In 2015, for the first time in many years, DeAndre Hopkins is going to be a No. 1 receiver.
Most starting receivers in the NFL were the main stars of their college teams, but that wasn't the case for Hopkins. During his final season at Clemson, Hopkins played across from Sammy Watkins. Watkins was a highly touted recruit who immediately became a star on the field.
When Hopkins left for the NFL draft, he wasn't widely considered the top prospect in his class. In fact, he wasn't even widely considered the second-best receiver prospect. Tavon Austin, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson all drew more attention for their physical gifts.
Hopkins did eventually go off the board as the second receiver behind Austin, but he landed in the shadow of Andre Johnson.
Johnson wasn't just the Houston Texans' No. 1 receiver, he was the most celebrated player in the history of the franchise. Hopkins was immediately the most talented complement the Texans had put across from their future Hall of Famer, but he was still definitely just a secondary piece.
Now that Johnson is no longer with the franchise, as he signed with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason, Hopkins is assuming the leading role for the Texans receiving corps. At least, he officially is. Based on his play last year, it could be argued that Hopkins had already pushed Johnson aside in just his second season in the NFL.
Despite limited quarterback play suppressing his statistical output, Hopkins has proven to be an outstanding player already. His versatility, consistency and athleticism have allowed him to routinely dominate defensive backs at this level.
Hopkins hasn't received the acclaim that he deserves because he has been forced to rely on poor service, and also because of the quality of the 2014 draft class.
New York Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. has established himself as the uncontested best young receiver in the NFL. His rookie season was unprecedented for any player, but especially for someone who missed all of his preparation during the offseason because of hamstring issues.
Beckham played in 12 games as a rookie, although it was really 11-and-a-half because he was eased into his first game. During that short spell, he compiled 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns on 91 receptions.
Transitioning to the NFL is difficult as a wideout. The best receiver, with as much preparation as possible in the perfect situation, wouldn't be expected to catch 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in 16 games, let alone just 12 contests.
It wasn't just Beckham who pulled the spotlight away from Hopkins last year. Neither Sammy Watkins nor Mike Evans played as well as Beckham—the receiver who was selected after them in the first round—but both were still impressive considering their circumstances.
Evans initially struggled to adapt to the NFL as he left plays on the field by being too hesitant. He eventually found his consistency and became a constant threat to the opposing end zone. But Evans lacked the versatility to be put on the same level as Beckham.
Watkins was in the worst situation of all rookie wide receivers last year. His quarterback play was awful, he was playing hurt, and he didn't have another starter across from him to draw coverage away. He was drafted as a raw player who needed to refine his skill set, and that proved to be the case during his rookie season.
The other young receivers who could be compared to Beckham all have significant flaws that can be held against them.
Martavis Bryant of the Pittsburgh Steelers took too long to break into the starting lineup. When he did, he proved to be explosive yet inconsistent. The New Orleans Saints' Brandin Cooks missed most of the season through injury, while the Carolina Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin's hands and overall effort came into question on a regular basis.
As the best receiver from the 2013 class, it's clear that Hopkins is Beckham's greatest competitor for the "Best Young Receiver" mantle.
In 2013, Hopkins was impressive for a rookie. He was forced to endure the struggles of quarterback Matt Schaub, meaning he was limited to just 52 receptions, 802 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games. In 2014, he broke out with 76 receptions for 1,210 yards and six touchdowns while still enduring awful quarterback play.
If you include plays negated by penalty, Hopkins actually caught 82 passes last season.
|Analytical Analysis Through NFL.com|
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage and Case Keenum combined to throw the ball to Hopkins in 2014. His huge target numbers reflected his prevalence in the team's passing attack, but the significant number of uncatchable targets reflected the poor quality of his service.
But even that number—40 uncatchable targets—doesn't accurately depict just how bad Hopkins' service was. While the above chart measures how many of Hopkins' targets were catchable, it doesn't take into account poor ball placement.
Ball placement is vitally important for NFL receivers. While NFL wideouts typically have impressive ball skills, they are forced to work at great speeds while often operating in tight windows. A lack of timing and accuracy can lead to more difficult receptions and lost yards-after-catch opportunities.
Hopkins is a bigger receiver with great ball skills, so he was still able to function with this kind of service, but he lost a huge number of opportunities because of it also.
Most receivers who measure over 6'0" are better at playing the football in the air than they are reacting to it below their waist. Hopkins isn't like most receivers. He excels at both attacking the ball in the air and adjusting to it on the ground.
With Fitzpatrick throwing him the football, he saw a lot of passes that arrived below his knees.
On this out route against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4, Hopkins begins the play in the right slot. He angles infield before making a sharp cut back toward the sideline. He has created separation against the linebacker attempting to mimic his movement.
The ball arrives on time, but Hopkins is forced to drop to the ground to catch it. He was still able to get a first down inside the 10-yard line on this play, but any pass above his waist would have given him a chance to get in the end zone.
He would have been free to the sideline with the outside receiver drawing the rest of the defense infield. Fitzpatrick's inaccuracy often showed up on these types of plays.
On two plays early against the Tennessee Titans, Hopkins made two incredible receptions on underthrown passes. These are the types of catches that lighter, 5'10" receivers struggle to adjust to, but Hopkins got his hands beneath the ball with relative ease.
Both of these plays converted key third downs despite awful passes from the quarterback.
Hopkins' ability to make plays on inaccurate passes gives him more opportunities to get his hands to the ball. This allows him to make more plays, but it also makes it appear that more breakdowns are his fault when passes aren't completed.
Hopkins failed at the catch point on 14 of his 96 catchable passes last year. Considering the types of catches he was consistently making, this isn't a high number. Not only does he mask inaccuracy when he is open, but he offers quarterbacks an outlet against tight coverage that alleviates the need for them to throw with precision.
Whether it was the defensive backs themselves or the coaching staffs game-planning for him, opponents appeared reluctant to press Hopkins last year. Often when they did, he punished them.
Just 30 of Hopkins' catchable targets came when he faced press coverage. However, he caught 22 passes on those plays for 412 yards, while also drawing two deep pass-interference penalties. Pressing Hopkins gives him the opportunity to attack the sideline.
A receiver with Hopkins' athleticism, size and ball skills is a major problem to cover on back-shoulder throws from a press position.
On targets against press coverage, Hopkins ran six routes that led to back-shoulder throws. He caught five of those targets for 96 yards—an average of 19.2 yards per reception—and a touchdown. This wasn't a Jordy Nelson and Aaron Rodgers type of situation either.
When Nelson and Rodgers combine on back-shoulder throws, they are indefensible because of the quality of the receiver's ability to adjust and the quarterback's ability to throw perfect passes.
Hopkins was making plays on passes that were misplaced and poorly flighted. He worked back to the ball, caught it away from his body and fended off tight coverage to create big plays downfield. A receiver who excels on back-shoulder throws, comeback routes and sideline routes is difficult to press at the line of scrimmage.
Of course, Hopkins' ball skills and athleticism allow him to make spectacular plays with relative ease also.
When isolated against defenders in space, Hopkins can use his bulk to leverage positioning while tracking the ball through the air expertly. This gives him a chance to attack the ball before the defender.
Using his large hands and length, Hopkins has the ability to pull the ball away from tight coverage even while moving at speed.
Athleticism and ball skills alone can make a receiver dangerous, but he can't be great unless he possesses the skill set to beat different types of defensive backs. To do that, you also need to be aware and precise as a route-runner.
Despite his obvious bulk, Hopkins has no limitations running routes. He combines fluid athleticism and aggressive, controlled cutting to create separation in every movement he makes.
For this long touchdown reception against the Titans, Hopkins' outstanding footwork allowed him to run a subtle, but effective, double move. He created so much separation behind the defensive back who initially lined up in off-coverage that he could reach back to catch an underthrown pass unopposed.
Although he struggled to be effective on screen plays last year, Hopkins' athleticism also transfers into his ability to create yards after the catch. He is surprisingly elusive for such a bulky receiver and has the awareness to create space.
By the measure of Sporting Charts, Hopkins averaged 5.1 yards after the catch per reception and had the 32nd-most yards after the catch among all receivers in the NFL.
His decisive cutting allows Hopkins to cut away from defenders who are too aggressive in pursuit. While he needs to show more aggressiveness running through defensive backs, his awareness to anticipate and create space makes his inability to break tackles less of an issue.
Even though Beckham is the standard bearer for young wide receivers in the NFL today, Hopkins shouldn't be overlooked as a relatively close contender. No other young receiver offers the same consistency and ability as Hopkins does.
Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that the Texans will get the most out of his talent. Much like with Johnson, Hopkins may always be overlooked in comparison to his peers because of his franchise's futility at the quarterback position.
Great wide receivers will always get the most out of the opportunities that come their way, but that is all they can control. Hopkins has shown over his first two seasons in the league that he can consistently get the most out of poor service.
If he gets good service, he may be able to rival Beckham's unnatural efficiency.