Austin Hooper took mental notes Nov. 11, 2018, when he visited FirstEnergy Stadium as a member of the Atlanta Falcons. He paid particularly close attention to rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, who led the Browns to a 28-16 victory that snapped a four-game losing streak and started the run to five wins in six games.
His positive impression of Mayfield contributed to him signing a four-year, $42 million deal with the Browns last week as a free agent.
“No question, being in a position that is dependent upon getting balls from the quarterback, it was definitely a part of the process for me,” Hooper, a two-time Pro Bowl tight end, said Tuesday on a conference call. “Playing against Baker Mayfield live, seeing his arm and seeing his competitive spirit and the way he rallies the guys around him, that is what sold me on him before I was obviously a free agent.
“I knew what he was about for a couple of years now, so when the opportunity presented itself on the first day of legal tampering, I couldn’t turn it down.”
Hooper, who set career highs with 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games, has been in touch with Mayfield since making the decision to join him.
“We had a nice phone call,” Hooper said. “Just really trying to get to know the guy. We didn’t really talk about football too much. I was just trying to get a feel for him and vice versa since we will be working together. It was a productive phone call.”
Hooper, 25, was a third-round pick of the Falcons in 2016 out of Stanford. He’s made the progression from backup to starter to back-to-back Pro Bowler and is considered solid as a blocker and receiver.
“I’m really excited to add Austin into the fold,” coach Kevin Stefanski said when the signing was announced. “I just think his skill set fits so perfectly in what we want to be offensively.”
Hooper’s pick of the Browns was also influenced by a pair of former Cleveland tight ends. He was in Budapest, Hungary, last month with Jordan Cameron to help Gary Barnidge with his American Football Without Barriers camp.
“One of the teams they both were talking about in a very positive way was Cleveland, just speaking about the fan base and the city itself,” Hooper said. “They sold the idea to me before legal tampering even occurred. By the time the Browns and I were actually able to speak for the first time, it was kind of already playing into my mind as a potential spot I really wanted to go and I am really excited.”
What he heard about the relationship between the team and the fans resonated.
“They said that the fan base and the city is just so fully immersed in the Cleveland Browns and they are so tied into the Cleveland Browns,” Hooper said. “From what they said to me, it is just a unique experience. That was something that really stood out to me because I feel like a lot of time the fans forget that the players are people. It sounds kind of weird, but from what those two guys have told me, there is actually less of a disconnect than other places.”
Hooper returned to the U.S. three weeks ago and said he was anxious about making it back as the coronavirus pandemic began to shut down much of the world.
“If you want to get to Budapest on the airline we chose, you have to fly through Amsterdam to connect. We were actually one of the last planes to get out of Amsterdam,” he said. “It was a very unique situation, I will say that.”
Hooper was able to pass his physical before the NFL indefinitely stopped the exams due to the coronavirus. He had his at a remote site and said the change in protocol was “definitely weird.”
New general manager Andrew Berry signed Hooper with the intent of pairing him with David Njoku, because Stefanski’s offense relies on two-tight end personnel packages. Hooper is all-in with this philosophy.
“Because more tight ends are on the field, baby — that is all you need to know,” he said. “What it really does is it creates matchup problems. You can kind of sit back, see what the defense does, have a couple options when you go to the line of scrimmage and analyze matchups. That is all the game of football is — matchups.”
He said playing tight end has become cool after the success of former Patriots All-Pro Rob Gronkowski.
“Now it is sexy to play tight end,” Hooper said. “There are definitely more people who understand the position than they used to. I am confident in saying that. It is good to see the tight end position finally getting some love.”
Throughout the interview Hooper cited many reasons for picking the Browns, beyond the $42 million. Stefanski and the roster were the first he mentioned.
“It is just on paper one of the most talented entities in all of football,” he said. “Just take a look, especially on the offensive side of the ball, at the guys on the perimeter with Odell (Beckham Jr.) and Jarvis (Landry), having a talented quarterback like Baker, having a talented tight end like David Njoku and having some really good O-linemen. To add that with a pair of really talented running backs (Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt) just on the offensive side of the football is just way too exciting of an opportunity to pass it up.”