Houston Wins The Hopkins Trade? Yes, No, Maybe So
Last March, the Houston Texans sent a shockwave across the nation when they announced they were trading All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals. The Texans’ organization, particularly former head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien, received immediate backlash for the surprising move. In fact, ESPN graded the trade as a 'F' for the Texans and a 'B+’ for the Cardinals.
Many people were ready to write off the Texans and predicted an immediate downfall.
Except this guy.
Perhaps I’m a representative of the small population, or maybe the only one, that thinks the trade wasn’t as bad as it appeared to be for the Texans. I understand Houston could have gotten more in return for Hopkins, but it isn’t a guarantee that the trade will be detrimental to the franchise in the long run.
My interest in this particular trade stemmed from my peers attempting to convince me that the Cardinals’ acquisition of Hopkins improved their team substantially. I predicted the Cardinals to finish the regular season with an 8-8 record and miss the playoffs -- both predictions were accurate -- and I was accused of undervaluing the Cardinals’ immediate potential. I think the Cardinals have a bright future ahead of them, but no skill position player, regardless of how elite they are, is enough to single-handedly boost a team from a losing record to a legitimate conference championship and/or Super Bowl contender. I think the move could help Arizona down the road as quarterback Kyler Murray continues to develop as a professional, but I don’t think the addition is enough to label the Cardinals as a perennial contender in the competitive NFC West just yet.
Let’s take a look at the trade’s impact on Houston so far.
I understand the Texans finished the season with a disastrous 4-12 record, but does that lack of success have to do with the departure of Hopkins? I don’t think so. The Texans’ defense finished the season ranked 30th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (416.8), 30th in yards allowed (6,668), 32nd in rushing yards allowed per game (160.3), 24th in passing yards allowed per game (256.5) and 27th in points allowed per game (29.0). The Texans also ranked 28th in turnover differential (-9).
The defense continues to be a lingering issue for Houston -- even with efficient production from players like Zach Cunningham and JJ Watt. These issues were apparent when Hopkins was on the Texans’ roster and his presence doesn’t do anything to change that. The lack of stability in the front office doesn’t help generate any consistency either as the Texans continue to look to fill voids at head coach and general manager.
Houston’s strength of schedule isn’t a justification for their struggles, but having five out of their first seven opponents being Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Green Bay isn’t an easy obstacle to overcome either.
In contrast to the defense’s production, the Texans’ offense has shown flashes of promise.
Let’s take a look at Deshaun Watson’s recent production.
For the first time in his career, Watson did not have Hopkins available as his top target. How did the Texans’ signal caller fare under such circumstances? It turns out the three-time Pro Bowl selection put together his most impressive campaign in his young NFL career.
Watson led the NFL in passing yards (4,823) this season and notched career highs in touchdown passes (33), completion percentage (70.2%) and quarterback rating (112.4). The fourth-year pro out of Clemson also posted a career low in interceptions (7), a stat that proves to be even more impressive considering this is only the second time in his career he has started and played all 16 regular season games. Watson also led the league in yards gained per pass attempt (8.9) and yards gained per pass completion (12.6).
Watson appeared to succeed this past season by being able to lead a more balanced passing attack. The hole left by Hopkins proved to not be as devastating as most football fans, writers and analysts anticipated.
Houston was able to fill the void left by Hopkins with the addition of wide receiver Brandin Cooks. No, I am not saying Cooks is a better wide receiver than Hopkins, nor am I saying they are in the same talent tier. However, before you jump to conclusions and request that I get a psychiatric evaluation, let’s take a moment to compare the production of the two. The gap isn’t as marginal as many would anticipate. Here’s a comparison of DeAndre Hopkins and Brandin Cooks’ receiving statistics from the 2020 season:
Cooks proved to be almost as productive with the same amount of receiving touchdowns (6) as Hopkins and a higher yards per reception average on far less targets and receptions. Cooks also had zero turnovers in 15 games. As previously noted, the two players may not be on the same level talent wise, however, Cooks proved to be a viable replacement as the Texans embraced a much more balanced passing approach. Cooks’ presence along with the production of Will Fuller V -- 53 receptions, 879 receiving yards, 16.6 yards per reception, and eight receiving touchdowns in 11 games (before he was suspended) -- helped Watson challenge opposing defenses more by utilizing the entire field. The Texans’ offense also received contributions from veteran wide receiver Randall Cobb (441 receiving yards) and Keke Coutee (400 receiving yards in eight games played).
Now let’s analyze another component of the DeAndre Hopkins trade.
The Texans received running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick in exchange for a 2020 fourth-round pick along with Hopkins. Johnson has yet to regain his 2016 All-Pro form after tearing his ACL in 2017. However, the Northern Iowa product was still somewhat productive in his sixth season. Johnson tallied 691 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns in only 12 games and eclipsed the 1,000 yards from scrimmage mark (1,005) for the first time since 2018. Johnson doesn’t fix all of the Texans’ run game woes, nor does he provide the Texans with long-term stability at running back. However, Johnson provides just enough to help compensate for the loss of Hopkins.
Additionally, the Texans could utilize the 2020 fourth-round pick they received via the Cardinals by drafting a running back. Perhaps North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, UCLA’s Demetric Felton, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard or Oklahoma’s Kennedy Brooks will be available in the fourth round. It isn’t a guarantee that Houston will land its next premier running back, but with rebuilding comes big risks -- and potentially higher rewards. The addition could potentially add another dimension to the Texans’ run game and/or help disperse the workload evenly so Johnson’s production becomes less of a necessity and more of an incentive. The addition of another viable running back could also help elevate Johnson in the final year of his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
In conclusion, the Texans’ continue to have issues that need to be addressed in the upcoming offseason. However, it's still too early to label Houston as losers in the Hopkins trade. Only time will tell. The absence of Hopkins may be disappointing to the fan base, but it doesn’t make up for the management woes and defensive struggles.
People will continue to write off the Texans, but I can’t do so just yet.
(Cover Photo: Getty Images, graphic designed by Ryan Waldis)