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Free Agency

How 2 former Browns TEs sold Austin Hooper on Cleveland, and why it spoke volumes

Austin Hooper was thinking about the Browns before the Browns could even introduce themselves.

As he awaited free agency, Hooper joined a number of current and former NFL players on a trip to Budapest, Hungary, for the eighth annual American Football Without Barriers Football Camp. There, he worked closely with former Browns tight ends Jordan Cameron and Gary Barnidge, the latter of whom is the co-founder of the initiative.

Hooper, the two-time Pro Bowl tight end, already had an idea of the kind of teams and cities that interested him most. Cameron and Barnidge, though, only encouraged him about one of those potential landing spots.

"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 on a Tuesday conference call with reporters. "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."

That excitement is mutual.

The Browns rewarded Hooper, who is entering the prime of his career after his best season to date, with a four-year contract. And in turn, Hooper is expected to be another weapon in an offense full of them at the skill positions. He immediately becomes the most accomplished at tight end, a position coach Kevin Stefanski likes to feature prominently in his offense.

"More tight ends are on the field, baby," Hooper said. "That is all you need to know."

The more Hooper got on the field during his four seasons with the Falcons, the more he produced. 

After catching 19 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, Hooper took on a bigger role in Atlanta's offense in his second season and continually increased his production. In 2018, Hooper appeared in all 16 games and caught 71 passes for 660 yards and four touchdowns to earn his first Pro Bowl honor.

Hooper, of course, is coming off a season full of career-bests, one in which he caught 75 passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns to land his second consecutive Pro Bowl invitation.

"Being a mid-round draft pick, being a guy who didn't really become a full-time starter until his second year and then every year in the league, I'm just trying to get better," Hooper said. 

"I feel like that's just my whole goal overall. Sophomore season in Atlanta was like 500 yards. Third year was under 700. This past year with less than three games left, I was under 800. My goal always is just to improve. I pride myself on being pretty consistent so I just want to keep grinding throughout the offseason and come back next year and just continue to get better. That is my mentality."

As he approached free agency, Hooper had a mentality that went beyond what he could do on the field. Off-the-field aspects were important to him, too, which is why the stories and anecdotes Cameron and Barnidge passed along meant so much to him.

No matter how long it takes Hooper to actually get to Cleveland, he knows what he's walking into thanks to the two former Browns tight ends.

"The fan base and the culture: That was what they preached the most," Hooper said. "They said how much they enjoyed their time playing there. Obviously, they would have liked to win a couple more games throughout their time there, but 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. From what they said to me, it is just a unique experience. 

"Both of them without me even trying to sway them one way or another, both of them were like, 'Yeah, that was by far the best football experience from a fan and a community perspective.' 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. It is something that may seem trivial to some, but to a player like that, that speaks volumes."

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