DeAndre Hopkins is leading the NFL just five games into the season with 578 yards on 42 receptions. That is the most through any five games in team history for the Houston Texans. More impressively, 81% of his receptions are for first downs; that's the best in the NFL.
Hopkins is on pace for a staggering 135 catches and 1,849 receiving yards, with an outside chance at breaking Calvin Johnson's NFL season record of 1,964 yards. If he has another 100-yard game against Jacksonville on Sunday, Hopkins will tie Andre Johnson's franchise record of four (4) consecutive games with 100+ receiving yards.
Clearly, the Houston Texans have a star in DeAndre Hopkins, but what happens after this season? Will the team be able to re-sign him to a long-term contract, or will Hopkins and his agent prefer to hold out to test the waters of free agency at the end of the 2016 season when his rookie contract expires (though the Texans do have the benefit of exercising a fifth-year option on Hopkins' rookie deal and could always utilize the franchise tag to limit Hopkins' options after that)?
The Texans have only two seasons of real success in franchise history, in 2011 and 2012, when they won division titles and wild card games before exiting the playoffs in the divisional round in back-to-back seasons. Outside of that, the team has mostly struggled as a mediocre franchise in a weak division. That point is surely not lost on Hopkins, who was mentored by Andre Johnson. Nuk may have heard quite a bit from Johnson about the frustrations of being one of the best players in the NFL on a team that went nowhere year after bloody year.
During Hopkins' first year as a rookie with Houston, he watched the team flounder and finish 2-14 en route to the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Last year, he experienced the dramatic rebuild under a new coaching staff and scheme before seeing the exit of his mentor and friend when Johnson was released and signed with the Colts. Now, in Hopkins' third season, the team is again struggling with a 1-4 record, no closer to finding the long-term answer at quarterback.
The burning question for Hopkins is this: Will he do what Andre Johnson did and invest his prime years with the Houston Texans, hoping they find a franchise quarterback and build a team that can compete for a championship? Or will he leave as soon as he can while he is still at the peak of his abilities in search of another team?
Hopkins' Rookie Contract
After being drafted 27th overall in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft (the rare draft decision that was met with near universal approval from the BRB community), Hopkins signed a four-year contract worth $7.62 million that included a $3.92 million signing bonus.
That rookie contract is cheap for a player who is performing as one of the best receivers in the league at the start of his third year. Additionally, thanks to the current CBA, the Texans can exercise a fifth-year option on Hopkins, essentially keeping him here through the 2017 season before he'd even get to consider free agency. That said, Houston will likely attempt to re-sign him when this season is over to avoid the possibility of Hopkins having the chance to sniff the market in 2017.
T.Y. Hilton's New Contract
To get a feel for the type of money Hopkins and his agent will likely be seeking, let's take a look at T.Y. Hilton's recent contract, signed just before the 2015 regular season began.
On August 13th, Hilton signed a six-year, $65.547 million contract with $39 million guaranteed, including a $10 million signing bonus. There's a bit of a "fly in the ointment" on the guaranteed amount though, as only $11 million is "fully" guaranteed, with another $28 million written in as an "injury only" guarantee.
Hilton's deal puts him fifth overall for "total value" in wide receiver contracts if the contract is fulfilled as written.
NFL Top-Ten Wide Receiver Contracts
Unlike the NBA and MLB, NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed. If we sort the top-ten by "guaranteed value," Hilton's doesn't even make the list:
With salary cap amounts rising year after year, each subsequent contract for the top performers at any position has also increased substantially. The Texans have very little talent at wide receiver beyond DeAndre Hopkins, so they'd be negotiating from a tough position should Hopkins continue to have a record year in 2015. To keep him from thinking about the value of testing free agency down the road, Houston will need to come with a strong offer.
My guess is something in the neighborhood of a deal worth $74 million, with $33 million guaranteed.
A player sometimes takes a discount for an early extension as a bit of a concession to receive guaranteed money as insurance against the risk of unforeseen career-impacting injuries. If players roll the dice and play the final year of their contract in hopes of hitting the open market, then they also risk the team using a franchise tag on them. While that tag brings a good one-year, fully guaranteed salary, it is only for a single season and doesn't provide the comfort of long-term guaranteed money.
The flip side to this takes us full circle to the Andre Johnson effect. Will the Texans have to pay a premium to Hopkins to keep him in Houston if they are asking him to make the same "prime years investment" that Johnson did? After all, Johnson essentially lost that bet, as his best years were exhausted in Houston with only two playoff victories to show for it. That certainly must be in the forefront of any thoughts Hopkins and his agent will have in approaching negotiations with the Texans.
If an extension doesn't get done this offseason (and frankly, even if it does) the team can, and most likely will, exercise the "fifth-year option" for Hopkins as part of their leverage to keep from losing such a valuable player. I suspect that they will also engage early in negotiating a new contract with Hopkins like they did with J.J. Watt.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out after this season. What are your thoughts?
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