There was some major hype around Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins as we headed into training camp last season, and he didn't disappoint those that predicted a breakout season. A year later, after seeing Hopkins blow up for Houston's offense, he projects as their No. 1 receiver, with a shot to launch himself into the superstar discussion. Does he have tools to make that jump, or will he regress without a receiver like Andre Johnson lined up opposite? Let's take a look.
Blast off to superstardom in Houston?
Despite a shaky situation that saw Hopkins catch passes from four different quarterbacks (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage and Case Keenum), he emerged as arguably the team's top receiver, grabbing 76 passes for 1,210 yards and six touchdowns.
He joined Andre Johnson as the only Texan ever to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, and set the franchise record with his 15.9 yards per catch. His six scores paced the 9-7 Texans, and his 127 targets were second only to Johnson. He became a focal point for a run-heavy attack in his second season.
I watched every Hopkins target from last year and a few things stood out. He's a physical player -- he plays to his 6'1, 218-pound frame -- and his hands are very good. I saw him drop a couple passes that he should've caught, but overall he was very consistent catching the ball. His hands technique was fundamental; he always framed the ball well, focusing in on it through the catch, and displayed the ability to go up high or crouch low.
These are two consecutive targets on separate third-and-4's for Hopkins, in Week 13's matchup against Tennessee. Both were extremely low, inaccurate passes, and he came up with both:
It wasn't surprising when I saw Pro Football Focus pointed out that over the last three seasons, no receiver has had better hands than Hopkins, who has grabbed 97 percent (128/132) of his catchable passes.
He had one catch vs. the Giants that, had it counted, could've rivaled Odell Beckham's "The Catch" for one of the most impressive plays of the season:
According to Sporting Charts, he averaged 5.1 yards after the catch.
Overall, I'd say that he has the tools needed to become a No. 1 receiver.
He's strong on the sideline:
He's great at setting up defenders for the back-shoulder throw:
He can go up in traffic. There were a few 50-50 balls he lost (they were picked off or batted down), but part of that could be attributed to poor throws.
He's played all over the formation, in the slot, on the outside, and in motion. He was particularly effective on hitch routes and quick conversion routes where he'd set up a corner, sit down, pivot, then break inside or outside. He did not seem to struggle to get off the press.
Hopkins had a procedure on his wrist following the season but is set to hit the ground running, and with Johnson moving on to Indianapolis, will be the Texans' go-to for whoever wins the quarterback competition (Mallett or newcomer Brian Hoyer). Someone will have to account for Johnson's 147 targets from 2014 -- the team signed Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington, then drafted Jaelen Strong and Keith Mumphery -- but if I had to guess, Hopkins will see his targets number rise as the true leader.
Johnson's departure leaves a void inside the 20-yard line, where Johnson got an NFL-high 37 percent of his team's targets. Hopkins' size-speed combination can in theory wreak havoc on man coverage, and his ability to find soft spots underneath can beat zones. He'll have to turn potential into reality, as per NumberFire, Hopkins' red zone efficiency is subpar. He's scored only three touchdowns on 23 career red zone targets.
It's going to be hard for Hopkins to put up jaw-dropping stats in a run-first offense, with a mediocre quarterback. Hoyer and Mallett may end up playing lights out, but it seems expectations should be tempered. Even Texans owner Bob McNair got out in front of this, stating Houston's quarterbacks don't have to be put the team on their backs.
"It really is a good environment for quarterbacks," he said. "We'll try to make it up by having one of the best defenses, so we'll keep other teams from scoring many points. And we'll be able to run the ball and hopefully control the clock. And we'll continue to get better on special teams. So if we can do those three things, all we need is consistent play out of our quarterbacks. They don't have to be superheroes."
So, if Houston's quarterbacks don't have to be superheroes, does that mean that Hopkins can be a superstar? I would predict he eclipses his catch, yardage, and touchdown totals, but will it be enough to catapult him into the top tier of receivers? It may not happen this season, but it wouldn't surprise me to see him climb.