As is the case with most Texans fans, I’m haunted by March 18th, 2020.
“What happened that day?“ you ask as your eye begins to twitch and your palms sweat profusely. The shelter from this event that your brain has built for you is crumbling down as you realize that’s the date that the DeAndre Hopkins trade was finalized.
Enough time has passed for me that I’m ready to take on an objective endeavor in attempting to share what the Houston Texans are losing from the Hopkins deal. The wide receiver corps is far from talentless, but it’s no secret that it revolved around Hopkins. This will be a long project. First we’ll look at one of Nuk’s best games and, eventually, one of his worst. Then we’ll do the same with Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb. Later on, we might do the same for Will Fuller V and Kenny Stills. But Hopkins, Cooks, and Cobb are the priority. Throughout the exercise, I’ll point out where Cooks and Cobb couldn’t fill in or where they might have even been more potent.
My expectations from this series are to fully understand Hopkins as a player and his value to the scheme and then project, through film, what the Texans are losing and gaining. This one is going to take a while, so let me know if you’re into the content or want something different, more of it, etc.
Now, let’s get into it.
We’ve all heard that “no one will replace Hopkins”, but no matter what everyone says, someone will literally take his spot on the field. So, we’ll see how that might look with the pieces in front of us. Join me as we simultaneously wallow in the loss of Hopkins while moving on from him.
Game: Week 1 of 2019 against the New Orleans Saints
Play: 1st & 10 from their own 6-yard line, 2:55 left in the 1st Quarter
Formation: Shotgun Doubles Wing TE, 11 Personnel
Everyone knows Hopkins has elite hands, great route running, and a great understanding of the offense and NFL defenses. These are all individual losses that culminate into a synergistic loss that is greater than the sum of the parts. This embodies the individual weapon that Hopkins is as well as the attention he gets from the defense and his cumulative effect on the offensive scheme as a whole. It took only a few minutes into the 2019 season for his indirect impact to make the first offensive splash of the year. Watch as the safety bites down on Hopkins and leaves fuller in a 1:1 down the field.
Play: 2nd & 9 from the Saints’ 29-yard line, 15:00 left in the 2nd Quarter
Formation: Shotgun Wing Trips (Motion), 11 Personnel
Here’s a play that Hopkins makes 99/100 times, but this was in that 1%. He drops the ball. However, some of the traits that I think Bill O’Brien sees being improved by a Cooks/Fuller combo is here. Now, this isn’t homer-ist writing that I choose an indirect play of Hop’s followed by a play where Cooks may happened to have been the better player choice, that’s just the way the game is flowing during re-watch. Hop will get his, but I didn’t want to miss this point.
In the play above, Hopkins recognizes the corner taking outside leverage. Against the best sideline receiver in the game, it’s a smart choice. He doesn’t waste any time getting into the inside of the defender, he sees the deep middle coverage shade towards Fuller (as his corner plays more up) and Deshaun Watson lets it rip down the right hash. Normally Hop pulls this in and we’re all praising his hands. Now, in this exact play, Cooks would have likely had more separation due to the speed factor. The corner knew he didn’t have help over the top, but was playing Hop closely on the break. With Cooks, this vertical stretch from two outside is going to keep a lot of DCs up at night. With Hop, it still should have been an easy completion.
Play: 3rd & 9 from the Saints’ 29-yard line, 14:57 left in the 2nd Quarter
Formation: Shotgun - Trips (F) Float - Gun Far, 11 Personnel
This play is entirely designed for the quick slant to Hop, and he’s made his money on it. The Saints aren’t trying to hide that they’re blitzing here, just hiding who is coming. Watson isn’t hiding that he’ll get it to a hot read. On this play, the deep safety has to play the three receivers on the right side of the offense, scheming a 1:1 for Hop. Hopkins demands about the same cushion as last time, and again the defender (Marshon Lattimore) shades outside leverage. This time, Hop makes him pay with the solid hands catch.
Lattimore does end the play with a good thump forcing a 4th & 1, though. Now, let’s look at Hop’s technique. He shows good patience by getting his route into a short stem, this combined with his reputation for making contested catches at the sticks, makes Lattimore backpedal and that hesitation is what creates the room for the catch. Other receivers might have gone impatiently into the slant, tipping the DB to break, but Hop forces the hesitation. Then, he does what he’s known for, angles his body to shield the ball from the defender and makes a sure-handed grab.
This has Hop written all over it. The only real change to having a Cooks or even Cobb here is what the whole hope of the new WR corps is predicated on... Losing the fixation on Hop. Look at Fuller, in the slot, top of the screen. He is also a hot option, and he knows it (he looks back for the ball at the same time Hop did). The difference here is if Watson hits Fuller as the hot or the TE in the soft spot when the coverage finally catches up to Fuller, this is an easy first down and then some, not an upcoming 4th & 1. Now, I’m not saying that means trading Hop away was a good call, just saying that this play fits the rhetoric used to spin the move positively.
Side note: Duke Johnson has a great blitz pickup on this play, so check that out.
This drive, by the way, ends with a 4th & 1 designed run for Watson ending in a 21-yard score. Houston almost entered the diamond business after all the butt clenching that happened when Watson came up gimpy. Hopkins had two awesome/hilarious highlights on this play. First, he freezes his CB (backside of the play) by literally just not moving at the snap for a whole second or two.
Then, he signals TD when Watson is still on the 20. He knows his QB.
Play: 3rd & 6 from their own 29-yard line, 8:33 left in the 2nd Quarter
Formation: Shotgun - Double (H) Open - Gun Far, 11 Personnel
In this play, Hopkins on a man-beating crossing route. He sees the hole in the zone and stops, which is savvy enough as is. But watch as he goes north while waiting for the throw. He’s eating up yards rather than sitting and waiting for the ball to come to him. Now, once he has it, he doesn’t turn upfield and put a move on the defender, but it’s an easy 10 yards for Hop.
Play: 1st & 10 from their own 39 yard line, 7:57 left in the 2nd Quarter
Formation: Double (U) Open, 12 Personnel
A deep ball that Watson straight up misses. He had some pressure and might not have perceived Hops’ depth on the defender. I’ll chalk it up to opening game mistiming, but Hop beats the whole defense here. When the ball is snapped, you can see him recognize the zone. He head fakes the closing defender into biting up and thinking he’s going to bring the route perpendicular to the sideline (as he often does). When it works, he uses some long strides to get about three yards on the defender. Watson doesn’t lead him into the open spot, though. He throws what could have been a contested ball, but they just weren’t on the same page here. With the right throw, this would have been one of those, “how is he that open” completions.
From a technique perspective, this is the second time in a row that it’s his observation, savvy, and ability to see and then manipulate the defense that is impressive. Physically, he doesn’t do anything jaw dropping here, although for the crowd that thinks he can’t run, watch this one again. But the in-play ability to use subtle adjustments to manipulate the defenders is what makes his play style look so easy, but it’s far from it.
Something worth noting so far through the rewatch: other than the Fuller bomb, almost every other completion was either Hopkins, a designed play like a shovel pass or screen, or a dump off. In other words, a quarter and a half through the first game, Watson has trusted almost no one’s routes.
Play: 2nd & 9 from the Saints’ 25 yard line, 4:50 left in the 2nd Quarter
Formation: Shotgun - Trips (F) Float - Gun Far, 11 Personnel
In this play, the formation is the same as in a previous play, so it will look familiar. The route is the same as well, but the way Hop runs it is entirely different. The first time he ran this slant, the CB gave him cushion. On this play, the CB is playing up in a classic man cover 2. Hop takes too long to get into his slant, trying to bait contact, as the LB gets a free run at Watson. DW4 pulls his magic and could have hit Hop who comes free on the slant, but knowing it’s man coverage, decides to run. If not for Nick Martin giving up on his block, it’s an easy first down for Watson.
Hop uses the stutter and is patient to wait until the CB is off balance to the inside before breaking into his route. But for a slant, he could have stood to have the quicker win, but the CB didn’t lunge or try to initiate with his hands - forcing Hop to win with his legs rather than his strength.
Hop reminds me of Andre Johnson here in the sense that Jerry Rice would kill defenders by making all his routes look the same at the stem. Andre, and Hop in this example, show winning by making the same routes look so different.
Play: 3rd & 2 from the Saints’ 2 yard line, 1:51 left in the 2nd Quarter
Formation: Shotgun - Double Left (H) Open - Gun Far, 11 Personnel
The formation and route are familiar at this point. A slight change to the formation, but this is the third Hop slant we’ve covered. This time, he gets the CB to attempt to press him. Hop baits him into it with patience for a third time. This time, I suspect he takes the bait because he expects Hop to try and get to the corner of the endzone which is what forces the technique change. The second the CB’s hands come in, Hop is ready, he effortlessly sheds the press and gets the inside win. He just clears the middle zone defender, and it’s 6. Another key difference here is the pass protection holds up for Hop to win and clear the zone defender. With a free rusher, this isn’t 6.
Play: 3rd & 2 from the Saints’ 2 yard line, 1:51 left in the 2nd Quarter
Formation: Ace Left, 11 Personnel (12 Personnel Set - Carter at TE)
The route concept here is the same as the big play to Fuller. The safety mentally learned his lesson, but Fuller leaves him in the dust anyways. DW4 could have chucked up another one for 50 yards, but he didn’t. Here might be a clue as to how Hop found his way into OB’s doghouse. Hop wants to get the safety to bite down again. But he doesn’t run full-speed through the route, letting the CB back into the picture when the safety doesn’t bite.
Watson misses the throw, but Hop could have maintained his separation with running a bit quicker. Now, the reality is, this is very likely not an effort issue. It’s a body positioning tactic. Hopkins notoriously operates with very little separation, especially for an elite receiver, but here I don’t see an effort issue, I see a choice being made. Hopkins looks to be prepping his body for the sideline catch. He is giving up separation, seemingly knowing he doesn’t need it to make the catch, preferring to have the lower speed and increased body control. An on-time throw would have still hit him in stride as well. Cooks (3.1 yards) and Cobb (3 yards) both have 10%+ more average separation than Hopkins (2.7 yards) per Next Gen Stats, and I’ll look for a comparison catch from them to seal the point, but plays like this may lead to that statistical differential.
Play: 1st & 10 from the Saints’ 16 yard line, 8:24 left in the 3rd Quarter
Formation: Singleback 4WR, 10 Personnel (Fells and Akins in outside WR positions)
Hopkins’ second TD, and he makes it look easy. The formation gets him a safety in 1:1 coverage, a good design, actually. Hop runs behind the LB in zone and uses his body to make the sure handed catch. The mechanics of the route are nothing special. He just has the ability to go inside or out and the safety respects it, getting a late break and allowing the TD.
Play: 3rd & 10 from their own 4 yard line, 7:11 left in the 4th Quarter
Formation: Shotgun Trey Open, 10 Personnel
Hop showing off his ability to fight off contact again. Nothing else special about the play or route, he just finds the soft spot again. A better ball and he runs for a lot more. He runs through the route this time to compare to the one heading to the sideline.
Play: 1st & 10 from their own 25 yard line, 0:50 left in the 4th Quarter
Formation: Shotgun Trips Open, 10 Personnel
Hop’s best route of the night and it’s vintage Hop. The corner squares up on him and Hop sees the safety deep. He creates inside leverage where the CB has already given up three big slants. Now, given the point in the game, everyone knows Hop wants the sideline. So, he sets the defender up to the outside. The CB doesn’t take the bait and rides Hop, taking away the sideline. Who does bite, slightly, is the safety. He keeps inside leverage to back his CB up, and here’s where it gets special.
Hop fakes to the out, where he makes his money. The CB barely bites, but it’s enough and Hop eats up yardage taking the CB out of the play. Then he has the space from the safety due to gaining inside leverage previously in the route. A perfect, not under thrown, ball by Watson this time and Hop gets the sure-handed catch setting up Stills for what should have been the game winner. Watch this beauty on repeat. Few in the world can do a subtle out and up against Lattimore, fewer can do it the way Hop does.
Alright, if you stuck with me this far, congratulations. That wraps up Part I. Before you go, I have some questions to ask.
- Do you like this content? Want fewer, more pointed examples or are you doing okay? How was the level of detail?
- Want this in video form as well or primarily?
- Do we need the follow up on one of his worse games (I’m assuming you want Cooks/Cobb next)?
- Does this make you feel better or worse about the Hopkins loss?
- Did you learn anything about Hop’s game you didn’t know or have some assumptions confirmed?
All feedback welcome in the comments or on Twitter @RJMetzger1