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Falcons' Austin Hooper focused on helping Matt Ryan, not fighting critics

Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper went back to work last Friday as he met quarterback Matt Ryan at the team facility and went through an hour-plus throwing session.

Hooper, a California native, easily could have been on a beach somewhere.

"I came back to Atlanta this early in the offseason from California to put in the work instead of just being on vacations,” Hooper told ESPN. “It was just me and Matt. He's starting to throw again, so I want to make sure I'm there as much as possible. Every time he wants to throw, I'm trying to make sure that I'm there.”

The two have had multiple sessions over the past few days, working on timing. Hooper also spent time working out individually with Ryan last offseason while Ryan was in Southern California.

“I'm here [in Atlanta] all offseason to work with him,” Hooper said. “Whenever Matt wants to go out, I told him to just text me.”

The difference between this year and last is Hooper faces much more scrutiny. Many anticipated the 2016 third-round draft pick from Stanford to make the same second-year leap that teammates Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell did on the defensive side of the ball, particularly after Hooper scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Those expectations elevated when Hooper had an 88-yard, catch-and-run touchdown against the Chicago Bears in the 2017 season opener, making all the highlight reels with a wicked stiff-arm of safety Quintin Demps.

By season's end, skeptics focused on Hooper's dropped balls, one of which led to an interception in a narrow victory over rival New Orleans. His average per reception dipped from 14.3 yards as a rookie to 10.7 last season.

Hooper hears the jeers from the outside and continues to drown them out.

“That's the world we live in,” he said. “Throughout the whole season, I made four bad plays, but that's the four plays everybody thinks of. I had two drops on the year, but all of sudden I have the worst hands. You know what I mean? But it is what it is, man. I can't worry about it.

“All I can worry about is just improving every single day. The fans can keep on talking. I'll let them voice their opinions. They love football. Everyone has a right to their own opinion. If that's what they think, then that's cool.”

Hooper hasn't lost any faith in himself. He firmly believes he can have an impact in offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's offense. Coach Dan Quinn expressed confidence in Hooper during the NFL combine, saying he was “pumped” about what Hooper can do and "very excited" about what can be.

At the same time, the Falcons are looking into other options at tight end, too. One veteran name that came up during the combine is Ed Dickson, who started 12 games for Carolina last season and is bound for free agency. The Falcons also had a formal meeting with the draft's top tight end prospect, Hayden Hurst from South Carolina.

The Falcons need another body at tight end regardless of Hooper's development, as the Falcons released blocker Levine Toilolo. The question is whether they target a tight end who can stretch the field, which could cut into Hooper's role.

“It's not my decision to make,” Hooper said. “All I can control at the end of the day is just improving every single day. If the organization wants to bring in a free agent or draft somebody, whatever their plan is, that's their prerogative. It's the organization. I'm sure they have the best intentions in mind in dealing with personnel.”

Hooper, with 68 receptions for 797 yards and 6 touchdowns (on 91 targets) through two seasons, is confident about the impact he can make going into his third year. He just needs to develop consistency.

The Falcons' red zone woes were a storyline throughout last season, and they expect their pass-catching tight end to be a primary option in such situations. Hooper had seven receptions for 39 yards and two touchdowns with one drop on nine targets in 52 red zone routes last season.

"I think I can be a [red zone] threat,” Hooper said. “I just have to put in the work so I can get the opportunities in the red zone, for sure.

“Every time you're on a drive, you want to score. Every time you don't, it's definitely frustrating. At the same time, a lot of those plays were there. It was just a couple things here or there if they would have went a little different way, we could be talking about something completely different.”