Austin Hooper, now a Pro Bowler, could thrive in Dirk Koetter’s offense

Vaughn McClure
ESPN Staff Writer

At least Austin Hooper was honest.

When asked this week what he expects from a Dirk Koetter-run offense, the Atlanta Falcons‘ Pro Bowl tight end didn’t come back with some elaborate response.

“I don’t know much,” Hooper said. “I just know he was the coach at Tampa and he’s now our offensive coordinator. I know he was in Atlanta prior to getting the head-coaching job [in Tampa]. So, we’ll see.

“I’ll let you know when I know what we’re running.”

True, it’s not exactly clear how the typically pass-oriented Koetter will adjust during his second stint as a coordinator in Atlanta, with coach Dan Quinn wanting to maintain the same outside/inside zone principles the Falcons established under Kyle Shanahan and attempted to sustain under Steve Sarkisian. But no matter how the sharp-minded Koetter plans to call it, there’s a good chance Hooper will continue to thrive as a pass-catcher in what is likely to be a tight end-friendly offense. Under Koetter’s watch, tight ends such as Cameron Brate (80 targets for Tampa Bay in 2016) and Marcedes Lewis (81 targets for Jacksonville in 2011) have been used heavily.

Heck, maybe Hooper can be as productive as Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez was for Koetter back in 2012-13, when Gonzalez averaged 88 receptions, 895 yards, eight touchdowns and 122 targets for the Falcons.

FILE-Austin Hooper talks with Head Coach Dan Quinn at training camp. (AP PHOTO:TODD KIRKLAND)

“I definitely think that’s encouraging,” Hooper said of Koetter’s use of Gonzalez. “Looks like he likes to work [the tight end] into the game plan. I watched a few games of Tony G. back in the day. He’s just consistent, man. Anytime the ball got thrown to him, he made the catches every time. He’s the consummate pro — a Hall of Famer.”

Of course, no one is putting Hooper in the same conversation as Gonzalez. However, Hooper has the potential to be a reliable threat for years to come. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate and subsequently added to his first Pro Bowl roster this week after Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles pulled out.

“It’s a huge honor that not a lot of people get to be a part of,” Hooper said. “Just looking forward to the opportunity. It just solidifies the hard work that I’ve put in has paid off in a big way. I’m very fortunate.”

Hooper, who just completed his third NFL season, is fresh off a career-best 71 catches for 660 yards and and four touchdowns. He was targeted 87 times, second most on the team behind Julio Jones‘ 170 targets. Hooper credited his former position coach, Wade Harman, for elevating his game to a Pro Bowl level.

“Just an incredible mentor,” Hooper said of Harman. “Such a patient teacher who understands a lot about the game who really guided me and helped me improve every year I was in the league. I credit a lot of this to him.”

Hooper’s growth should continue under new tight ends coach Mike Mularkey, who was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator from 2008-11 and was a head coach with Buffalo, Jacksonville and Tennessee. Koetter kept some of Mularkey’s principles in place when he took over as coordinator in ’12, so the coaches obviously speak some of the same language. If Koetter’s playbook is similar to what it was during his first stint in Atlanta, he’ll likely have 30 fewer plays on a game day than what the Falcons have been used to under Shanahan and Sarkisian. But it’s making the right calls that counts.

Koetter is known for using multiple personnel groups and will have his tight ends active in the passing game with corner routes, seams, outs and deep crosses. Hooper could show up more in the red zone, where he has 19 receptions and eight touchdowns on 27 targets in his career.

No doubt Quinn will continue to emphasize and commit to the run game to set up the play-action and the players who have been effective in the scheme going back to Shanahan. And having two-time Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman back from a groin injury will give Koetter a weapon he didn’t necessarily have in Tampa this past season, as Freeman has the ability to thrive in the outside zone. With weapons such as Freeman, Jones, Hooper, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu, Koetter will have plenty of toys to play with — as well as a quarterback he already trusts in 2016 MVP Matt Ryan.

“We’re tough to match up against,” Hooper said. “I’m sure the offensive staff will put stuff together to make sure we succeed.”

Hooper benefited greatly from spending last offseason working privately with Ryan rather than going on vacation. He plans to do the same this offseason while in California.

“You have a quarterback who is a tremendous leader,” Hooper said of Ryan. “He’ll tell you exactly what he expects. And if you put in the work, he’ll work with you. That’s why I’m looking forward to this next year.”

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