from last season)
I still really like Hooper as a player. Had he landed in a more enticing situation I think he would easily be a top-five option this season. However, it’s hard to get excited by the situation and the scheme.