'He just needs a chance:' Hayden Hurst could thrive with Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Last December offered a glimpse of the type of threat the Atlanta Falcons acquired in tight end Hayden Hurst.

It was Week 14 of the regular season with Baltimore visiting Buffalo. Hurst, then a member of the Ravens, lined up in a bunch formation to the right with receiver Marquise Brown and fellow tight end Nick Boyle. The Bills stacked the box anticipating a Lamar Jackson handoff to Gus Edwards, but Jackson faked, dropped back, then threw a pass to a wide-open Hurst running a flag route.

Hurst caught the ball at the Bills’ 43-yard line with a couple of steps on the defense and outraced four trailing defensive backs for a 61-yard score. He topped it off by strutting into the end zone and motioning as if he were dusting off his jersey to say it was a cinch.

“That was the highlight of my time in Baltimore,” Hurst said. “After scratching and crawling my way into getting reps and catching that one in Buffalo -- I think I ran like 20 or 25 mph or something like that -- it really showcased my speed and athleticism. People finally started understanding why I was a first-round draft pick.”

The Falcons sent second- and fifth-round picks to Baltimore for Hurst and a fourth-round selection.

Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter sifted through all of Hurst’s film, so he was of course impressed by that score. But much more than one play grabbed Koetter’s attention.

“What caught my eyes is how well he caught the ball in his hand,” Koetter said. “And Hayden is fast. Hayden is a [6-foot-4] 265-pound man who can run. I just watched all of his targets, and I watched how he ran his routes, how he caught the ball in his hands, and how he caught the ball in traffic. Obviously the 61-yarder was nice, and we like to use our tight ends going vertical.

“But just his overall play, how hard he played and how he wasn’t afraid of contact, whether he was a receiver or a blocker. When they said we had a chance to get him, I was definitely all-in.”

Fantasy owners might want to take note of the type of impact Hurst could have in a loaded offense that already includes arguably the league’s best receiver in Julio Jones along with ultra-talented third-year receiver Calvin Ridley.

The Falcons traded their 2020 second-round pick and a fifth-round pick in exchange for Hurst and the Ravens’ fourth-round pick. Baltimore drafted running back J.K. Dobbins with the second-rounder and used the fifth-rounder in a trade with Jacksonville for five-time Pro Bowler Calais Campbell. The Falcons used the fourth-rounder to select safety Jaylinn Hawkins.

It was a necessary trade from the Falcons' perspective after letting two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper walk in free agency to the Cleveland Browns. Hooper had developed into a primary target for quarterback Matt Ryan and the duo built strong chemistry during offseason workouts in California. However, the Falcons weren’t willing to pay Hooper the $10.5 million per year he got from the Browns. (The Falcons didn't make a formal offer, but they were prepared to pay $8.5 million per year.)

Hurst, the 25th overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, will make $1,483,276 this season. He’s developed a bond with Ryan, driving from his home in Jacksonville, Florida, to work out in Atlanta with his new quarterback this offseason amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hurst and Ryan also spent time together in California.

“He is, for sure, one of the fastest and most athletic tight ends that I’ve ever played with, and I’ve been fortunate to play with some really good ones,” Ryan said of Hurst. ”He’s different from a guy like Austin Hooper. He’s different from a guy like Tony Gonzalez. He’s got a different skill set. The thing that is similar to those guys is that he’s a mismatch problem.”

Hurst didn’t reach his full potential in Baltimore as Mark Andrews, a 2018 third-round pick, emerged as the primary tight end. Hurst's agent, Hadley Englehard, was proactive in facilitating a trade to a destination where Hurst would be utilized more in the passing game. Four teams showed interest, but Hurst pinpointed Atlanta as a preferred destination from the outset.

His former Ravens teammates didn’t want to see him go.

“Hayden is one of my best friends," Andrews said. “Coming into work with a guy like that -- with the tight ends room that we had last year -- it was a privilege. For us not to be able to have him anymore, it’s saddening for me and Nick [Boyle] and the other guys. But he’s a special player. He’s an athletic guy, and he’s going to flourish when he gets his chance. He’s a baller. ... He just needs a chance.”

Hurst also has the respect of other top tight ends around the league.

“He was a good player since entering the league,” Seahawks tight end Greg Olsen said. “Ran into a logjam in Baltimore. In that [Atlanta] offense, he can be very productive.”

The Falcons might provide the perfect opportunity for Hurst. Of course, he was aware of Hooper’s 2019 numbers, which included career-highs in receptions (75), receiving yards (787), receiving touchdowns (six), and targets (96) under Koetter last season. All six of Hooper’s touchdowns came in the red zone, where he caught 10 passes on 18 targets.

“I watched some of [Hooper’s] tape, just what he did and how they used him,” Hurst said. “It’s pretty exciting. For me, the most exciting thing was how they used him in the red zone. Hooper was always running across the field underneath Julio and Calvin, catching the balls and kind of running free. I think that kind of suits me. If I can get underneath those guys and catch it in space with my speed, that’s going to be pretty cool.”

Through 29 career games, Hurst has 43 receptions for 512 yards and three touchdowns on 62 targets, so he averaged 2.2 targets per game in Baltimore. He did not have a drop.

Pass-catching tight ends need to be fluid running seam, corner and option routes, and the seam seems to be Hurst’s specialty. He can utilize his speed, and Hurst insisted he clocked a 4.59-second 40 one time during training.

Koetter is excited about Hurst's potential in the scheme, yet he stopped short of anointing Hurst the league’s next great tight end. This is the same coordinator who designed plays for the Hall of Famer Gonzalez. Koetter didn’t dare compare Hurst to Gonzalez or any other tight end.

“We’re still learning Hayden,” Koetter said. “We’ve got to remember that Hayden is coming from a running team, where the tight end wasn’t really featured in their offense, to now coming to a place where we do use the tight end a lot. I would say that I’m still learning him. I think Matt is even still learning him. And Hayden is definitely still learning what we want from him.

“It’s a little too early for me to say anything about [comparisons]. I’m really fired up about the way Hayden works at it, how hard he pushes himself, and how you can really see his drive to be great. He’s a perfectionist.”