Falcons TE Austin Hooper grateful for interest as free agency nears

Falcons impending free-agent tight end Austin Hooper was flattered to hear about the strong interest he could draw in free agency with the new league year scheduled to begin Wednesday.

The 25-year-old Hooper, a two-time Pro Bowler, should be the top tight end on the market after the Los Angeles Chargers placed the franchise tag on Hunter Henry. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said the team would let Hooper test the market and made no official offer.

A source said the Washington Redskins are very interested in Hooper, while ESPN's Rob Demovsky reported the Green Bay Packers, who recently released veteran Jimmy Graham, are set to make a run at Hooper. The Chicago Bears reportedly have interest in Hooper as well. Other teams are expected to at least inquire when the legal negotiating period begins Monday.

"It definitely feels good to know that there's interest out there for me,'' Hooper told ESPN. "I've worked hard over my four years in Atlanta to set myself up to be in a position like this, so I'm grateful that stuff like that is coming out.''

Most expect Hooper to reset the tight end market at above $10 million per year, although his friend George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers is likely to exceed all tight ends at some point in the future.

Hooper has a tie to Green Bay, with Packers coach Matt LaFleur formerly the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta during the Falcons' 2016 Super Bowl run.

"When he was a coach in Atlanta, I really liked Matt LaFleur as a person,'' Hooper said. "I wasn't a quarterback, so I couldn't really see his coaching style as much. But he definitely helped me out as a younger player. For that, I'll always be grateful. He's a good guy; really likable person.''

Hooper offered plenty of praise for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

"One of the greatest to do it, for sure,'' Hooper said of Rodgers. "Definitely a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback. I mean, I can't say enough good things about the guy. Some of the things he does, I don't think anyone else in the league can do. I'm not saying anything revolutionary here. I really like his style and how he carries himself. He's just got a swagger about him where he's cool, calm, and collected. He always has an answer for what's happening.''

Hooper also has somewhat of a link to the Redskins. In college at Stanford, his position coach was Morgan Turner, the cousin of new Redskins offensive coordinator Scott Turner. They are the sons of Ron and Norv Turner, respectively.

Another team in need of a tight end is New England, and uncertainty still exists about whether Tom Brady will be a Patriot. Hooper hasn't had dreams of playing with Brady like Jets receiver Robby Anderson admitted to, but Hooper still has the ultimate respect for the three-time MVP.

"Of course, everyone would love to play with Tom Brady,'' Hooper said. "He's one of greatest of our generation.''

Hooper, a third-round draft pick in 2016, set career single-season highs last year with 75 receptions, 787 receiving yards, and six touchdowns despite missing three games with an MCL sprain. He was fifth in the league in receptions through the first eight games with 52, only behind Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Cooper Kupp, and Julian Edelman.

Hooper said although he would miss Atlanta and the bonds he has established with players such as quarterback Matt Ryan, he's not lobbying to play anywhere specifically.

"I'm just let my agent [Steve Caric] handle it,'' Hooper said. "Me personally, I just trying to treat it like any other day in the offseason. I wake up, go run, and then lift. I'm not trying to get too wrapped up in this stuff. Don't get me wrong, it's exciting. But I feel like if I focus too much on [free agency], I'm not focused on improving.''