Bears to Pursue Austin Hooper According to Report
Bears are so serious about the tight end position they're apparently willing to put spend a good portion of their cap space on it.
According to a report by Jason Lieser of the Sun-Times, the Bears will try to make a run at Falcons free agent tight end Austin Hooper once the negotiating and signing period begins on March 16.
General manager Ryan Pace might have tipped his hand a bit on this when he was asked at the combine specifically about the depth of the tight end position in the draft, but he didn't just include the draft in his answer.
"We’re looking at it in free agency and the draft," Pace said. "It’s deep in different areas. And so, yeah, that’s an area of focus for us. I don’t think that’s a secret."
Hooper definitely would fit the category of a "mismatch" maker, as coach Matt Nagy said they need at tight end.
They already know Hooper will not be tagged and could be available because of comments made by Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff at the combine about possible free agents De’Vondre Campbell, Wes Schweitzer and Hooper.
"Of course we want them back and will continue to negotiate with those players," Dimitroff said. "But it's imperative that we see what the market holds for them. So, that will gauge how we approach it.
"As you know, we have a salary cap situation that we are monitoring closely and that's important for us to know exactly where we feel the market is before we make any very solid offers and discussions as far a making agreements on compensation."
The Falcons are only going to have $4.5 million available under the cap. The Bears could afford something like $10 million a year, but their cap situation is tight. They are at $26.3 million under the cap according to Spotrac.com. If the new CBA is signed before the start of the league year March 18, then they'd have more available although some of that would be eaten up by higher minimum contracts and a few additional players allowed on the roster.
Spotrac.com has put a projected market value of $9.9 million an average per year for a Hooper contract, which would put him among the highest paid tight ends. The Bears are already paying a contract close to that to often-injured Trey Burton, at $8 million average per year.
If the Bears made this move, they would be eating plenty of tight end cash if they cut Burton. Normally teams can save the salary figure against the cap by cutting a player but Burton has $6.7 million in salary due this year and his contract called for $4 million of it to become fully guaranteed if he was on the roster on March 15, 2019. They also would be eating his prorated bonus of $1.75 million and would also be counting that much of his deal against the cap next year.
Burton hasn't been healthy since before the 2018 playoff loss to the Eagles and started only five games with eight total games played last year due to lingering groin injury issues. He had surgery and the Bears are optimistic this will solve the problem but can't be certain.
Last year Hooper had a career-high 75 receptions for 787 yards with six touchdowns despite missing three games with a knee injury. He has 214 receptions for 2,244 yards and 16 TDs.
Devoting such a large amount of cash to tight end would make signing players at other need positions difficult for the Bears.
Both inside linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Danny Trevathan and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are due to become unrestricted free agents and they have already cut starting cornerback Prince Amukamara and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel for salary cap purposes, so they must be replaced.
Counting players who were on injured reserve or the practice squad last year, the Bears currently have 10 tight ends after the signing of Demetrius Harris. So it looks like they're holding a mass tryout like they did last year at kicker. Signing Hooper would help solve their problems at the U-tight end position.
"This offense, a lot of it goes through the tight end," Pace said at the combine. "We're exploring every avenue."
Tight ends who impressed at the combine on Day 1 were Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, Missouri's Albert Okwuegbunam, Notre Dame's Cole Kmet and LSU's Stephen Sullivan. Hopkins ran a 4.66-second 40 while Okwuegnunam had by far the fastest time at 4.49. Sullivan was far faster than expected at 4.66. Kmet ran a 4.7. Kmet had the best vertical leap at 37 inches, while Sullivan was at 36.5 inches.
LSU's Thaddeus Moss didn't work out due to injury.