Fantasy Reaction: Austin Hooper Signs with Cleveland
One of the first dominoes to fall in 2020 free agency was the best TE available this offseason. Austin Hooper wasted no time securing the largest contract for a TE in the NFL, signing with the Browns for four years and $44 million. Hooper started very hot for the Atlanta Falcons in 2019 but his season was derailed by injury. This will be our first time seeing Hooper without Matt Ryan at the helm and he is the first new piece added to the Kevin Stefanski led Browns offense.
Fantasy Impact: Austin Hooper
For the first eight weeks in 2019, Hooper was the TE1 in fantasy football. He injured his MCL in Week 10 but made a speedy recovery, only missing 3 games. He finished the year as the TE6 with a 75/787/6 stat line. The biggest factor leading to his jump in production over the last two seasons was his jump in targets. In 2018, he was 4th on the Falcons with 88 targets and jumped to 2nd on the team with 97 targets in 2019.
Cleveland had injury issues of their own at TE last year and only targeted the position 69 times as a whole. However, the Browns brought over Kevin Stefanski from the Vikings to be their head coach and will be running an entirely new offense in 2020. Hooper will be a great fit in Stefanski’s run-heavy offense as one of the few TEs in the league that is both a great receiver and run blocker. However, his fantasy outlook is a little muddied in the system. With the Vikings, Stefanski targeted the TE 105 times but it was pretty much an even split between Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith. Rudolph did finish as TE14 in the timeshare, carried by his 6 TDs.
The gut-reaction is that the Browns will trade David Njoku and Hooper will be the primary target at TE but the Vikings ran the 2nd most 2-TE sets in the league last season and the Browns still have Njoku on his rookie deal. It doesn’t seem all that certain that Cleveland will be in a rush to move the young TE. On top of Njoku, the Browns have two great WRs in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, and two great receiving RBs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. It should be noted that Kareem Hunt is a restricted free agent and could end up on another team before all is said and done. As it stands, there is far more competition for targets in Cleveland than there was in Atlanta. Speaking of targets…Stefanski also threw the football 3rd least in the entire league and 218 fewer times than what the Falcons did in 2019.
To put it plainly, Hooper makes the Browns a far better team but it’s hard to see this as an improvement for his fantasy prospects. He will have more competition for fewer targets and will likely be asked to run block more. It is basically the perfect storm of “fantasy kiss-of-death” for a TE. The good news is that he doesn’t need to set the world on fire to be a fantasy-relevant TE. He will be on the field for nearly every play for the Browns and should have no trouble finding the endzone multiple times in 2020. Hooper seems a lock to finish in the top-10 but a top-5 finish might be too much to ask.
Fantasy Impact: The Rest of the Browns
Stefanki’s presence already meant that there would be far fewer targets to go around in Cleveland. The addition of Hooper hurts the target share of both Beckham and Landry, dragging them further down the ranks for 2020. Hooper will also likely steal targets from the RB position but will make up for some of it by opening holes up for them as a blocker. Chubb and Hunt both receive a slight uptick with the addition of a premier TE (and a coach that loves to run the football.) David Njoku suffers the most from this signing (obviously!) If he’s traded, he will need to learn a new system. If they keep him, he will be stuck firmly behind Hooper on the depth chart. Irv Smith played about 60% of Minnesota’s snaps as the teams’ TE2 and finished as the overall TE35 but we have never seen Njoku in that role. He will be impossible to trust in fantasy football until we see a few games played in 2020.
While Hooper and Stefanski slightly hurt the Browns’ pass-catchers, this is truly a make-or-break year for Baker Mayfield. Kirk Cousins was the QB15 in this offensive scheme last year for Minnesota and finished with 3,603 yards and 26 TDs, and 15 more fantasy points than Baker Mayfield. With top-tier playmakers at just about every “skill” position, we better see Baker in the top-10 after 2020.