Stanford's Austin Hooper could be quite a catch for Atlanta Falcons

Third-round draft pick Austin Hooper has already caught passes in the red zone from an Atlanta Falcons quarterback -- sort of.

During a private workout in March, the former Stanford tight end spent the last two minutes of the session fielding balls thrown by Falcons tight ends coach Wade Harman from inside the 20-yard line.

"Coach Harman is a great coach. His arm isn’t as good as Matt Ryan's, so I don’t think I was challenged quite as much," Hooper said a laugh. "The ones that were able to be caught, yes, I caught them."

Harman and the Falcons got the hint, even if the passes didn’t allow Hooper to show off his full capabilities. They figured he was the type of tight end who could be an asset as a pass-catcher in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. They knew his size, at 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds, and speed (4.72 in the 40, third-best among tight ends at the NFL combine) would help create mismatches and stretch the field.

So now that he’s in the fold, Hooper has a chance to show just how dangerous of a red zone threat he can be.

"I do believe it’s a little bit too early to talk about that," Hooper said. "But from what I’ve done in college, which isn’t the same, I feel like once I have some time to learn and get some reps against the best competition in the world, I can develop into my role which, with Stanford, was being a third-down guy in the passing game and being able to block on first and second or second and third down.

"I believe with my work ethic, I can fulfill the role they want me to fulfill over in Atlanta."

The Falcons had their share of red zone woes last season, including a slew of turnovers. Though they possess arguably the most dangerous receiving threat in the league in Julio Jones, the Falcons didn’t take full advantage of their red zone opportunities. They could have been even better than their 54.7 percent red zone conversion rate, which ranked 17th in the league. The Falcons were fifth in 2014 at 60 percent.

In steps Hooper, who caught six touchdown passes last season in a Stanford offense dominated by Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey. Three of those touchdowns were in the red zone, and one them was a 42-yard, catch-and-run down the middle at Oregon State.

Stanford tight ends coach Morgan Turner was most impressed with the red zone production Hooper had in a 41-31 win over USC.

"If you go back and watch the game, he goes up and on a corner route, high-points the ball over two DBs," Turner said. "He makes another catch when it’s Cover 0; a contested catch. Both were in the red zone that got us down to the 1- and 2-yard lines. He’s definitely a threat because he will make contested catches."

When asked which players he patterned his game after, Hooper didn’t hesitate in his response.

"First of all, Antonio Gates is the reason why I wanted to play the tight end position when I was 12 years old," he said. "I tried to watch a lot of his film as a kid growing up. In high school, I watched a lot of Jason Witten."

Surprisingly, there was another player Hooper tried to emulate -- one familiar to Falcons fans.

"Once I got into Stanford, I had played mostly defensive line so I really knew a little about tight end, so I watching a lot of Levine Toilolo film," Hooper said of the current Falcons tight end. "I was also watching a lot of Zach Ertz film, a lot of Coby Fleener film, a lot of Jim Dray film.

"I have talked to Levine. It was really cool because Levine actually texted me, which was a testament to what type of dude he is. I obviously watched him since I was a recruit in high school. The ability to play with a guy like that is such a huge blessing."

Hooper is thankful for the opportunity to play with the Falcons, period. He figured there was a strong chance of such occurring after the day he caught red zone passes from Harman.

"It was a team that showed interest from the beginning," Hooper said. "The tight end, you know as well as I do, is more of a luxury position. It’s not a position that just anyone on the board could draft. I had Atlanta showing me the most love. And I knew there was a legit chance whenever they were on the clock, it was a good chance.

"When they worked me out privately, Mr. Dimitroff, Mr. Pioli, Coach Quinn, Coach Harman, the whole crew was out there. When you have more than eight guys out there working you out -- you and three other teammates (Joshua Garnett, Blake Martinez, Kyle Murphy) -- it shows that you are of interest to them."