Tight end is perhaps the one offensive skill position for the Atlanta Falcons that mostly closely features an open competition for the starting spot entering training camp. It’s likely to feature a battle between incumbent starter Jacob Tamme and third-round draft pick Austin Hooper.
Tamme has the leg up thanks to the slower start by Hooper, who missed a significant chunk of the offseason waiting to graduate from Stanford.
But Hooper could prove a quick study and it’s clear that he’s the future at the position. If the battle becomes close between the two, it makes sense for the Falcon to plug Hooper into the lineup to speed up his long-term development.
Tamme is entering the final year of the two-year contract he signed with the Falcons last offseason but still gives the team a valuable veteran option. He has a set of reliable hands as Pro Football Focus notes that he only dropped one pass on 60 targets last season. However besides being an underwhelming blocker, the biggest deficiency Tamme had a year ago was an utter lack of production in the red zone.
According to Pro Football Reference, on eight red-zone targets Tamme managed to convert only one for a touchdown. For the sake of comparison, in his lone season as a starter in 2014, Levine Toilolo converted a pair of touchdowns on six red-zone targets and has converted one-third of a dozen career red-zone targets.
Tamme’s inability to create mismatches in the red zone was likely a driving factor that prompted the Falcons to select Hooper, whose greatest traits include size, hands and the ability to win in traffic. All are advantageous tools when it comes to the shrunken territory of the red zone.
One area that was not a great strength of Hooper’s during his days at Stanford was his blocking. That’s going to be an area where he’ll have to show improvement quickly this summer to put himself in a better place to earn reps, particularly if he cannot unseat Tamme as the starter.
Toilolo served as the team’s No. 2 blocking tight end last year and has greatly improved there since first joining the Falcons in 2013. Hooper brings added value as a receiving threat at the No. 2 spot, but given how much the scheme of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is devoted to running the ball, it’s unlikely that the Falcons will cut corners on blocking ability if Hooper is not up to par.
That remains Toilolo’s best avenue to carve out a significant role in 2016, but it doesn’t mean he won’t face any serious competition. D.J. Tialavea is potentially the candidate that could become the biggest challenge to Toilolo for his blocking role this summer. Tialavea impressed in brief action last summer and was having an impressive game against the Baltimore Ravens in the preseason finale before injuring his knee.
Tialavea endeared himself to the coaching staff last year, a reason why the team brought him back upon his recovery late in the season. But in order to unseat Toilolo, he’ll need to prove a more effective blocker as well as showcase added ability on special teams. He’s capable of doing such, but it remains to be seen if it finally coalesces this summer. Fortunately Tialavea still has a pathway to sticking on the Falcons’ practice squad.
That is also the likeliest destination for undrafted rookie Josh Perkins should he also impress this summer. Perkins could be considered either an undersized tight end or an oversized wide receiver, but his athleticism in the passing game could impress the Falcons coaches enough to stick around to develop down the road.
With both Tamme and Toilolo becoming free agents after this season, the Falcons could look hard at carrying Tialavea and/or Perkins on the practice squad as ready-made replacements for 2017.
Speaking of 2017, Hooper almost certainly will be slotted to be the starter by next year. Yet the No. 1 question at the tight end position for this summer is whether or not he’ll become the starter a lot sooner than that. That and the battle for blocking tight end will be ones to watch in camp.