Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank on Wednesday sang the praises of two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper, an unrestricted free agent the team would like to re-sign but has not made a full commitment to just yet.
Speaking from the Super Bowl in Miami, Blank addressed whether the team planned to make Hooper a "Falcon for life," as has become Blank's catchphrase before signing top players to lucrative deals.
"I think he's a young, ascending player, and he has performed at a very high level for us," Blank told ESPN. "I think he's worthy, certainly, of a new contract based on market. Whether that fits in with us and our salary cap remains to be seen.
"I will tell you with all our free agents, [general manager] Thomas Dimitroff and the personnel staff have spoken to agents and understand the direction of where things are going. We've made it clear that we're making more final decisions after the Super Bowl."
Hooper is arguably the most important pending free agent in the Falcons' bunch, although there is interest in the status of pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr. and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. The Falcons already informed kicker Younghoe Koo of intentions to tender him as an exclusive-rights free agent at $660,000.
Hooper is certain to draw interest if he reaches free agency on March 18, based on his ability and age. The floor for Hooper is likely to start at $10 million per year and $22 million guaranteed, based on the current market for tight ends. The Falcons have yet to extend an offer. Dimitroff mentioned the franchise tag as a possibility, but using that to keep Hooper under contract in 2020 seems highly unlikely.
Hooper, 25, finished this past season with a career-high 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns despite missing three games with an MCL sprain.
"Well, I think he's a great receiving tight end," Blank said of Hooper. "He plays hard. He plays well. He plays under pressure well. He doesn't normally get injured, although this year we lost him for three games. He's been a consistent performer for us since we drafted him [third round, 2016]. Smart player, which is what you expect coming out of Stanford."
When informed of Blank's comments, Hooper expressed his gratitude.
"It's an honor for the owner to show praise," Hooper said. "Hopefully, I can remain a Falcon. When my representation hears from the organization, we can begin this process. I remain very optimistic things will work out. Rise up!"
The scenario involving Beasley is intriguing, as well, because he was coach Dan Quinn's first draft pick at eighth overall in 2015. However, Beasley has not performed at a consistent level since leading the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016, when the Falcons made a Super Bowl run. Beasley recorded eight sacks this past season, including 6.5 in the final eight games. His status could depend on how newly named defensive coordinator Raheem Morris envisions Beasley's potential role.
"Well, Vic played at a different level in the back half of the year than the first half of the year," Blank said of Beasley. "What changed for him, I'm not exactly sure. And whether or not we can have that kind of consistency with him when it matters, only time will tell. But that will be a decision that will be made by the coaches and by personnel. He certainly played better in the back half of the year."
Both Dimitroff and team president Rich McKay, who will oversee Dimitroff and Quinn, insisted they are not overly concerned with the salary-cap situation for 2020 despite cap commitments approaching $200 million.
When asked if McKay's new role might influence the decision on a particular player, Blank responded, "If you're asking me who is going to have the final say, hopefully the three don't get to that position where final say is important. What you really want to have is a more comprehensive vetting of the critical decisions, whether it be in free agency or the draft."