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Hayden Hurst has a chance to be a steal in 2020 fantasy football

Heath talks up the new Atlanta Falcons tight end.

NFL: New England Patriots at Baltimore Ravens Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

When beginning to build my own fantasy football rankings for a new year, I enjoy looking at the FantasyPros consensus rankings to start. I respect those who look at nothing and who build first based on their own projection systems. But that has never been me. I’m more interested in how players are being valued than I am in building my own Top 100 list. Rankings are part of the fantasy pundit game, so I embrace them as much as I can...but it’s not valuable to me.

Mostly, I’m concerned with how a player is being perceived within the industry. Every so often, there’s a guy I think is being undervalued from the jump...and among tight ends that guy is Hayden Hurst. I’ll share three reasons why.

Upper echelon volume (for a tight end)

Out goes Austin Hooper, in goes Hayden Hurst. Hurst is no longer backing up Mark Andrews in Baltimore, and despite a full cupboard of weapons in Atlanta he’s slated to see a comfortable amount of volume in 2020. For instance, even with Mohamed Sanu fully in the fold in 2018, Hooper still saw 89 targets—good for a 14.31% target share. Hooper was fourth in the pecking order that year behind Julio Jones, Sanu, and Calvin Ridley.

In 2019, Hooper’s 90 targets ranked third, with a 15.54% target share. If you’re looking at 90 targets as a baseline, the ranks for that target count over the last three years among tight ends would be:

2017: 10th
2018: 7th
2019: 6th (tied)

So Hooper is being drafted as the TE18 per FantasyPros, but he’s likely to see top 10 volume. And don’t forget, Mohamed Sanu soaked up 42 targets over the first seven games of 2019. Hooper’s share could have been a tad higher. Let’s say Hooper picked up five additional targets over those seven games (not even one per game). Here are the ranks among tight end peers if we project 95 targets:

2017: 8th
2018: 6th (tied)
2019: 6th

I’m just saying...Hurst is in a prime situation to obliterate his previous opportunity. An athlete of Hurst’s caliber seeing 21 targets (2018) and 39 targets (2019) in full seasons is a Greek tragedy.

Hurst is a very good athlete

For starters, he’s already improving. He logged a 56.5% catch rate in Year 1, totaling 12.5 yards per reception. In Year 2 he managed 11.6 Y/R, but the catch rate blossomed to 76.9%. And I know air yards is dependent on factors outside of just the receiver—i.e. the offense and the quarterback—but Hurst’s aDOT improved from 7.2 to 8.5 in his two years. For reference, Austin Hooper has logged marks of 6.9 and 6.5 over the last two seasons. And that jives with what we know about Hurst, who is just an overall athlete. Put simply, he’s faster than Hooper. And you can’t teach speed. He’s closer to guys like Travis Kelce (9.0 aDOT) and Zach Ertz (8.6 aDOT) than he is to Hooper.

Don’t forget, we are talking about a former first round NFL pick and a guy who played professional baseball for two years prior to joining the Gamecocks for three collegiate seasons. And as to that catching ability, Hurst tallied 100 receptions at USC (a school tight end record) and only dropped one pass in three years. He was used as a halfback and is athletic enough to move around the field. He was known for being a savvy route runner in college, someone who was adept at picking apart zone coverage. Adding him to a team with a veteran in Matt Ryan and flanking him with threats named Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley just seems like a recipe for disaster...for the opposing defense. I can’t wait to see what Hurst’s skill set means when given more opportunity to thrive in Atlanta in 2020.

Atlanta is a cohesive unit

Dirk Koetter returns for his second consecutive season as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Thankfully that Steve Sarkisian experiment is over. Anyway, obviously Hurst has changed teams. But finding a team with an entrenched signal-caller and play-caller is always a bonus in my opinion. Add in that Julio Jones is still only 31 years old and clearly a top five NFL receiver, while Calvin Ridley enters into Year 3—this could be a scary, scary offense. It’s not lost on me that the offensive line should be much healthier and more cohesive in 2020 as well. And we haven’t even mentioned Todd Gurley, who is an upgrade over Devonta Freeman.

As for Koetter, his offenses have been tight end friendly in the past. And specifically in Atlanta, the Falcons are willing to get the ball to their tight ends on screens and on seam routes up the field. Again, add in Hurst’s athletic ability and his ability to find holes in zone coverage, and I’m pretty excited about what he can do for Atlanta in 2020.

2020 Fearless Forecast

92 targets, 75 receptions, 900 yards (12.0 Y/R), 5 touchdowns

Get ready for a sneaky TE1 option coming out of Atlanta in 2020.