With NFL free agency set to officially kick off in a few weeks, rumors are beginning to circle around targets for the Green Bay Packers. A year after finding success in spending significant capital to beef up the defensive side of the ball, the Packers are not expected to be quite as ambitious in 2020 free agency. However, a pair of potential fits have been named in recent days - Wisconsin native linebacker Joe Schobert and tight end Austin Hooper.
As reported by ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, the Packers have shown interest in making a run at Hooper, who is coming off of his best season as a pro. The former third-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons hauled in more than 70 passes for the second consecutive season, while setting a career-high with 787 yards and six touchdowns. With two straight Pro Bowl nods, Hooper, still just 25 years old, figures to be the most coveted tight end on the market this offseason.
For Green Bay, Hooper would make sense on a variety of levels.
One of General Manager Brian Gutekunst’s first moves in the decision-making chair was to sign a pass-catching tight end in Jimmy Graham. Clearly, Gutekunst, as well as Head Coach Matt LaFleur, believes in the value of the tight end position, so it would be no surprise for the Packers to invest at the position once again with Graham expected to be a cap casualty. Hooper would represent an established up-and-coming weapon at a position that may feature aging run-blocker Marcedes Lewis (should he re-sign in Green Bay) and two relatively unproven younger players in Robert Tonyan and Jace Sternberger. Sternberger still has plenty of untapped potential after a banged up rookie season and, if he develops as hoped, would help eventually form a potent one-two punch of receiving tight ends.
Hooper brings enough value as a blocker and NFL Next Gen Stats charts suggest that he can attack all areas of the field as a receiver. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been much more reluctant to use the middle of the field than the boundaries, making Hooper a good fit to both cater to Rodgers’ tendencies and open up the seam like many hoped Graham would do. While Hooper’s average of 4.5 yards after the catch is not reminiscent of some of the other elite tight ends in the league, Hooper continues to improve each year and improved that average by a yard between 2018 and 2019.
Green Bay certainly will be on the lookout for receiving options this offseason and Gutekunst has not been shy about it. Adding a receiving tight end via free agency and a wide receiver through the draft may make the most sense.
As APC’s Tex Western mentioned recently, the draft’s tight end class failed to impress at the NFL Combine in workouts, while the wideout class is among the deepest of the past decade and features a slew of first- and second-round options. Hooper’s reported value, according to Spotrac, is roughly $10 million over five years, but his age, continued development, and health are factors that could make such a deal worthwhile over a long-term period. After all, the Packers offered Graham $10 million annually for three years despite entering his age-32 season. An investment in Hooper is relatively safe and still provides consistency and upside.
Until the doors of free agency officially open on March 18, the Hooper-to-Green Bay rumors remain just that: rumors. After all, Graham is still on the Packers’ roster. But as one analyzes the free agent market and the Packers’ team needs, a green and gold uniform for Austin Hooper makes sense on many fronts.