There are reasons to worry about the Tennessee Titans’ pass-catching corps heading into the 2022 season. Titans General Manager Jon Robinson traded away superstar receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a first-round draft pick following a contract dispute. The Titans drafted former Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks with that selection, but Burks has largely been “unavailable” to acclimate to his new offense throughout the offseason via on-field reps due to ongoing asthma-related issues. Julio Jones was released after failing to overcome recurring hamstring injuries. Tennessee has completely revamped its pass-catching options as a result, which leads to more questions than answers heading into a crucial season. One steadying presence has presented himself in the desired manner this offseason that should alleviate some of the fanbase’s concerns. Veteran tight end Austin Hooper has quickly endeared himself to starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Hooper joined the Titans earlier this offseason via a one-year contract after being released by the Cleveland Browns. The move saved the Browns nearly $10 million in salary cap relief, which essentially allowed them to sign David Njoku to a long-term contract. It also gave Hooper a much-needed new lease on life. He’s fitting right into Tennessee’s offense.
The Tannehill-Hooper connection impressed onlookers during organized team activities (OTAs). The departure of Brown has forced Tannehill to find a new reliable target on go-to downs. Hooper is quickly revealing himself as a viable candidate.
“Hooper [has] been working with us since I’ve been here [this offseason] and just that connection is growing,” Tannehill said during OTAs. “We saw him make some plays today; he’s got great size and strength and that’s definitely a help for him and it’ll help us offensively.”
Hooper represents an upgrade on former starting tight end Anthony Firkser, who signed a contract with the Atlanta Falcons in free agency. Tennessee’s passing game will look completely different in 2022. Not only has the personnel received a makeover, but part of the coaching staff has as well. Head coach Mike Vrabel hired former Houston Texans Offensive Coordinator Tim Kelly as the team’s new passing game coordinator. Big changes are coming. Jones, Brown, Firkser, and slot receiver Chester Rogers (who isn’t back in Tennessee) accounted for 239 passing targets last season. Expect Hooper to soak up plenty of those opportunities. Familiarity has also helped Hooper acclimate to Tennessee’s concepts. Titans offensive line coach Keith Carter previously worked alongside Hooper in Atlanta.
Hooper provides an answer for a group that is still sorting through its overall makeup. Burks is expected to play a big role, but his progress has been slowed by the aforementioned breathing issues. Fellow rookie receiver Kyle Philips may start in the slot, but he’s still a first-year player that has yet to play in a professional contest. Robert Woods was the big offseason acquisition at receiver, but Woods continues to rehab from last year’s torn ACL injury. Woods’ progress has been extremely promising and the former Los Angeles Ram appears well ahead of schedule, but he’s still a 30-year-old receiver coming off a serious injury.
Hooper was once an extremely productive pass-catcher. Across two seasons as a Falcon (2018-19), Hooper accounted for 146 receptions, 1,447 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns while thriving in Atlanta’s pass-happy offense. Hooper parlayed that success into a four-year, $44 million deal with the Browns. Hooper found himself in a run-first offense while sharing tight-end duties with Njoku. There were simply too many mouths to feed at the position in an offense that didn’t pass the ball with enough volume for Hooper’s liking. Hooper’s production suffered as a result and his fit in Cleveland never truly materialized. A return to his 70-plus reception-type seasons may be setting the bar too high for Hooper in 2022, but realistic expectations could include 60 catches for 600 or more yards and five-plus touchdowns.
Hooper also brings one underrated element to Tennessee’s offense. Titans fans worried about the offense becoming more predictable following Jonnu Smith’s departure in last year’s free agency period. Although Smith didn’t live up to the hype in New England, those concerns proved to be accurate as Tennessee missed Smith greatly. Firkser was a wide receiver disguised as a tight end. His backup Geoff Swaim was a pure throwback tight end.
In short, Firkser couldn’t block and Swaim couldn’t catch. It made Tennessee’s offense awfully predictable. When Firsker’s on the field, it’s a pass. When Swaim’s on the field, it’s a run. Tipping your hand to opposing defenses makes their job significantly easier. Tennessee’s offense lost the mystery aspect that made their play-action passing attack so successful in 2019 and 2020. Hooper should restore that in 2022.
The Titans also missed Smith in the end zone after he scored nine touchdowns in 2020. A consistent red-zone threat that stands at a towering 6-foot-4, Hooper has secured 23 touchdowns in six professional seasons. Hooper could immediately become Tannehill’s favorite target in the ever-important red area.
Hooper is an underrated tight end that’s capable of taking up a starring role in Tennessee’s new-look offense. Question marks continue to surround Tennessee’s offensive personnel. Much remains undecided, but Hooper possesses every trait necessary to experience a successful campaign in 2022.
- Oct 03, 2023
- Oct 03, 2023