INDIANAPOLIS — The Bears are eying one of the biggest names on the free-agent market to solve one of their biggest problems.
Despite very limited salary-cap space and a highly paid tight end already on their roster, a source said they are planning to pursue Falcons two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper when free agency opens next month.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said his team will not give Hooper the franchise tag, nor will it try to sign him to an extension before free agency opens. Hooper will be the best tight end available.
“It’s imperative that we see what the market holds,” Dimitroff said. “We have a salary-cap situation that we are monitoring closely.”
The market won’t be favorable to the Falcons, who have little cap space. Spotrac projects Hooper’s value at $50 million for five years, which would make him the league’s highest-paid tight end next season.
With $26 million in space and few major holes to address, the Bears could make that happen, but they’re a long shot. Hooper is in such high demand — he’s 25 and was top five at his position last season — that bidding could reach $12 million per year.
Is it worth it for the Bears to go all-in at tight end? Probably.
“This offense, a lot of it goes through the tight end,” coach Matt Nagy said. “We’re exploring every avenue.”
Last season, his ragamuffin band of tight ends combined for 46 catches, 416 yards and two touchdowns. There were 21 tight ends with more yardage individually.
The Bears’ woes were mostly because of ongoing injury trouble with Trey Burton. He hasn’t been the same since his groin muscle seized up on him before the wild-card game against the Eagles in 2019. He underwent surgery again this offseason.
“Our hope is that we finally kinda solved the issue and that there’s an upward trajectory now with him,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “That’s our hope.”
But it’s far from a certainty. Burton was a smart signing in 2018 on a four-year, $32 million deal. He set career highs with 54 catches, 569 yards and six touchdowns in his debut as a full-time starter.
There was reason to believe he would keep getting better. Instead, sports hernia surgery and a mismanaged recovery wiped out last season. He managed 14 catches for 84 yards before going on injured reserve.
If he’s good to go, the Bears could pair him with Hooper. If he isn’t, they have someone equal or better in Hooper.
Hooper caught 75 passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns — all career highs — last season. He has been quiet about free agency and declined to discuss the Bears in an interview with the Sun-Times last month.
“I’m not thinking about any particular team too hard,” he said.
The Bears were high on him coming out of Stanford in the 2016 draft but took defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard in the third round and watched Hooper slide to the Falcons nine picks later. There’s no doubt Pace regrets it, especially after the Bears cut Bullard last summer.
If they miss on Hooper again, there’s a steep drop-off in options. The Chargers likely will find a way to keep Hunter Henry by using the franchise tag or re-signing him. The Bears could look at Eric Ebron, but he’s coming off his least productive season since his rookie year.
They’ve been thoroughly vetting every tight end in this year’s draft class and should be able to get a quality prospect at No. 43 or 50, but players at that position usually need more than one season to get acclimated.
Spending big on Hooper might seem desperate, but that’s where the Bears are after failing to make the playoffs despite having a championship-caliber defense. If they aren’t going to make an upgrade at quarterback, this is their best, boldest move.