Cleveland Browns Film Room: TE Austin Hooper’s best is yet to come

Cleveland Browns TE Austin Hooper is coming off two straight Pro Bowls with the Atlanta Falcons, but a look at his film shows his best play is ahead of him.

New Cleveland Browns TE Austin Hooper, formally of the Atlanta Falcons, has made the last two Pro Bowls and is the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, and his best play is ahead of him. Let’s take a look at what Hooper does well, and why he’s poised to take a step forward with the Browns.

Cleveland Browns Film Room: TE Austin Hooper’s best is yet to come

Physical ability

Hooper is listed at 6’4″ 254 pounds, solid size for a TE. Athletically, he tested well against his peers: Austin Hooper RAS 12334

However, he is not a dynamic route runner in the slightest, and doesn’t create separation by out-athleting defenders. He’s not Jonnu Smith, George Kittle, or Noah Fant, far from it. But just because he’s a limited athlete doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective player. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Production

Hooper was a key contributor on the Atlanta offense from the moment he was drafted, catching 277 passes for 2,244 yards and 16 touchdowns over 59 games. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons, and could easily continue that streak in 2020. He’s been one of the most reliable targets in the league, dropping just two of his 97 targets last season. As a position group, Cleveland TEs were targeted 72 times in 2019, and dropped six of those. Mayfield will love having a reliably TE to throw two over the middle, which is why the Browns made Hooper the highest-paid TE in NFL history.

Is he worth that title? Probably not, but Hooper fills a huge need for Cleveland, and with players like Smith, Kittle, and others due for extensions soon, Hooper won’t be highest-paid for very long. The tight ends position as a whole is constantly undervalued when comparing salary to actual impact, so even though it looks like the Browns are overpaying, the will be getting their money’s worth.

Performance

Clips used in this article are taken from this Twitter thread, which goes through each game of Hooper’s 2019 campaign and gives an accurate representation of who he is as a player.

According to Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), Hooper scored an elite 40.14, behind only George Kittle, Tyler Higbee, Kyle Rudolph, and Jonnu Smith. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to call Hooper a top-five TE, but he’s certainly one of the league’s 10 best.

Hooper is the definition of a hands catcher. He hauls in passes effortlessly, you can tell he’s a natural catcher and doesn’t struggle to grab typical throws. He’s as surehanded as they come, and Mayfield will benefit from having a reliable target on third downs and throws under pressure.

Hooper is not an elite route runner, but he’s very good. His routes lack suddenness and fluidity, but Hooper just gets open. Sometimes, defenders will underestimate him, and he makes them pay.

He’s also shown the ability to adjust to inaccurate passes and hold on through traffic, as you would like a TE to be able to do.

Tight ends nowadays are pass catchers first, but they can’t be liabilities when blocking. Hooper isn’t Kittle in this area, but he’s more than serviceable. He faced Yannick Ngakoue and Nick Bosa, among others, in 2019, and fared well against both of them. The Browns won’t want to leave him one-on-one against top-tier pass-rushers, but he is far from a turnstile in pass protection.

When run blocking, Hooper rarely drives his man off the ball, instead using his body to seal off defenders, preventing them from affecting the play. Again, he’s not a great blocker, but he is good enough, and better than any player Cleveland had in the TE room last season.

Role with the Browns

Even if David Njoku is traded (which is not a good idea), Hooper’s targets are almost guaranteed to decrease. Last season, Minnesota Vikings tight ends were targeted 115 times; 55 to Kyle Rudolph, 49 to Irv Smith Jr., and 11 to Tyler Conklin. With Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Harrison Bryant, Njoku, Nick Chubb, and Kareem Hunt also on the offense, there just won’t be enough balls to go around while keeping Hooper peppered with targets, especially if the Browns run the ball as much as they’re expected to.

However, that doesn’t mean that Hooper’s effectiveness will also decrease. In fact, the opposite should happen. According to Pro Football Focus, of Hooper’s 97 targets, 53 came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and that number increases to 61 when including screens. That means just 37% of Hooper’s targets were beyond 11 yards. The amount of flat and drag routes he ran was staggering.

Hooper runs short routes well, and almost always hauls in his targets. But Hooper was open so often in the intermediate area of the field last season, and wasn’t targeted. He gets open, whether it’s against defensive backs or linebackers, man or zone.

Rudolph and Smith were also used primarily within 10 yards, but hopefully, that has more to do with Mike Zimmer and Gary Kubiak’s influence on Stefanski, and he’ll use all the Browns TEs, specifically Hooper, downfield more.

Mayfield likes quick timing throws and RPOs, and Hooper should be featured heavily on those plays. They may not be big gainers, but they serve to get the offense into rhythm and set up throws farther downfield later on.

Hooper also showed the ability to function as a run blocker on outside zone plays, which the Browns will run a high amount of in 2020. He wasn’t signed because of his run blocking prowess, but again, he is at least capable there.

PFN Browns’ own Cory Kinnan examined Minnesota’s 2019 offense, focusing on Smith, in order to project how the Browns would use their backup TE, whether that ends up being Njoku or Bryant. The important thing to note is that the Vikings used multiple TE sets 57% of the time, which paced the league. Mayfield happened to excel in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), so it’s a great scheme match. Hooper will play a lot, but as stated earlier, he almost certainly won’t be targeted as much. Quality over quantity will be the focus.

Expecting Browns TE Austin Hooper to be elite in Cleveland is asking for disappointment; he’s just never going to be amazing because of his athletic limitations. However, if he is not relegated to underneath duty wit his new team, Hooper should have the best four-year stretch of his career with the Browns, and that’s great news for Baker Mayfield.

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