For however long a player is in the NFL, each season carries with it a tremendous amount of weight. That gets amplified even more, however, when you're playing for a contract. That's the exact scenario Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst finds himself in as the club steps towards the 2021 campaign. After Atlanta passed on picking up Hurst's $5.4 million fifth-year option for 2022, the former first-rounder will be looking at free agency following this season and Hurst understands how pivotal this period now is for him.
"It's a big year for me, now," Hurst said Thursday, via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Obviously, being a free agent at the end of the year. I've got my priorities in line, and I know what I need to do this year."
Hurst was acquired by the Falcons in a trade with the Ravens last offseason. While his tenure in Baltimore didn't live up to his first-round billing, a change of scenery was looked at as a positive development for Hurst as he transitioned to Atlanta, which had just lost fellow tight end Austin Hooper to the Browns in free agency at the time. Hurst did enjoy a career year in 2020, catching 56 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns; however, his poor blocking ability limited his opportunities.
Heading into this season, Hurst noted that he's been working out since February and improved his diet to where he's down to 8% body fat. That's just one small example that acknowledges the 27-year-old is aware of the magnitude of this 2021 season for him.
"I'm definitely on a mission this year," he said. "I've got a lot of reasons to play a little bit harder this year."
While Hurst played in 70% of the offensive snaps for the Falcons last season, that number could decrease with the arrival of tight end Kyle Pitts, who the club drafted with the No. 4 overall pick at the 2021 NFL Draft. That said, Hurst doesn't view Pitts as a roadblock to playing time as new head coach Arthur Smith has utilized multiple tight ends quite a bit. In Hurst's eyes, Pitts could open up even more opportunities for him to stretch the field vertically.
"I think it's obviously a benefit," Hurst said of Pitts. "Kyle is an extremely incredible athlete. I think it's only going to help him, help us as an offense having him on the field."
He added: "I thought (the selection of Pitts) was a good thing. He's going to draw a lot of attention when he's out on the field. So, I think it's going to help everybody across the board."
If that proves to be the case and Hurst enjoys a productive season, it could translate in a solid payday for him once he reaches the open market next offseason.