The Cleveland Browns attempt to win the offseason again. The Browns made the first noise in NFL free agency with the signing of former Atlanta Falcons tight end, Austin Hooper.
The expectations of the Cleveland Browns are a lot less ambitious as we head into the 2020 season. The Browns finished 6-10 last season, which was quite a disappointment after many experts had them destined for the playoffs.
The Cleveland Browns have a new brain trust in general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski, and they will attempt to right the wrongs of the previously mismanaged Browns franchise hierarchies as they look to get back into contention in 2020.
The first step of many was completed on the first day of the 2020 NFL Free Agency.
Austin Hooper hits the open market in 2020
Austin Hooper TE Rankings Since Entering NFL in 2016
TD: 9th pic.twitter.com/flHrx4U8zR
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) March 16, 2020
The biggest name on the tight end free agent market, Austin Hooper, was allowed to hit free agency by the Atlanta Falcons. Hooper is young (25), talented, and coming off back-to-back 70-catch seasons.
The former Stanford Cardinal has seen his receptions, targets, yards, and touchdowns increase in each of his four seasons, culminating into his career 2019 season. In 2019 with the Atlanta Falcons, he amassed 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns. Hooper accomplished all of this in just 13 games as he suffered a knee sprain, which held him out for three weeks.
The 2016 third-round pick dropped only two of his 93 targets last season along with catching 41 first down receptions from Matt Ryan. A two-time Pro Bowler, Hooper produced 214 receptions, 2,244 receiving yards, and 16 receiving touchdowns over four seasons in Atlanta.
The free agent tight end became a reliable target for Ryan, developing chemistry despite the wealth of talent surrounding him in the Atlanta Falcons offense. He emerged as one of the most consistent, productive tight ends in the league.
The Atlanta Falcons simply could not afford Hooper, as they were determined to develop financial flexibility. The Falcons simply had to clear cap space and did so releasing veteran running back Devonta Freeman and cornerback Desmond Trufant.
The Cleveland Browns kick off 2020 free agency
Austin Hooper has agreed to terms on a 4-year deal with the Cleveland Browns that will re-set the TE market in guaranteed money and APY. Hooper will make $23 million, all guaranteed, over the first 2 seasons, and $10.5M per year over 4. https://t.co/nUMAjnGuZx
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 16, 2020
As first reported by the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Cleveland Browns will be the first team to pounce in the NFL free agent negotiating period.
The Browns are expected to sign free agent tight end Austin Hooper to a deal that will make Hooper the highest-paid tight end in NFL history: a four-year deal paying $10.5 million per year guaranteed.
“I picked Cleveland…really like Stefanski. I believe in Baker. I think he’s a really talented, young QB. All the pieces are in place on that roster. I’m really excited about this opportunity.”
Hooper fits in perfectly with new Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski offense, which features tight ends. According to Warren Sharp Football, Stefanski used three receivers only 23 percent of the time when he was the offensive coordinator in Minnesota last season. That was the lowest total for any NFL team. Stefanski brings a run-heavy, tight end-driven offense to the Browns to put a lighter burden on QB Baker Mayfield.
Hooper is more of an inline tight end and will play a significant role in Stefanski’s two tight end-heavy system. Given the Browns’ issues on the offensive line, playing two tight end sets will seem imperative.
However, one knock on Hooper is that he does lack elite strength even at 6’4″ and 254 lbs. He is a fantastic athlete but had fewer opportunities to block in the Atlanta Falcons offense once he established that he was an offensive weapon.
In two tight end sets, Hooper will be paired with 2017 first-rounder David Njoku, who welcomes Hooper to the Cleveland Browns.
“Nahhhh man cmon I love competition,” Njoku posted. “We’ll push each other and get better together.”
The insistence of the Browns in upgrading their offense surrounding Baker Mayfield was apparent on the first day of NFL Free Agency.
Along with signing Hooper, the Cleveland Browns upgraded their weak offensive line by signing former Tennessee Titans offensive tackle Jack Conklin to a three-year deal worth $42 million, with $30 million fully guaranteed.
The Cleveland offense also received a boost by reaching an agreement with former Washington Redskins quarterback Case Keenum. Keenum has started 62 career games as a pro. Keenum will be reunited with Stefanski, his quarterback’s coach, in 2017 when he went 11-3 as a starter for Minnesota. Keenum is a veteran quarterback who knows the offense and can help elevate Baker Mayfield’s grasp of the offense.
What is the fantasy impact of Austin Hooper joining the Browns?
Cleveland Browns offense 2020
RB Chubb, Hunt
WR OBJ, Landry
TE Hooper, Njoku
LT #10 overall
Offense is taking some very big steps this off-season.
— Nick Whalen (@_NickWhalen) March 16, 2020
The 2019 season was filled with high expectations and resulted in a 6-10 record. The myriad of additions made the Browns the most popular choice to finally dive into the playoffs for the first time since 2002. However, the wealth of talent couldn’t overcome the lack of head coach acumen of Freddie Kitchens, a shaky offensive line, and inadequate depth up and down the roster.
In 2020, the Cleveland Browns will have new uniforms in conjunction with a new brain trust in general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski. All they have to do is to turn all of these weapons into wins.
Baker Mayfield struggled significantly last season. He finished second in the league in interceptions (21) and had happy feet trying to play behind a weak offense line. The offseason additions should assist Mayfield in getting back to his 2018 form. It is vital to remember that Mayfield is going into his third year under a fourth head coach and three different offensive coordinators.
Stefanski and Mayfield have plenty of skill players to build their offensive arsenal around. Running back Nick Chubb rushed for 1,494 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry form one of the most lethal receiving duos in the league.
Also, the Browns have placed a second-round tender on Kareem Hunt as they intend to keep the running back. He is a free agent, but the Browns can match any offer. Any team that signs Hunt has to give up a second-round pick.
Hooper should strive in this offense with plays over the middle. The main caveat for Hooper for fantasy managers is there are a lot of mouths to feed in this offense. Landry will get his receptions as he emerged as the security blanket for Mayfield. Beckham is an all-world talent that was not appropriately utilized by Kitchens. Stefanski will make those receivers happy as the Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs owners were for the last few seasons.
Defenses can’t forget Chubb and Hunt coming out of the backfield either. Add in a rejuvenated Njoku, since he is now out of Kitchens’ doghouse, and the Browns have a multi-faceted offensive attack that makes fantasy managers drool in excitement.
Where does Austin Hooper fit in this offense?
Hooper is still very young and is the long-term answer for the Cleveland Browns at the tight end position. He has more experience than Njoku and will become the new security blanket for Mayfield.
He is a big body that will make the tough plays over the middle. His presence will take the pressure off the other receivers as he plays more like a wide receiver.
Hooper is an established tight end and will be worth the signing for the Browns, especially Baker Mayfield. The Browns probably overpaid for Hooper, but don’t the Browns always overpay? However, in this instance, the signing allows Hooper to fit in a glaring need in a Stefanski-style offense with 12 personnel.
I project Austin Hooper to finish with 60 catches, 700-750 yards, and eight to ten touchdowns. His fantasy numbers look eerily similar to his Falcons days, but with more touchdowns as Stefanski and Mayfield capitalize on Hooper’s ability as an elite red-zone playmaker.