GREEN BAY, Wis. – In 2018, general manager Brian Gutekunst signed tight end Jimmy Graham to a three-year, $30 million contract. The past-his-prime Graham never got close to earning that massive payday.
In 2019, Gutekunst made a point of signing ascending players in free agency. The additions of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos, in particular, helped push the Packers to the NFC Championship Game.
Combining those historical points, Gutekunst is expected to pursue Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper when the free-agent negotiating window begins on March 16.
A third-round pick in 2016, Hooper is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons of 70-plus catches. In 2018, he caught 71 passes for 660 yards (9.3 average) and four touchdowns. In 2019, despite playing in only 13 games, he caught 75 passes for 787 yards (10.5 average) and six touchdowns. In 2019, he caught four more passes but turned those into 127 more yards and 11 more first downs. Hooper will turn 26 on Nov. 4.
Speaking at the Scouting Combine, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff would not rule out re-signing Hooper. However, the Falcons have only $4.3 million of cap space, according to OverTheCap.com.
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“This does not necessarily close the door on their time with the Falcons and we fully intend on negotiating with them in the free agency period as we work through our roster-building scenarios,” he via the team Web site. “Oftentimes, you have to look at what the market is to determine whether you're willing, as an organization, to step up and pay those players a certain amount of money.”
Money is a potential issue for Green Bay, too. Pro Football Focus projected a four-year contract worth $10.13 million per season. According to OverTheCap, the Packers have $20.46 million of cap space, though releasing Graham would create another $8 million. The adoption of a new CBA presumably would raise the league-wide salary cap. And it would allow the Packers to create additional space via a contract extension for defensive tackle Kenny Clark. Clark’s cap charge under the fifth-year team option is slated to be $7.69 million.
With a new CBA, the Packers conceivably could have enough money to re-sign Bulaga, extend Clark, take care of a 10-man draft class and add one high-profile free agent.
As the yards per catch indicates, he is not an especially explosive player. At the 2016 Scouting Combine, the 6-foot-4, 254-pounder ran his 40 in 4.72 seconds. Of the 17 tight ends who ran at this year’s Combine, that would have tied for sixth; of the 15 tight ends who did the vertical jump, his leap of 33 inches would have ranked 11th.
According to PFF, Hooper dropped two passes for a drop rate of 2.6 percent, which was tied for fifth-best among the 35 tight ends who were targeted at least 40 times. Graham’s three drops gave him a drop rate of 7.3 percent, which ranked 27th.
For the Packers, tight end is shrouded in mystery. Graham and fellow veteran Marcedes Lewis (free agent) have uncertain futures, third-round pick Jace Sternberger barely contributed due to a concussion in training camp and an ankle injury in the preseason that landed him on injured reserve, and Robert Tonyan remains little more than potential. Tonyan, an exclusive-rights free agent, recently had surgery. The group is rounded out by Evan Baylis, a former undrafted free agent, and James Looney, a seventh-round defensive lineman in 2018 who moved to tight end during the season.