Over the past decade, Andre Johnson has been the unquestioned top dog at wide receiver for the Houston Texans. The team tried for years to find Johnson a complement, and appears to have finally succeeded when it selected DeAndre Hopkins in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
In fact, with Johnson well past 30 and nursing a sore hamstring, and Hopkins turning heads throughout training camp, it appears that a changing of the guard may be on the horizon. Much as with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd of the Arizona Cardinals a year ago, it may be time for Johnson to fade while Hopkins shines.
That is, if Hopkins can get out from under the long shadow of the lousy quarterbacks in Houston.
While Johnson's offseason has been filled with grumblings about the state of the team and pulled hamstrings, Hopkins has been making noise for all the right reasons:
According to John Harris of the Texans' website, Hopkins has "starred" in practices, catching "nearly everything" thrown in his direction with Johnson sidelined.
Harris wasn't the only scribe to take notice of Hopkins in practice:
His performance has also stood out to head coach Bill O'Brien, according to Brian T. Smith of The Houston Chronicle:
He’s one of the guys out there that I think is much improved from April 7, when we started, to where we are now. He just has to keep it going. He’s a very hard worker. It’s very important to him. He’s a guy that really, in our opinion, gets better and better everyday. So just got to keep it going.
That strong offseason, coupled with some tape review, was enough for Chris Wesseling of NFL.com to label Hopkins a breakout candidate for 2014:
What stands out on Game Rewind are Hopkins' ball skills and catch radius that allow him to consistently come down with contested catches. Reminiscent of Brandon Lloyd, his bread and butter is a contortionist act on the sidelines and in the end zone. He boasts huge, strong hands and plays with a physicality rarely seen in greenhorn receivers.
The thing is, Hopkins already broke out after a fashion.
In Hopkins' second NFL game, the 6'1" 218-pounder exploded for seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown in an overtime win over the Tennessee Titans. Hopkins went on to win Rookie of the Month in September 2013, and as Wesseling pointed out, Hopkins was on pace for a truly stellar rookie year:
Hopkins wasn't able to keep up that pace, finishing the season second to Keenan Allen of the San Diego Chargers among rookie receivers with 802 yards on 52 catches.
Unfortunately, the reason Hopkins tailed off is also the biggest thing standing between Hopkins and a huge sophomore season.
The quarterback play in Houston last year was somewhere between terrible and abysmal, and frankly, things probably aren't going to be significantly better in 2014.
The Texans parted ways with Matt "Pick-Six" Schaub in the offseason, but rather than address the quarterback position early in the 2014 NFL draft the team instead turned to a veteran retread in Ryan Fitzpatrick.
|Ryan Fitzpatrick Career Stats|
Granted, the 31-year-old Fitzpatrick has extensive starting experience in the NFL from his time in Buffalo, and Fitzpatrick made nine starts for the Tennessee Titans last year after Jake Locker got hurt.
However, Fitzpatrick also possesses a career passer rating of less than 80. Over the past five seasons, Fitzpatrick has tossed a staggering 76 interceptions.
If, as Wesseling asserts, "Hopkins spent last season as a deep threat held back by passers lacking touch and arm strength," those problems haven't been solved.
They may even have been amplified.
Who's behind Fitzpatrick? The strong-armed but incredibly raw Tom Savage and the immensely mediocre Case Keenum.
Solutions to the problem they aren't, at least in the short term.
Mind you, this isn't to say that Hopkins (or the Texans) are doomed. Lance Zierlein of The Sideline View (via Wesseling) observed that both Fitzpatrick and Savage have developed a "strong rapport" with Hopkins during Johnson's absence from workouts.
Also, Wesseling pointed out that O'Brien's offense should benefit Hopkins after former head coach Gary Kubiak all but forgot about Hopkins for long stretches last year:
O'Brien's offense should also provide a boost. Hopkins drew just two more targets than tight end Garrett Graham with Gary Kubiak calling the plays. Dialing up more slants, bubble screens and crossing routes will help. His leaping ability was also underutilized, as Kubiak has long been one of the NFL's most conservative coaches in the red zone.
With that said though, for as talented as Hopkins may be, at the end of the day a wide receiver is only as good as the quarterback delivering him the football.
And that means that we may have to wait for a quarterback who can take advantage of those talents before we really know just how good DeAndre Hopkins can be.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.