The offense of the Cleveland Browns took one more hit today as the franchise announced that two-time Pro Bowler Austin Hooper would no longer be with the club after the June 1 with a designation tag.
The offense has recently lost long-time center J.C. Tretter, five-time Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry, and now Hooper.
GM Andrew Berry placed the franchise tag on TE David Njoku at the deadline which to many signified that the team would soon move on from Hooper. He was slated to be paid $9.5 million with a cap hit of $11.25 million after signing a whooping four-year $42 million deal with $23 million guaranteed during the 2020 free agency period. The announcement of Hooper now with the Browns was considered newly-installed GM Berry’s first big signing.
Njoku will make $10.931 million this season, so to have two high-priced players at the tight end position did not make much sense.
Hooper was a stud tight end while in Atlanta where he was drafted in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft after being First Team All-Pac 12 with Stanford. Going into the draft he was rated as the second best tight end behind Arkansas’ Hunter Henry.
He started just three games in his rookie season, but finally cracked the starting lineup in 2018 where he had 660 yards on 71 receptions with four touchdowns and was named to his first Pro Bowl but as a replacement for Zach Ertz of Philadelphia. The following season Hooper had his best year to date with 787 yards on 75 catches with six TDs and made the Pro Bowl once again as a replacement for San Francisco’s George Kittle.
That sparked a league-wide interest in the pass catcher as numerous clubs such as Seattle, Buffalo and Green Bay were after his services as Atlanta passed on a new contract. He then inked the monster deal with the Browns on the first day of the free agent period that included a $10 million signing bonus.
A good blocker, his receptions dropped to 46 with just 435 receiving yards in his first season with the Browns along with four touchdowns. Last year, those numbers declined again to 38 receptions with 61 targets for 345 yards and three scores.
In four seasons with Atlanta, Hooper had 2,244 yards while with Cleveland just 780 yards.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski uses multiple tight ends with his offense so the fact that Hooper and his Pro Bowl hardware would somehow mix with Njoku (who was a first-round draft pick) just never materialized. And while Hooper did indeed have his moments, aloud the media began to wonder loud why the team was paying out all this money for so little production numbers.
Hooper’s legacy with the Browns was a crucial catch against the Kansas City Chiefs on a fourth down play in the 2020 divisional playoff.
The fact that Njoku finally learned how to block and then outperformed Hooper was one of the reasons for his demise. The question was asked what did Hooper do that Njoku can’t do for a lot less money? Their yards per catch was Njoku 15.1 with Hooper at 9.3.
Three tight end sets did not help Hooper’s cause either. Harrison Bryant has become more of a threat since being taken in the 2020 draft and has been inserted for more snaps this past year.
At the end of last year there were multiple trade rumors about the Browns moving Hooper because his first year was considered below sub-par after having a breakout year with Atlanta the season before.
GM Berry probably wanted to give Hooper one more season to prove himself right about his signing. Make that: huge signing. At the same time, Berry had gotten RT Jack Conklin and backup QB Casey Keenum and everything looked great going forward for the Browns’ offense.
By releasing Hooper with a post-June 1 designation, Cleveland will save $9.5 million against the salary cap. And with the Browns tagging Njoku, Hooper’s salary just became too much for one team to spend on the tight end position especially one that simply became the best blocking tight end on the squad.
Cleveland has other options already in-house at tight end including Stephen Carlson who is already a very good blocker, Miller Forristall and Nick Guggemos. Both Carlson and Forristall were on IR last year while Guggesmos was a practice squad member and signed a reserves/futures contract along with Forristall on January 10.
If Berry wants to look to the upcoming April draft for more young talent, the Browns have two picks in both the third and fourth rounds. They traded their fifth round selection to Dallas in the Amari Cooper trade, but own a sixth and seventh.
At the 78th slot in Round 3, Ohio State’s Jeremy Ruckert (6’-5”, 250 pounds) or Cade Otton (6’-5”, 250 pounds) of Washington should be there. Later in the same round at pick #99, Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar (6’-6”, 260 pounds) and Isaiah Likely (6’-4”, 240 pounds) from Coastal Carolina will most likely (no pun) be available.