Going back to Cali: Austin Hooper bonds with MVP Matt Ryan

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You knew Matt Ryan had faith in Austin Hooper when the league MVP targeted the rookie tight end on consecutive plays in the Super Bowl, the second resulting in a 19-yard touchdown.

The chemistry between the two Atlanta Falcons continued through organized team activities and minicamp, as Ryan put the Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots behind him and Hooper continued his maturation going into his second season in the offense.

Although Hooper's play stood out this offseason, he was far from content. So the Northern California native recently joined Ryan for three days of workouts in Southern California, a routine Ryan started last season while connecting with the experts at 3DQB training.

"That's what L.A. was about ... just another opportunity for me to work with the MVP and just understand exactly where he wants me to be," Hooper said, "and work routes that we both feel we can progress on."

The workouts took place at Golden West College. Hooper ran routes and caught passes from Ryan, a guy he knows always delivers the ball in the right spot. Hooper also did some spot catching for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

"Jesus, that guy has an arm," Hooper said of Stafford.

Outside of the football aspect, the three-day sessions gave Hooper a chance to relate to Ryan after spending just one full season together.

"It felt really good, kind of getting to know my teammate a little better," Hooper said. "Just really was able to build some chemistry with him, on and off the field. It was getting a deeper understanding of where he wants me to be, and I feel that's what it's all about."

As beneficial as it was to have the extra time with Ryan, the self-motivated Hooper entered the offseason intent on elevating all elements of his game -- particularly route running -- with or without a quarterback. He had respectable numbers as a rookie, with 19 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season despite starting the year behind veteran Jacob Tamme and dealing with an MCL sprain late. Then Hooper had six catches for 65 yards and a touchdown in the postseason, including three catches for 32 yards and a score on a team-high six targets in the Super Bowl.

The first thing Hooper did this offseason was study film of three tight ends in particular: Kansas City's Travis Kelce, Philadelphia's Zach Ertz and former teammate Tamme.

Kelce, an All-Pro selection, led all tight ends with 1,125 receiving yards last season.

"His creativity is out of this world," Hooper said. "And at the line, he has to be, bar none, the best tight end on the line of scrimmage, the way he can manipulate defenders without even touching them. It's insane, some of the release moves that he uses and some of the footwork he's incorporated in his game."

Ertz, a Stanford guy like Hooper, has 247 receptions and 2,840 receiving yards in his career, the most ever by an Eagles tight end through his first four seasons.

"Ertz is a guy who is great at the top of his routes," Hooper said. "He might not be the fastest of all the tight ends in the league, but he can remain quick at the top of his route. He wins with his separation at the top of his routes, whereas Kelce wins a lot at the line."

Tamme, a free agent, actually led the Falcons with 14 receptions for 154 yards through the first three games of last season but ended up on injured reserve after eight games with a shoulder injury.

"The feel that he had in this offense and how well he fit in the system, in the way he could feel his way around routes ... It's not always what is on tape. You've got to have a good feel for what's going on around you," Hooper said of Tamme. "Jacob has such a phenomenal feel for things. I don't want to say he ad-libbed routes, but he understood what spot he needed to be in."

Hooper went to the Falcons' facility with his phone and recorded film of all three of those tight ends, plus others. Many of those clips ended up being Kelce's releases. Hooper would watch the clips, then go on the field to work on the footwork, either alone or with someone -- anyone -- he could grab to stand in front of him.

"Are my feet in the right place? Are my shoulders leaning the right way? Are my eyes showing the defender where I want them to go? All those little things are things I picked up from Kelce," Hooper said.

Hooper's primary goal for 2017 is to be sound with his routes, something tight ends coach Wade Harman said Hooper has accomplished during the offseason. Hooper said his best route last season was the "wide skinner" in the Super Bowl where he attacked Patriots safety Patrick Chung's outside shoulder, gave him a right-left head fake, then crossed Chung's face to collect a pinpoint pass from Ryan for the touchdown.

His worst? A corner route at Tampa Bay where he let Bucs linebacker Lavonte David get the best of him.

"There was literally nothing I could do, and I was the primary," Hooper recalled. "And Matt just sailed it out of bounds. I just looked foolish. I didn’t attack the defender the right way. I totally tried to rush it and be a total rookie like, 'Oh my god, the ball is coming, rush it, rush it,' instead of being patient and working the guy. I gave him a weak move and basically ran into him. That's something I never, ever want to do again."

Ryan praised Hooper during minicamp, saying, "He's playing like a veteran guy now" and that he will be a big part of the team's success moving forward. Hooper appreciated the high praise but he's not done yet.

"It’s nice to hear, but I still have a lot more work to do," Hooper said. "It's just affirmation that I'm doing what Matt wants. Matt talked about specific things he wanted me to do. I try to make those an emphasis and really bring those to life. That could bring a little more continuity between me and Matt to have a little more trust, knowing I'll be in the spot he wants me to be in. I'm just taking his coaching and trying to implement it on the field."