The first major free agent splash of the new league year took place about 40 minutes after the legal tampering period opened. Former Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper reportedly agreed to sign with the Cleveland Browns. He'll be the highest-paid tight end in the game when he can officially sign on Wednesday afternoon.
How does Hooper joining the Browns affect his fantasy value in 2020? Let's take a dive into the numbers.
A popular sleeper over the last couple seasons, Hooper really came into his own in 2019. He finished as the No. 3 tight end in average PPR fantasy points per game (15.0) and No. 6 overall. He caught at least six passes in eight of the 13 games he played in last season, and found the end zone six times.
If healthy, can he be a top-five tight end in Cleveland this season? The opportunity will be there.
The addition of Hooper is a big boon for quarterback Baker Mayfield. The ability to have a consistent pass-catching tight end in the offense is something he and the Browns lacked last season after David Njoku suffered an injury in Week 2. In Mayfield's 2018 rookie campaign, Njoku finished as the No. 9 overall tight end (No. 11 on a per-game basis) in PPR formats. It's reasonable to assume that two years of growth from Mayfield combined with Hooper's superb skillset only means bigger and better things for both players in 2020.
Hooper has shown tangible growth every season he's been in the league. After posting 19-271-3 in his rookie season, he had a stat line of 49-526-3 in 2017, 71-660-4 in 2018 and 75-787-6 last season in only 13 games after playing the full 16 in the two prior years.
Looking specifically at the situation he's walking into, there are a lot of similarities to Atlanta in terms of the offensive weapons around him—he won't be forced to carry the load on his own. He's leaving Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in favor of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. He's leaving Matt Ryan in favor of Baker Mayfield, which is still a downgrade right now, but the extent of that could be mitigated as the young quarterback continues his growth in year three.
One area of concern for Hooper is running back Kareem Hunt's presence on the team. There has been some research done on the correlation between RB targets and TE targets and they all typically point to the same conclusion: those two positions' targets correlate with each other more than WR to RB or WR to TE. This means that the more teams throw to their running back, the less they throw to the tight end and vise versa.
Devonta Freeman caught 59 passes in 14 games for the Falcons last season. Hunt was on pace to catch 65 if he played 14 games, and Nick Chubb caught 36 in 16 games. Be aware that Hooper and Hunt might eat into each other's targets, limiting both of their values a bit.
So will Hooper be a top-five tight end in Cleveland? It's possible, but I likely won't have him ranked that high in the preseason. He's within the top eight for sure, but I think last season was the best-case scenario for him.
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