At this point, I think the reality that star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is no longer a Houston Texan has settled in for the majority of us. This could very well be a worsening state of affairs for some, like a dark twist to a relationship, denied for months, only for acceptance to be even more grueling. For others, including myself, this acceptance has bestowed the opportunity for wild speculation. Speculation about what a Texans team will look like without #10 lined up at wideout. I’ll even go as far as to say that I’m actually feeling rather excited about this new look Texans offense! The season hasn’t started yet, so all of this could be made moot by another blockbuster trade that sends J.J. Watt to the Titans for Rashaan Evans and a third round pick. But if you would, please indulge me here.
This Houston receiving corps, with the Hopkins deal finalized, now houses Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, Randall Cobb, Kenny Stills, and Keke Coutee (with Steven Mitchell, DeAndre Carter, Chad Hansen, Issac Whitney, and Isaiah Coulter rounding out the roster). This cadre of dynamic playmakers, speedsters, and proven veterans remains one of the most exciting groups in the NFL, even without an exceptional WR1 to back it all up. Brandin Cooks has been an incredible receiver for the majority of his career and is certainly one of the most underrated pass catchers in the league (his 2017 and 2018 stats weren’t that far behind Hopkins’), Fuller is already a proven deep threat who has a demonstrable impact on the offense as a whole. Stills and Cobb both proved last year that they are excellent third receiving options that can play like #1 receivers if need be.
Of course, there’s one major risk that nearly all of these players have suffered from: injury.
Brandin Cooks has had several concussions, and it’s possible another will sideline him for more than just a few games. Cobb has been bitten by the injury bug a few times in his long career, and Will Fuller has never shaken it. At this point, it’s not a discussion of if Will Fuller will get hurt, but when.
Bill O’Brien has already shown a similar sort of frustration with Fuller’s inevitable sideline blues. We’ve all seen and heard the statistics over and over about how when Fuller isn’t on the field, the Texans’ offense plummets. Kenny Stills was brought in to be a sort of Will Fuller insurance policy, and it’s likely the case that Brandin Cooks could be even further protection in that regard.
With Hopkins gone, and in his absence Cobb and David Johnson ushered in, a new offense centered around deep threats and RBs with pass-catching ability has revealed itself. The 2020 Texans offense will revolve around long passes and developing routes, with the insurance of pass-catching backs (and Cobb in the slot) to turn dump-off passes into big gains.
At this point, it’s clear coach/general manager B.O’B. and newly minted offensive coordinator Tim Kelly are attempting to mimic the Chiefs’ offense (with some added spice in the RB room), which isn’t too surprising. Copycat league, right? Something that did surprise me was PFF’s Sam Monson ranking Watson as the second best deep ball thrower in the league, “44.6% completion percentage, 15.1 yards per attempt, 102.8 Passer Rating…” The only passer above Watson on the list was Seahawks quarterback Russel Wilson. Given Watson’s exceptional talents in this regard, it’s even less surprising now that the Texans have decided to appeal to their quarterback and build the offense around his strengths.
This is where Hopkins’ absence begins to make more sense. Hopkins, while occasionally exhibiting an ability to run deep routes, is not an exceptional speedster. Trading him for the chance at two receivers that could replace his sprinting abilities in servicable fashion (Cooks, Cobb) is not a terrible option. As mentioned before, this group has a history of getting hurt, so getting more starting caliber receivers with low 40-times is preferable for the offense they’re constructing; when Fuller pulls another hamstring, an offense that is so much sweeter when he’s on the field won’t have as deep a drop-off (although, if you read my previous article on Fuller, you’d know I believe he’ll stay healthy all year long).
One caveat to Watson’s deep ball prowess is his interceptions. As Monson writes, “…only three passers threw more interceptions on deep shots than the five Watson managed over the regular season.” This is certainly something Watson will have to work on before the season begins, especially now that the safety valve Hopkins provided him has been removed.
Another thing to consider is Hopkins’ ability to pull the defense to his position. Like the center of an offense’s universe, Hopkins’ expertise had a gravitational force that absorbed all nearby defenders, allowing other receivers to get open. Without Hopkins, Houston’s new receivers will have to show greater talent in breaking away from a defender’s grasp. Players with this kind of speed usually end up getting open anyways (just watch the Chiefs), and Fuller, Cooks, and Cobb have made careers out of doing so. This means, again, it will be on Watson to improve his timing and accuracy as a passer.
Maybe that’s part of O’Brien and Kelly’s plan with Watson, to force him to mature as a passer by removing a receiver that primarily ran short routes and was essentially always open. Maybe they thought this new offense wouldn’t take advantage of Hopkins’ unique skill set, making him nothing more than a checkdown magnet. Maybe 2019 was the last year of a Hopkins-focused passing game, and when that proved to be insufficient against the Chiefs’ high flying offense, it was time to move on. If any or all of these theories are true and Watson does ultimately become a better quarterback because of the lack of Hopkins (somehow), maybe this trade was a good thing for the Texans. Maybe Hopkins’ abilities blinded us to the reality of a limited offense that couldn’t keep up with the competition. Either that, or I’ve spent too long on my bed in quarantine trying to dream up a justification for O’Brien’s decision to let a player like Hopkins go.
What do you think? Is the 2020 offense going to effectively replace the Hopkins hole and surpass all expectations? Or will Watson crumble and take the team with him with no All-Pro tier receivers to throw to? Is there any justification you can think of to the Hopkins trade, now that the dust has settled?
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