Time is ticking. NFL free agency is approaching quickly.
And Austin Hooper might soon find himself wearing a new uniform.
Hooper, the Atlanta Falcons' two-time Pro Bowl tight end, officially becomes a free agent March 18. His agent, Steve Caric, can begin negotiating with other teams March 16.
So how will this scenario all play out? How much money will Hooper secure in the end?
Former NFL agent Joel Corry, now a contract and salary-cap analyst, has been monitoring Hooper's situation closely. Corry doesn't buy any talk of the Falcons not having enough salary-cap space to commit to Hooper despite their current $199.1 million in cap commitments.
"The cap is always an excuse like, 'Well, we don't have any cap room to sign somebody.' If you truly want somebody, you can find a way," Corry said. "If this is a desperation year for the Falcons, that would suggest that you want to make a huge run at trying to keep Austin Hooper. Before he got hurt last season, he was arguably the most productive tight end in the NFL."
Through the first eight games of last season, Hooper stood fifth in the league in receptions with 52, behind only receivers Michael Thomas (73), DeAndre Hopkins (60), Cooper Kupp (58) and Julian Edelman (53). Hooper's hot start was derailed by an MCL sprain that caused him to miss three games, but he still finished with a career-best 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns.
Corry pointed out how the tight-end market has been stagnant since 2014 when Jimmy Graham got $10 million per year with $20.9 million in guarantees from the Saints as a franchise player. Hooper is expected to top Graham's $10 million per year average wherever he ends up signing, even if he remains with the Falcons.
"You've got two [impending] free agents who could move the needle, I would think, past Graham, and one who I'm pretty sure will hit the open market in Hooper," Corry said. "Franchising him [at around $10.7 million] would be difficult. The other guy is Hunter Henry, who's got a better chance of being restricted by either the franchise or transition tag. If Henry gets restricted, that's pretty much going to leave Hooper as the guy out there in free agency."
Corry foreshadowed how a Hooper deal might look.
"Let's say like $44 million over four years, and totally guarantee the first two years at $26.5 million," Corry said. "The player would probably want a three-year deal. Hooper is 25 years old. His best football is ahead of him. If he can put himself [in position] for a contract extension after playing two years when he's still in his prime, that would be preferable to him.
"The team probably would want to do a five-year deal because you can prorate the signing bonus over five rather than three [for cap space]. But he's not doing a five because he's going to want another bite at the apple. That's why I say it's probably going to be four years."
Getting $11 million per year with almost $27 million guaranteed would put Hooper not only ahead of Graham in average salary per year, but ahead of Chicago's Trey Burton ($22 million guarantee) in guaranteed money. But for Hooper or any other tight end, being the richest at the position might not last long. San Francisco's George Kittle still has one year remaining on his deal but will cash in soon.
"Kittle will get done at some point, and that is going to raise the bar dramatically," Corry said. "The best thing for the impending free-agent tight ends -- and I don't think it's going to happen -- would be for Kittle and the 49ers to get something done quickly. But I suspect there's going to be sticker shock on that one. If I'm George Kittle, I'm taking the position of, 'I'm your No. 1 receiver, so don't talk to me about tight-end money. I want to be paid like a top receiver threat.'
"I don't anticipate Kittle signing for anything under $13 million per year. You've never had a tight end with $30 million in guarantees. He'll probably be the first."
As for Hooper, the Falcons would have to do some reshuffling to re-sign him. They already restructured the contracts of quarterback Matt Ryan and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to create more cap space. Their most pressing need is for pass-rushers, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff previously called Hooper a priority. Losing Hooper probably would mean targeting a pass-catching tight end in the draft, although they saw some flashes from undrafted Jaeden Graham last season.
"To sign Hooper, you're going to have to restructure some more contracts, like maybe Julio Jones," Corry said. "You'll have to cut somebody like Devonta Freeman [$3.5 million cap savings]. You went out and paid some offensive linemen that don't necessarily need to be there next season. Like I said, if you really want to sign someone, you'll find a way."