Packers to Make Run at Pro-Bowl Tight End in Free Agency: Report

Packers to Target Austin Hooper

Getty INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - SEPTEMBER 22: Austin Hooper #81 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates a touchdown during the third quarter in the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Do the Green Bay Packers have their sights set on Jimmy Graham’s replacement?

According to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, the Packers are planning to “make a run” at two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper in free agency after the Atlanta Falcons decided to let Hooper and a few others test the market this offseason. Demovsky added the Packers are intent on adding a pass-catcher in both free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft, prioritizing offensive upgrades for 2020 after spending last season struggling to find multiple consistent passing targets.

Hooper, who will turn 26 next October, was a third-round pick for the Falcons in 2016 and is coming off his most productive NFL season yet despite missing three games with an MCL sprain. Hooper finished the year with 75 receptions for 787 yards and six touchdowns — all career-highs — to give him more than 200 receptions and 2,000 receiving yards after four years in the league.

The Packers are hardly the lone team interested in signing Hooper to a lucrative contract — or even the only team in the NFC North. The Chicago Bears are reportedly set to go “all-in” on the young tight end in free agency, while other teams such as the Washington Redskins and New England Patriots have also been discussed as potential suitors.

The Packers currently have six tight ends signed to their roster, but two of them are set to become free agents while another two have never played a live offensive snap for the team. The remaining options are veteran tight end Jimmy Graham — who could save the team $8 million against the cap if cut from the 2020 roster — and youngster Jace Sternberger.

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Packers Must Address Tight End Situation

The Packers might have already hatched a plan on how to address their tight end deficiencies this offseason in terms of targeting new talent, but their reported intentions to chase Hooper on the market seems to answer at least some questions for 2020.

First and foremost, the Packers now seem more likely than ever to cut loose Graham one year before his too-expensive contract expires in 2021. The 33-year-old tight end delivered his worst receiving numbers since his 2010 rookie season in his second year with the Packers, catching a big Week 1 touchdown but finishing with just 38 total receptions for 447 yards. The money-saving aspect is compelling enough to release Graham, but a premier pass-catching tight end would seal the deal.

The Packers also have to decide on 36-year-old veteran Marcedes Lewis, who thrived in his primary use in 2019 as an end-of-line blocker. Re-signing him to a short-term, low-cost contract could be worthwhile, but it seems more likely the Packers invest in their younger talents. That likely includes Robert Tonyan, who only caught 10 balls for 100 yards in 2019 but is an exclusive rights free agent and a promising piece going forward at just 25.

Perhaps the Packers tight end with the highest ceiling for 2020, though, is Sternberger. He spent the bulk of his rookie season in 2019 on injured reserve, but things started to take hold for him late in the season and postseason. Packers coach Matt LaFleur confirmed his high hopes for Sternberger with the team earlier this week at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“I’m excited for Jace,” LaFleur said Tuesday. “Certainly, it didn’t start off the greatest. He was injured quite a bit and then was on IR and we brought him back. It was a process, but I thought he started to get a good handle on things toward the end of the season. I think (tight ends coach) Justin Outten did an incredible job with him, just putting in the extra time needed for him to get up to speed, and I thought he was playing some good ball at the end of the season in the limited reps he got.”

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