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Fantasy Football Mid-Round Steal: Hayden Hurst is Set to Breakout in Atlanta

With Austin Hooper headed to Cleveland on a big free agent deal, SI Fantasy Insider Matt De Lima is banking on Hayden Hurst to fill his vacated targets at a low cost.

In 2019, former Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper continued his growth, most chiefly, statistical growth. Despite only playing in 13 games, he posted career-highs in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. 

Instead of Atlanta rewarding him with a new contract, Hooper signed a four-year, $42 million deal with the Cleveland Browns with $23 million guaranteed. That makes him the second-highest paid tight end in the game. I say all this to illustrate that the going rate for a good tight end was more than Atlanta was willing to spend.

Rather than re-signing Hooper, the Falcons traded for Hayden Hurst and a fourth-rounder from the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for second-and fifth-round picks. Hurst has two years left on his rookie deal with an average salary around $1.7M per season. Atlanta saved a ton of money on this deal and Baltimore got a decent return for what amounted to their backup TE. Hurst had been losing playing time to last year’s breakout star Mark Andrews, along with third-stringer Nick Boyle. Playing time was also a primary concern for Hurst as he expected to play more and the Ravens claimed they wanted to give him that playing time somewhere else.

Let’s rewind a bit and recall that Hurst was the first tight end taken in the 2018 NFL Draft. This is a draft class with plenty of “this could be the year” tight ends: Mike Gesicki (42nd overall), Dallas Goedert (49th), Andrews (86th), Jordan Akins (98th), Ian Thomas (101st) and Chris Herndon (107th). Hurst was thought of as the most pro-ready player and was 24 at the time of the draft. If it weren’t for the explosive development of Andrews, Hurst could’ve been the highly productive (but not quite as productive) beneficiary of Lamar Jackson’s incredible 2019 season.

So with all of this context in mind, Hurst steps into an already established spot where Hooper produced as the TE6 in PPR last year or TE3 if you go by scoring average per game.

Where should fantasy owners consider drafting Hayden Hurst?

Fantasy insiders often repeat the following narrative: “If you miss out on the top tight ends like Travis Kelce or George Kittle, it’s best to wait.”

That’s true, but there’s a small, unspoken caveat that goes along with that idea: You still have to get your guy. Hooper scored 1.1 PPR fewer points per game than Kelce and Kittle. So while you should consider waiting, you must identify who you like and when you plan to go after them. While there’s plenty of value later in the draft, you can also acquire some real bums in those middle and late rounds that end up as nothing but waiver wire fodder.

Hurst’s ADP (124) puts him in the first-half of the 11th round and the 13th TE off the board. What I like to do, especially if I’m picking at the 1 or 12 spot in a 12-team league, is go back-to-back at TE around the 10th or 11th round. This fits nicely with Hurst’s ADP. I still could grab him in that 11th round, wait another round or two and take a flier for my backup TE with guys like Pittsburgh's Eric Ebron (153 ADP) or Tennessee's Jonnu Smith (155 ADP).

Atlanta targeted their tight ends 106 times in 2018 and 121 times in 2019. Hurst had a catch rate of 76.9-percent last year so let’s average out those Atlanta TE targets; say 114 TE targets in 2020. At Hurst’s catch rate that amounts to 88 receptions. Hooper averaged 10.5 yards per receptions last year and Hurst averaged 11.6 so let’s project it to roughly 11 yards per reception for a total of 968 yards.

Will any of this happen? Who knows, probably not! However, we can safely assume this outcome is within a range of possible outcomes for Hurst.

Defenses are going to be tied up in knots trying to cover Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Presumably, if Todd Gurley is healthy and on the field, defenses will respect him enough to amplify the effectiveness of play action. Then we have Hurst, rumbling down the middle of the field, splitting the safeties who are trying to not get embarrassed by Jones and Ridley. Plus, the Falcons' below-average defense allowed the 10th-most points in the NFL, so you can expect Atlanta to be passing the ball frequently (4,714 passing yards in 2019, third-most).

I probably wouldn’t draft Hurst until the 10th round, that is to say I'm not so in love that I will reach for him, but this is an especially deep third tier of tight ends for those of us who prefer to wait on the position.

Hurst is certainly one of the guys I really like assuming his ADP stays firm in the late 10th to mid 11th round range. If he climbs up a round, I will likely have to dig a little deeper or hope he falls in my lap.