The tight ends who had the best day at the NFL Scouting Combine this year are probably Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper.
Four years after they were the first two tight ends selected in the 2016 NFL Draft (another “poor” class, as Henry went 35th and Hooper didn’t go next until pick 81), college football has produced little in the way of premium prospects at the position for 2020. In a class that features at least one elite prospect at nearly every position, including quarterback, edge rusher, defensive tackle, cornerback, the things that Isaiah Simmons does, plus four tackles with top-10 consideration and one of the deepest receiving classes of all-time, tight end may not see its first player off of the board until round three.
Cole Kmet, Harrison Bryant, Adam Trautman, and Albert Okwuegbunam have the most attention right now, but it won’t be surprising to anyone if there isn’t a tight end off the board by the 50s. Or later.
And that’s great news if you’re about to be a free agent tight end.
Because they weren’t first round picks themselves in 2016, both Henry and Hooper are set to be free agents without fifth-year options. They don’t just headline the class of free agent options, they are practically the whole bag of groceries:
At 25, they’re the youngest tight ends on the market. They’re the only two to show a consistent ability and worthiness to get 60-100 targets next season, as Eric Ebron’s second year with the Indianapolis Colts showed vast regression; Ebron has also dropped 14 passes in the last two years. I think we even saw an early reaction to the weak tight end market in both the draft and free agency when the Seattle Seahawks signed 35-year-old Greg Olsen to a one-year, $7 million before the market was even open for anyone else.
If Olsen is worth $7 million for one year, then Henry and Hooper could be looking to set a new benchmark for the position.
The highest paid AAV for any tight end is still the $10 million going to Jimmy Graham, though the Green Bay Packers are likely to put an end to that deal soon. Zach Ertz makes the most in 2020 ($12.4 million), followed by Graham, then Travis Kelce at $11.2. The situation in Atlanta is such that the Falcons ($4.3 million in cap space as of this writing) probably can’t retain Hooper without making some moves now and blowing him away with an offer or franchising him. But that is not expected.
Hooper seems to want to test the market and I’m sure his agent is seeing the same signs that I am. I could see a team offering Hooper at least a four-year, $48 million deal with $30 million guaranteed. Not only because he’s a good player but because of the aforementioned supply and demand issue at tight end. If five or six teams are vying for his services, the bidding war could set a new standard for the position, even if Hooper is not considered to be at the level of Kelce and George Kittle. He doesn’t need to be.
Trent Brown is not the NFL’s best tackle. Xavien Howard is not the NFL’s best cornerback.
So the Falcons may not be in a position to retain Hooper — though they still could — but the Chargers are definitely capable of locking in Henry, at least through that feverish free agency period when a dozen teams would be asking for his help. If no contract is reached in time (as we reported last week, the team would like that), LA can tag Henry (as I wrote recently, they should) and at least extend negotiations. I could see Henry holding out because of Hooper’s eventual contract — as I could see a couple of other premium tight ends doing — but the Chargers can’t risk losing him unless they’re content with being a non-TE offense.
It is improbable that LAC, or any other team, will be able to find a similar player in the draft this year, and definitely not without sacrificing addressing other positions in a class so rich in talent elsewhere. Free agency and trades aren’t likely to help either. For those reasons, it is more clear than ever that Hooper and Henry are having a good year already.