There are many crazy things that happen during free agency, but the first major signing during the 2020 legal tampering period might be the craziest we hear all year. The Cleveland Browns have stepped in and made Austin Hooper the highest paid tight end in the NFL.
THE SURPRISING CHANGE
Not many realized the Browns would even be a team in consideration for one of the free agent tight ends, as they drafted David Njoku with the 29th overall pick in the 2017 draft, and from what we’d seen, he seemed to be the long-term solution. With a new front office and head coach in place, the Browns obviously felt the need to further solidify the position. It’s possible they’ll shop Njoku to other tight end-needy teams.
Hooper made a name for himself in 2019 when he hauled in 75 receptions for 787 yards and six touchdowns with the Falcons, a team who invested a third-round pick on him back in 2016. The trajectory of his career has been on an upward trend every year, finishing with more receptions, targets, yards, and touchdowns every year, so it was surprising to see the Falcons move on.
The question now becomes, “did Hooper benefit from having Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley on the field?” While the answer to that question is obviously yes, it’s was always more about how much they helped him. Hooper now goes to an offense with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, so it’s a similar situation, though the Browns aren’t likely to be nearly as pass-heavy as the Falcons have been over the past two years (where Hooper has done his damage).
If we pretend for a moment that Njoku remains on the team, the Browns are likely to be running a whole lot of 2TE sets, which is plausible when you consider Kevin Stefanski (Browns new head coach) employed more 2TE sets than any other team in the league in 2019 while with the Vikings. We saw Kyle Rudolph wind-up with 48 targets, while Irv Smith Jr. wound-up with 47 targets last year. That’s 95 targets between the two tight ends combined, which is fewer than Hooper’s 97 targets in just 13 games last year. It’s also important to keep in mind that the Vikings dealt with an injury to Adam Thielen, which led to more available targets that surely funneled some to the tight ends.
While it’s worth noting the Vikings threw the ball just 465 times last year, the Browns were not far ahead of them with 537 pass attempts. With Stefanski coming to town (and the second-round tender to Kareem Hunt), the Browns could very well be looking to dial back the pass attempts even more. No matter which way you slice it, they aren’t getting close to the 683 pass attempts by the Falcons in 2019. When you start factoring in the talent around Hooper in Cleveland (Beckham, Landry, Chubb, Hunt, and Njoku), it’s really hard to find a scenario in which he reaches his target numbers from 2019.
We typically see players go to a situation where there’s a clear-cut need for their services, and while the Browns under Stefanski may use multi-tight end sets more than most teams, this is going to hurt Hooper from a fantasy perspective.
When it comes to tight ends, it’s all about targets. Going back to 2009, there have been just 11 tight ends who’ve finished top-10 without seeing a minimum of 80 targets, which might be difficult for Hooper to come by with his new team. If the Browns decide to trade away Njoku, I could see Hooper potentially sneaking into the top-10 fantasy tight ends in 2020, though there’s no guarantee. There’s simply too much risk with drafting him and expecting TE1-type numbers every week.