Packers plan to make a run at TE Austin Hooper to bolster offense

INDIANAPOLIS -- Two pass-catchers. That’s what the Green Bay Packers want out of free agency and the draft.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean two receivers.

That much became clear this week at the NFL scouting combine, where those familiar with the Packers' thinking told ESPN that general manager Brian Gutekunst plans to make a run at Austin Hooper, the Atlanta Falcons tight end who will hit the open market as a free agent in a little more than two weeks.

Gutekunst almost certainly won’t be able make away with the haul he did last March, when he signed four starters in free agency (Adrian Amos, Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith and Billy Turner), but it’s clear he’s going to make an effort to get Aaron Rodgers more help after watching Davante Adams and Aaron Jones bear most of the play-making responsibility last season.

“I think we'll be able to add some players to our roster that can help us,” Gutekunst said of free agency. “But we're certainly not in the position we were in last year with the resources. We're going to have to do some different things this year."

Hooper could reset the market for tight ends, at least until San Francisco 49ers star George Kittle gets a new contract. Kittle, however, remains signed through 2020. With Hooper’s contract set to expire, the Falcons have said they won’t use the franchise tag -- which is projected to be around $10.7 million for tight ends -- on him. GM Thomas Dimitroff told reporters at the combine that he will let Hooper “get to the market to find out where [Hooper is] in the market.

One of Gutekunst’s first moves when he was promoted to general manager in 2018 was to sign tight end Jimmy Graham, who for the moment remains the highest paid at his position in the NFL. The Packers are expected to release the 33-year-old Graham after two seasons that fell below expectations, and such a move would save them $8 million in salary-cap space for this season.

Gutekunst got more for the money from 35-year-old tight end Marcedes Lewis, who also is a free agent but wants to return.

The Packers remain high on Jace Sternberger, a third-round pick last year who spent the first half of the season on injured reserve but contributed in spots late in the season. He caught his first career NFL touchdown in the NFC title game loss to the 49ers. Former street free agent Robert Tonyan also has shown playmaking ability but has battled injuries. He’s an exclusive rights free agent, meaning he could return for a minimum salary.

“I’m excited for Jace,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said at the combine. “Certainly, it didn’t start off the greatest. He was injured quite a bit and then was on IR and we brought him back. It was a process, but I thought he started to get a good handle on things toward the end of the season. I thought [tight ends coach] Justin Outten did an incredible job with him, just putting in the extra time needed for him to get up to speed. I thought he was playing some good ball at the end of the season in the limited reps that he got.”

If Gutekunst learned something from the Graham signing, it’s that he might be better served to spend his free-agency money on players who have potential rather than ones who have already accomplished big things. That was the case with all four signings last year. Three of the four were 26 or younger and coming off their rookie contracts. The other, Billy Turner, was 27.

Hooper matches that profile. He won’t turn 26 until November, and it appears his most productive time is to come. Despite missing three games because of a knee injury (sprained MCL), he caught a career-high 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns. He has played in 59 of a possible 64 career regular-season games.

He also has a history with LaFleur, who was the Falcons quarterbacks coach during Hooper’s rookie season (2016).

In other Packers-related news from the combine:

  • The Packers’ 17-year streak of not drafting a receiver in the first round might not end this year despite the need for a weapon to complement Adams. That’s because it’s a deep receiver class that could allow Gutekunst to address another major need, say inside linebacker, if he sticks with the 30th pick in the draft. “It looks like it’s a pretty deep group,” Gutekunst said of the receiver class in Indy. “I’ll be really interested to get through the week and see how they perform through the workouts and stuff. But I think this is a little bit deeper class, maybe, than it has been in the past. So I think if you’re looking for something specific, all types are out there.”

  • Speaking of inside linebackers, with the Packers expected to let Blake Martinez hit free agency (where he could fetch between $8 million and $10 million per year) Kenneth Murray of Oklahoma could become a viable option at No. 30. Murray told reporters that his first formal interview at the combine was with the Packers.

  • The Packers were scheduled to meet with one of Aaron Jones' representatives, Chris Cabot, at the combine. Jones is interested in starting talks now for a contract extension even though he could raise his value if he put up another season like 2019, when he tied for the NFL touchdown lead (19) and totaled more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. Jones didn’t get a huge payday coming out of college, so he might be more willing to take a deal now rather than gamble for more money down the road. That’s something former Packers GM Ted Thompson liked to offer and did so successfully with players such as Adams and David Bakhtiari.

  • If the Packers don’t re-sign veteran Bryan Bulaga, they don’t plan to move Elgton Jenkins to right tackle. The second-round pick from last year played so well at left guard that they don’t want to disrupt that. In fact, they view Turner, who played right guard, as a more viable option at tackle if they lose Bulaga in free agency. Also, it’s a tackle-rich draft, so they could find a replacement there.