Packers tight end review: Hooping or Hunting?

As is tradition this time of year, the possibility of the Green Bay Packers adding a big-name tight end through free agency is nigh. This idea may feel fans with either hope or despair. After negotiations with Jared Cook fell through after 2016, the Packers compensated by signing Martellus Bennett (bringing ultimate despair) and Lance Kendricks in 2017 and Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis in 2018.

With the exception of Lewis as a solid TE2, none of these moves really helped the Packers shore up the deficiency at the tight end position. Yet just because these moves didn’t work well doesn’t mean every free agent signing is cursed, right? While Sternberger is primed for a year-two leap, the Packers have need of offensive playmakers right now, and an experienced tight end could be in the mix. Who might the Packers covet if they go down this familiar road?

There are two assumptions made for the purposes of this exercise: the Packers follow their 2019 model of free agency signings and that they would look to add a true playmaker rather than depth players. The Smith Bros, Adrian Amos, and Billy Turner signings followed a clear pattern: emerging stars in good health rather than aging veterans.

Austin Hooper
Atlanta Falcons (Age 25)
Hooper is the cream of the crop in this free agent group and fits the mold of a Brian Gutekunst signing: he’s young, healthy, and has improved every season, including capping off 2019 with a Pro Bowl selection. Whilenot in the “elite” tier with Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz, Hooper is one of the better tight ends in the league and possesses reliable hands and good route-running abilities. He’s experienced in the Kyle Shanahan system and has experience with LaFleur from his time in Atlanta. Most importantly, the Packers have confirmed interest in Hooper, per Rob Demovsky.

Hooper doesn’t have many fatal flaws, but he isn’t an overly flashy player. The questions surrounding singing him are whether he can live up to a top contract and opportunity cost. His large price tag (projected $9.9m/year) likely means letting Bulaga walk and lowers the chances of signing an impact inside linebacker, and both positions are bigger needs.

Still, for a team in need of offensive playmakers, Hooper is enticing and could add another dimension to this offense and compliment Sternberger. For a detailed breakdown of what Hooper can bring to the Packers, check out this excellent piece from PackersWire.

Hunter Henry
Los Angeles Chargers (Age 25)
Henry is an exceptionally talented player, and one I really wanted the Packers to draft themselves, but his career has been plagued by injuries. Hunter has never played a full 16-game season and missed all of 2018 with a torn ACL and four games in 2019 with a knee injury. That injury history won’t fit Gutekunst’s recent trends, but Henry is talented and young enough to take a serious look at.

Compared to Hooper, Henry’s injury history likely gives him a slightly lower price, though he may have a higher ceiling. His hands are reliable, his run-blocking skills are sound, and he’s a true red zone threat. If he can stay healthy, he certainly would be a powerful weapon for Matt LaFleur. However, the Chargers may look to tag Henry, according to Ian Rapoport. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn is likely on the hot seat, and a short term deal in LA might be the best solution for both parties.

Eric Ebron
Indianapolis Colts (Age 26)
A familiar, former divisional player, Ebron is an electric athlete, but his career has been plagued by drops. With talented quarterbacks like Matt Stafford and Andrew Luck throwing the ball, that’s a detrimental issue. However, 2018, Ebron’s first year as a Colt, showed what he could be when everything clicks, as he had 13 touchdowns and a career-high 750 yards.

But the Packers have plenty of athletic players in the mix: it’s using those athletic skills to make plays the team struggles with. Adding a star athlete that often struggles to catch the ball is adding more of the same. If the Packers are serious about making a splash, reliability will be a high priority, so Ebron doesn’t make much sense in Green Bay.

The tight end position only has so many top-tier players available. Most other options are either young and unproven or talented but injury-prone. Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert are tremendous players, but have serious injury histories. Should the Packers want to dive in, Hooper, Henry, and Ebron make the most sense, though Hooper’s reliability, good health, positive trajectory, and familiarity with the scheme make him the most logical option by far. Still, it may be better to focus on the draft or explore trade options for players like Hayden Hurst or OJ Howard to upgrade the room. Doing so would allow the team to devote cap space to other, more pressing needs.

Free agency fast approaches, so soon we’ll see how serious the Packers interest in Hooper is and how they value their positional needs.

Tune in next week to see what draft options could make sense for the Packers.

Matt Hendershott is a Packers fan and Miller High Life enthusiast from Northwest Ohio. He has a Master of Arts in Media and Communication from Bowling Green State University. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHendershott.
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