In DeAndre Hopkins' second career NFL game, he put on a preview of what the 2015 season would be. With Houston down 24-16 and 3:07 remaining, with Andre Johnson being doubled on the other side of the formation, Hopkins had three catches for 23, 13, and 28 yards. These catches set up an Arian Foster goal line run that forced a second straight overtime game in Hopkins' infant season.
In overtime, Nuk continued to devour the Titans. There, he snagged a 25 yard pass that put Houston at the one-yard line. And from there, he caught a four yard fade route to win the last game the Texans would with Matt Schaub at quarterback.
He finished that game against Tennessee with with 7 catches on 15 targets for 117 yards and 1 touchdown while displaying he ability to lead entire drives on his own.
In 2013, Hopkins was a flash that occasionally broke out like a rash. In 2014, he was a major part of the offense. Last year, he was the entire offense. What was once an aberration is now the norm.
Every season, Hopkins has seen an increase in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. This increase has turned from a gentle roll down the hill of production into an avalanche. In 2015, Hopkins was third in the NFL in receptions (Antonio Brown and Julio Jones had 136), yards (Jones with 1,871 and Brown with 1,834) and targets (Jones had 203 and Brown had 193). Hopkins caught one more touchdown than Brown, three more than Jones, and finished 7th overall in the NFL. DeAndre Hopkins was spectacular in 2015. Based on counting stats, he was the third best receiver in the league.
These numbers are easy to digest. The greatness is easy to see. The highlight film stuffed with one-handed catches just for funsies, passes picked up inches above the ground, and treating defenders like a deer does a fence on fade routes exemplify that greatness.
However, this isn't a true understanding. The swimming pool jackpot catches were replayed and the occasional sideline shot of an ankle breaking route were shown. Only a minuscule part of Hopkins' season was actually seen. Most of what he did took place outside the prison of the television. His body of work was so much more than the Vine/Tweet/GIF of an OMG helmet catch. He was an entire offense and transformed into one of the best players in the game. In order to fully understand Hopkins, you have to go deeper.
Hopkins 2015 season started back in March when Bill O'Brien allegedly told Andre Johnson he would only get 40 catches and wouldn't start next to DeAndre Hopkins. That was insane, and Johnson replied as he should--with laughter. Andre was getting creakier and didn't have the straight line speed and quickness out of the break, but with the will of veteran savvy, he could still play and ended up catching 85 passes for 936 yards in 2014. That's 45 less than 2015's alleged estimation.
This analysis added another dimension of poop-smearing crazy when Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts III were selected as the players who would start over the future Hall of Famer. Now that the season is over, note that Johnson finished with 40 catches and Washington with 47. It is evident why O'Brien said this. He knew exactly how he was going to use DeAndre Hopkins in 2014.
The goal for the passing offense in 2015 was simple. Get the ball to Hopkins, and get the ball to him often. The Texans schemed for this by playing him on the outside to leave him isolated against man coverage and had him run routes that left him near the sideline. Hopkins was the farthest receiver lined up outside (all numbers are based on targets charted, not every route run) on 89.6% of his targets. 57.4% of the time he was completely alone on that side of the formation. 72.91% of the routes Hopkins was targeted on went towards the sideline.
84 of Hopkins sideline routes were curls, comebacks, flats, and outs that go out to the short left and short right sections of the field. Because of the shorter distance and the one-on-one situation, it set up easier throws for Houston's Four Quarterbacks of the Incompetence. 59 of these 84 attempts were completed, which is 13.13% better than Houston's average completion percentage in 2015. These same routes also accounted for 40% of Hopkins' receiving yards.
His pre-snap formation and the type of routes he ran combined together to lock him into one-on-one matchups and dragged him away from linebackers, slot corners, and safeties who could impact his routes.
The reason why this worked was because Hopkins is an excellent route runner and because he's great near the sideline. Here is a perfect example of this.
Hopkins is running an out, a route at which he had a catch rate of 75.76%. Coty Sensabaugh is playing man coverage and immediately turns his hips toward the quarterback. When Hopkins cuts to the sideline, Sensabugh turns the wrong way, loses Hopkins, and falls when he tries to change directions for the tackle. Sensabaugh then finishes it all off with a classic stare at the grass to make him feel better about his snapped ankles.
It's clean. It's easy. It's simple. It's the most automatic fifteen yards you can get in the NFL. However, most of his routes didn't look like this. Hopkins lacks the prototypical skills that most top tier receivers have. He isn't a skyscraper who can stand still and pluck passes from the sky. He isn't a frisbee-snagging cheetah. He has to work for his catches.
Against Indianapolis, it's 2nd and 6. Hopkins is lined up in his usual spot. Out wide, and all alone, with three other eligible receivers on the other side of the formation. Because of this he gets press-man coverage against Greg Toler.
Off the snap, Hopkins takes an outside release on his comeback route. His first step is quicker than Toler's, and already the defensive back is playing catch-up. DeAndre lacks pure speed, but his footwork is crisp, instant, and impeccable. He's incredible at beating defensive backs off the ball and winning his first two steps.
Toler is moving towards the sideline and trying to get square with Hopkins again. He attempts to jam Hopkins, but he's off-balance with his hips open to the sideline. Hopkins isn't a giant at 6'1", but he's strong at 214 pounds. It is impossible for an unbalanced corner to halt his movement.
DeAndre extends his arms. This compounds Toler's movement, which is already taking him to the sideline.
Hopkins screeches to a full stop and watches Toler run right past him like a bull lusting after a blood red flag.
Toler turns back to the field to find Hopkins and recover. The route drawn on paper is now free form. Instead of following the straight path and breaking back to the football, Hopkins recognizes Toler going inside, so he adjusts his route outside to create even more separation.
Toler runs right past Hopkins' face.
Toler is horrified. He is two steps back on Hopkins with the safety in the middle of the field. He needs to run. He needs to run fast. He needs to recover so he doesn't give up six.
Toler is sprinting with his back to the football. With this occurring and Ryan Mallett starting his windup, Hopkins cuts back to the football.
This is also important. Hopkins ran 25 more comebacks than curls. The difference is that curls break towards the sideline and comebacks break back to the quarterback. Coming back to the ball makes life easier for his quarterbacks, who lack either the arm strength, accuracy, or both, to make the tough throws to the sideline. It is just one of many examples of how a lack of talent at quarterback play affected the Texans in 2015 and the ways Hopkins helped make up for it.
Hopkins keeps coming back to the ball and drops to his knees to pick up the first down.
Because he lacks elite physical skills, Hopkins uses everything else in his arsenal. His quick feet give him an advantage when the ball is snapped. His hands create additional separation. His knowledge of the game leads to him manipulating his route on the fly. This combination leads to the corner being unbalanced when pressing, running across his face, and never being comfortable at any point of the route.
Despite all of this, Hopkins never gets a huge amount of separation. Toler is able to stay close to him throughout this whole dizzying spell. Hopkins makes most of his catches in tight coverage where he can feel the cornerback's suspirations.
It's 4th and 2. Hopkins is going up against Davon House. Again, he's all by himself against press-man coverage. Hopkins is running a dig.
House can't press Hopkins off the snap because of the outside release. Hopkins' quickness and where he releases initially gets him past House.
House recovers well. He's not in front of Hopkins. Yet he's able to get in good enough position to get his hands on Hopkins' chest.
House is exactly where Hopkins is trying to go.
Hopkins can't just break inside. Instead he is forced to come to a complete stop, break down, and use his hands to get back inside.
Even though there are other receivers on the right side of the formation, Brian Hoyer doesn't even bother looking. This play is going to Hopkins the entire time.
House still has his hands on Hopkins, but his feet are stuck while Hopkins is running again.
Hopkins stems with his left arm to create breathing room. Now he's open and can actually catch a pass.
He carries himself this way back to the football.
He now sits on the route and boxes House out.
And leaps for the catch.
House has great coverage and does everything well except for stopping his feet at the top of the route. Any mistake is enough for Hopkins to get open. On this route he goes from never open, to barely open, and turns a turnover on downs to a pass that lands right in his chest. Even when he shouldn't get open, he does.
This season, Hopkins had 1,097 yards and 79 receptions near the sideline. The main reason was because of his route-running ability and all the little things he does with his body to create separation and make catches easier than they should be. The other reason is his feet. Hopkins knows better than anyone that humans have more than five senses. He is a master of spatial awareness.
The majority of the sideline routes that are the cornerstone of his game came in the shorter outside parts of the field. He caught 66.67% of his 111 targets for 839 yards in these two areas.
This success and purposeful planning led to him playing against a lot of press-man coverage. 88 of his 203 targets came against press-man coverage. He picked up 679 yards, catching 52.2% of his targets, averaged 14.7 yards a reception, 7.71 yards an attempt, and did despicable things like this to defensive backs that had them instantly screaming their safe word.
Houston countered press coverage by doing what you're supposed to do--throw the ball down field. Against press coverage, 44.31% of the time, Hopkins ran a deep route. More specifically, 31 of the 54 fade routes he ran came against press-man coverage. Hopkins managed to leap up and grab just 15 of these 54 passes. He caught just 28.3% of these targets, but picked up 24 yards a reception. Additionally, 14 of these targets were defensed. It was even boomier and bustier than his base press coverage numbers are.
As mentioned earlier, Hopkins doesn't have the speed to make him a great deep threat. To compensate for this, he has to do other things to get open. His touchdown pass for 65 yards against Darrelle Revis shows this.
Hopkins will use his size, come into defensive backs, subtly push off, and bully them to create separation on deep throws. This is a deep post route off a play-action pass. Hopkins has a step on Revis, but rather than take this step and run with it, he bumps back into him.
He uses his right arm to shield Revis from his body.
And then he hits turbo and takes off.
Hopkins can gain a step off his release, but he can't create any more separation on deeper passes with speed alone because he can't out run defenders. Instead, he uses his body to create separation. He does this not just on deep routes, but on intermediate and sometimes shorter ones, too. He loves to use his hands at the top of his break to create space.
The most success Hopkins had with deep routes (attempts that travel 15 or more yards in the air) was around the 20 yard line. From 15-25 yards out, Hopkins collected six of his eleven touchdown passes on fade routes.
On this play, the Bengals are playing Cover One and Pacman Jones is in man coverage against Hopkins.
Off the snap, Hopkins snakes his route around the press and towards the sideline. This extra movement creates space and opens up the route for him. Jones comes back across and gets in front of Hopkins, but he can't make a play on the ball. He's stuck underneath DeAndre as he runs under the ball, leaps up, and sticks it to his helmet for an "I Don't Believe What I Just Saw" catch.
This is what Hopkins fade routes look like. He doesn't create an ocean of separation. He uses extra steps to manufacture space and then finds the football.
He caught a sliver of the fade routes thrown to him. The main reason was that just fifteen throws were marked as catchable. He caught eleven of these. His quarterbacks didn't give him enough chances to go up and get it. But when he did, he floated, like an apparition, over defenders playing tight coverage and made them look like a rung on a ladder.
The route-running here is oh so lovely. But what makes Hopkins successful is his ability to go up and get the football. Hopkins is a natural catcher of the football. He times his leaps perfectly. He stretches with both of his mucilaginous hands. He snags the ball at its highest point. When quarterbacks put the ball in the same general area as Hopkins, beautiful things happen.
Sadly, this doesn't happen enough. Too often, Nuk was let down by one of the four quarterbacks he played with this season. This double move against the Colts is a microcosm of the problems Houston's quarterbacks had.
The Texans are in Trips Left with the ball at the Indianapolis 31 and trailing 27-17. The Colts are playing Cover One and everyone is running short crossing routes. Everyone except for Hopkins. He's faking the dig and breaking towards the left pylon with Indy's best cornerback, Vontae Davis, covering him.
Davis is playing off-man coverage and doing everything he can to not get beat deep. Hopkins is nonchalantly running his route. I've never been to Paris, but if I did, I would walk around at this pace with a copy of The Fall underneath my arm while searching for a bench. This gives the illusion of Hopkins running an option route. He looks like he's reading the deep cushion and will break his route off early like he often does.
Additionally, the dramatic change in speeds is a great way to blow past someone. Hopkins is awesome at manipulating his speeds to get past defenders. It's just another example of how he uses other skills to make up for his lack of straight line speed.
Now Hopkins breaks down, chops his feet, and comes to a complete stop. This man can stomp on a flea. Davis breaks downhill to tackle an easy completion. The safety who's helping deep is on the right hashmark.
Hopkins puts all of his body weight on his right foot and cuts back outside.
Davis has made a horrible mistake. With arms wide open, he tries to snag Hopkins before he runs past him.
Hopkins dips underneath the blatant hold Davis tries to pull off. Brian Hoyer sees this and steps forward to throw.
Hopkins is spinning his tires to run for the end zone. Davis' back is to Hopkins and he's beat. The safety is coming to help, but because of his location and horrid pursuit angle, he won't be able to make a play on the ball.
The ball is in the air. Davis turns to catch up.
Hoyer overthrows Hopkins by two yards. No matter how long Hopkins' strides are, he can't get there in time. The ball hits the turf and Hopkins is heartbroken.
There are dozens of instances of Hopkins' quarterbacks doing something like this. They overthrew him. They underthrew him. They threw behind him on slant routes and make him jump mid-air to haul the pass in. They forced him to play ballerina near the sideline. They left him leaping, twisting, and contorting all over the field.
This is why he ranked further down in DVOA, which measures efficiency, and DYAR, which measures total value, than in the traditional categories he finished behind Jones and Brown in.
|Antonio Brown||19.7% (9th)||516 (1st)|
|Julio Jones||8.5% (34th)||342 (6th)|
|DeAndre Hopkins||4.8% (41st)||268 (13th)|
The main reason why this happened was because of the huuuuuuge discrepancy in targets and catches. Hopkins' catch rate was 57.63%. The NFL average was 63.6%. Thanks to charting, the reasons why become clear.
Throughout the charting process, I kept tabs on the location of the pass and why the pass was incomplete or complete. Accuracy had an impact on 78.81% of his targets. 61.88% of these passes were marked as chest (catchable pass) and the rest were inaccurate: thrown too far right or left, underthrown, overthrown, etc. As percentages of his total targets, 48.77% were thrown to his chest and 29.7% were marked as inaccurate.
The remaining throws were plays that had actions. Some of these plays fell in the center part of the Venn Diagram. That's why they don't add up to 100%.
||Out of Bounds|
||Batted @ Line|
The actions that had the biggest impact were defensed passes and interceptions. 31, or 15.35%, of Hopkins' passes were defended or intercepted by the defender. This was because of how he plays and who he plays with. Hopkins plays in close proximity to defenders. He boxes them out, he extends his arms to catch the ball, and he doesn't create a ton of separation. 43.4% of his targets came against press coverage. The quarterbacks he played with this year were dumpster-diving acquisitions who lacked arm strength and accuracy. They invited defenders to make an impact on the throw.
The rest are plays that happen over the course of the season and drops. Things like the quarterback throwing the wrong route or throwing it towards Hopkins when pressure is coming. Additionally, Hopkins did drop seven passes this season; four came on comeback routes that went right to his chest.
So to sum up, Hopkins had a horrendous catch rate, but only 48.78% of his passes were ones he was supposed to catch. The rest were passes that were defensed, dropped, or a non-play that happens. He added a difference of around 9% on his own by making spectacular catches and snagging his way into Sunday night's Top Ten.
The 57.8% catch rate makes more sense now.
After looking through the charting numbers, you can't fault Hopkins for the inefficiency and low catch rate. Going against tight coverage, partaking in a minuscule number of route combinations, and playing with four different quarterbacks who are various shades of awful lead to this.
The one flaw you can find in Hopkins game is that he doesn't get anything after the catch. Hopkins only had 17 yards after the catch, which tied him for 39th in the league with Kevin Smith (who?). Part of this is because of Hopkins' athletic talents. He has great feet, body control, hands, and stop-and-go acceleration. He doesn't have straight line speed or elusiveness. He broke only seven tackles this season, and most of his attempts led to him being spun to the ground.
These are his shortcomings. Yet his situation also had an impact. Only 25.74% of his targets were on routes run towards the open field--digs, posts, and slants. The majority of the time, he's running towards the sideline where he only has one option--spinning away from the defender and trying to get back to the center of the field.
Additionally, his quarterbacks have never heard of the term "ball placement" and Houston didn't run routes to get Hopkins yards after the catch. He was thrown only two screen passes that he picked up a total of five yards on. Rarely did he run a route to the middle of the field where a route combination spread apart the field for him.
It's difficult to be going up against a team's best defensive back, catch a pass near the sideline, break a tackle, and spin back to the middle of the field. This was the situation Hopkins faced to pick up yards after the catch. It takes an incredible athlete to run after the catch in these circumstances. Players like Odell Beckham Jr., Brown, and Jones have this ability. Hopkins does not.
Despite the two shortcomings this season, Hopkins was ridiculous and played a lesser role in his inadequacies than what the face value of the numbers say.
Well, that was fun. But the best part is that as ridiculous as he was this year he is going to get better. Research done on a wide receiver's age curve shows that receivers peak at age 26-27 and then decline after that. Hopkina is already a top five receiver, and it's probable that he's yet to reach his peak. Also, he plays a style of football based on body control, hands, and quick steps that should hold up as he loses athletic ability. The future should be brighter and longstanding for Hopkins as time flows on beneath us.
The only thing preventing him capturing the abstract and infinite future is the team he plays for. The Texans have yet to make a meaningful decision regarding the most important position in the game, the one that most directly affects their best offensive player. DeAndre Hopkins been stuck with peripatetic stop-gaps thus far and has caught passes from eight different quarterbacks in three seasons.
That's the big concern for the future.
But right now, the Texans have a player who is 23 years old and is already one of the league's best receivers. If life breaks right, Hopkins has the ability to be the most productive player in the NFL.
For the NFL, this should be very scary. For the Houston Texans, it is a potential Hall of Fame building block to build their offense around for the next five years.