In fantasy football, the tight end position often proves to be not only one of the most volatile positions to figure out but incredibly top-heavy as well. Year after year, it becomes an increasingly difficult position to figure out, but even as the skill position appears to gain depth in fantasy football, it continues to be anyone’s guess on how to decipher the tight end position. Mark Andrews came out of nowhere last season to be the next breakout at tight end. For this season, we’ll look at who will follow in his footsteps as the “next big thing” in fantasy football and why it’s going to be his former teammate in Hayden Hurst.
Before football, Hayden Hurst had a career in baseball
Hurst has an interesting backstory to him as he was actually a professional baseball player prior to his college football career. Drafted in the 14th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hurst played two seasons in the minor leagues before abandoning baseball altogether and attending the University of South Carolina. As a 22-year-old true freshman, Hurst played sparingly and amassed eight receptions for 106 yards. Over the next two seasons, though, he took on a significant role in the Gamecocks’ offense and became a key playmaker for them.
He would become a starter for them and had at least 40 receptions and 500 yards receiving in his final two seasons at the collegiate level. He capped off his junior season as the unanimous choice for first-team all-SEC. While tight ends aren’t typically utilized in the college passing game as primary receivers, Hurst put together two strong seasons as a full-time starter. He would decide to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft after his junior season.
Hurst had age working against him as a prospect. With him deferring college for two years to play baseball, he got started late at the college football level. He was 24-years-old by the time his rookie season started. Despite that working against him, Hurst stood out as one of the best prospects at his position heading into the draft.
Hayden Hurst’s RAS (Relative Athletic Score)
Hurst tested out with a 7.59 out of 10 scores with great speed, good explosion, okay size, and agility. He was in the top-10 at his position, even beating out Andrews (7.42). Despite his size (6’4″, 250 pounds), Hurst still managed to run a 4.67 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
Hurst was the first tight end drafted in 2018
Hurst would end up being the first tight end selected in the draft, going 25th overall to the Baltimore Ravens. Despite the draft pedigree, Hurst did not see much time as the starting tight end for Baltimore. He would only start in four of his 28 games, accumulating a combined 43 receptions, 512 receiving yards, and three receiving touchdowns. Between the team’s transition at quarterback to Lamar Jackson and reinventing their offense as a run-first team, Hurst fought for targets in their offense.
Despite not being the main focal point in their passing game or even at the tight end position, Hurst made good improvements in 2019. He played in all 16 games and more than doubled most of his stat line from 2018 (13 to 30 receptions, 163 to 349 receiving yards, one to two touchdowns) with a 76.9% catch percentage, which was the ninth-best mark amongst tight ends. However, his now-former teammate Andrews would be the one making all of the noise as he broke out with 64 receptions, 852 receiving yards, and ten touchdowns.
With Andrews becoming the clear starter at the position, it was going to be difficult for Hurst to try and live up to his draft status as he now enters his third season. Eventually, the Ravens decided to trade Hurst (along with a 2020 fourth-round selection) to the Atlanta Falcons for a 2020 second-round and fifth-round selection this offseason.
A fresh start with the Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons found themselves in a bit of transition themselves at the tight end position prior to their acquisition of Hurst. Their now-previous starter, Austin Hooper, had his own breakout 2019 season and capitalized on it. Hooper signed a then-record four-year, $40 million dollar contract with the Cleveland Browns, leaving huge shoes to fill for the Falcons. Enter Hurst, who not only has the chance to help fill that void but perhaps even exceed the production that Hooper achieved in 2019.
After flying a bit under the radar coming into last season, Hooper broke out for 75 receptions, 787 receiving yards, and six touchdowns in only 13 games. With his departure to the Browns, the Falcons desperately need to find someone to help supplement Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in their passing offense. Per PFN’s own Tommy Garrett, the Falcons come into the 2020 season with the most vacated targets (258), percentage of targets (39.3%), targets inside the 10-yard line (18), and percentage of targets inside the 10-yard line (56.2%) of any team in the NFL.
Among the returning players for the Falcons, only three players had more than 50 targets last season (Jones , Ridley , and Russell Gage ). The next closest player would be Justin Hardy, with 26 targets in 2019.
What’s even more eye-opening is that the Falcons attempted more passes (684) than any other NFL offense in 2019 by 51 attempts (Carolina Panthers, 633). So not only are there a lot of targets up for grabs in this offense, it is on a team that threw more than any other team last season and looks to be heading that way for 2020 as well.
Everything about the Falcons indicates that not only will their offense be relied upon once again in 2020 but that they have success on offense too. In 2019, they ran more offensive plays than any other team. The Falcons also ran an average of six-and-half plays per drive, tied for the second-most in the NFL. On top of that, they also scored points on 41.3% of their offensive drives, which was eighth-best in the league.
The tight end position is a heavily featured one in the Falcons offense as well. Hooper finished third among all tight ends in 2019 with 18 targets in the red-zone and nine targets inside the 10-yard line. Hooper also averaged seven-and-a-half targets per game in 2019, which was the fourth-highest mark amongst tight ends.
Reasons to be optimistic about Hayden Hurst’s fantasy outlook
While the Falcons did make an upgrade at running back this offseason with the signing of Todd Gurley, evidence suggests he is already a shell of his former self. After garnering 3,924 scrimmage yards and 40 total touchdowns between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Gurley took a big step back in 2019. He rushed for a career-low 857 yards after going for 1,251 in 2018. Gurley took an even bigger step back as a receiver, going from 51 receptions, 580 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns in 2018, to 31 receptions, 207 yards, and two touchdowns last season.
A large part of his suspected regression is his continued knee problems, as a report from August 19th seemed to indicate that Gurley is still showing signs of issues with his oft-injured knee. He does constitute an upgrade over the previous starting running back in Devonta Freeman, but concerns about Gurley’s durability over the course of an entire season remain valid. He did manage to play 15 games last season but took a major step backward in almost every statistical category after being a first-team All-Pro in 2017 and 2018.
Between questions about Gurley’s durability and major step-down from his previous success, it’s fair to question how much impact Gurley will have in the passing game. Amongst qualified players in 2019, Gurley finished 149th out of 155th in yards per reception (6.7). So even with Gurley’s arrival as the new starting running back, his potential presence in the passing offense seems to be minimal at best, which shouldn’t affect Hurst too much.
As mentioned before, tight end in fantasy football is often the hardest to predict because the landscape of the position changes drastically every season. In 2019, seven of the top 12 scoring tight ends in half point-per-reception (PPR) leagues were not in the top 12 in 2018. In fact, five of them were not even in the top 30.
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So despite Hurst’s lack of meaningful fantasy football production (59th in 2018, 34th in 2019), it by no means disqualifies him from having the opportunity to break out in 2020. Hooper vacates a 79% offensive snap share from 2019, which was ninth amongst all tight ends. So there is no lack of targets or snaps for Hurst to obtain as he heads into the 2020 season as the unquestioned starter at tight end.
Like Andrews, Hurst comes into this season being drafted outside of the top-12 in half-PPR average draft position (ADP). In fact, Andrews was being drafted as the 13th tight end in 2019, much like Hurst is as we get closer to the start of the season. He walks into arguably the best situation he could ask for with so many passing targets up for grabs in one of the most pass-heavy offenses.
Hurst has the athletic profile, draft pedigree, and prior proven production (when provided adequate opportunities) to not only be successful but turn out to be the next breakout tight end. When in search of the next diamond in the rough at the tight end position, be sure to look no further than Hayden Hurst.
Doug Moore is a fantasy football writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @DMooreNFL.