Nothing went right for the Texans last season. The 2-14 team failed to capitalize on a successful 2012, and quarterback Matt Schaub seemed far more interested in throwing touchdowns for his opponents than his teammates. The result was a significant overhaul, including new coaches and coordinators and the aforementioned Clowney as a No. 1 overall pick.
Though the defense is an exciting proposition with Clowney joining defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Brian Cushing, the offense isn't exactly setting the world on fire with Ryan Fitzpatrick planned at quarterback. Now, it appears wide receiver Andre Johnson is considering a move. The latest, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport:
Even if the defense is as good as many of us think it could be, the it wasn't exactly a problem in 2013 when it ranked seventh overall in total yardage. The NFL is a results-oriented business, and wins don't come very often if the offense can't put consistent points on the board.
That brings us back to Hopkins, who, with or without Johnson, should make a massive leap forward in the upcoming season.
What Went Wrong in Hopkins' Rookie Season?
In writing these kind of columns, there's always a pushback from multiple angles.
Fans of other AFC South teams or teams with other young receivers will freak out, saying, "Why didn't you write about so-and-so?" That group will probably label me a closet Texans homer and tell me about how Hopkins "totally sucks, bro."
Then again, there are going to be those Texans fans, or possibly even rogue Clemson fans who have wandered into the NFL section in order to support their guy. That's cool; welcome all! Just please, don't tell me about how good Hopkins was last season.
The Hopkins I saw on the field last season wasn't the same guy I scouted the year before out of Clemson. The guy in the orange uniform was a force of nature—explosive more than fast and violent in the way he took on defenders.
Yet the argument could be made that Hopkins was one of the best rookie receivers. Here are the numbers:
|Rookie Receiving Yards in 2013|
Numbers can be deceiving, though. Stats are great for the stories they can tell, but they can also lack necessary context. Because of this, a lot of analysts have wisely moved past the "box score" stats into deeper ratings and metrics like those used at Pro Football Focus.
|Top Receiving Rookies Through PFF's Eyes|
While those are just a baseline digging of PFF's paid database, a couple of things are clear.
First off, none of those rookie receivers save Keenan Allen did much of note last year. That said, Hopkins' numbers on this chart show him in a little clearer picture—a moderately large component of a sad offense that he didn't really mesh well with and that had next to no talent under center.
Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders has written the definitive piece on Hopkins' rookie season, and he came up with this conclusion:
Hopkins ran 25 seam routes on a team that had no quarterbacks that could consistently hit those spots. The results were great when Hopkins actually managed to get on top of someone and have Wingus or Dingus loft the ball in his direction.
And this is what bad coaching looks like. It looks like Hopkins being targeted 92 times and Garrett Graham getting targeted 89 times. It looks like your second-best receiver being used to try to lift one side of the field so that Case Keenum can try and hit a flat route to Dennis Johnson. It looks like your offense being so devoted to this idea of two tight ends that you can't hustle in a different wideout to run a seam pattern while Hopkins runs a dig route.
Some of that can certainly be laid at the feet of former head coach and erstwhile offensive mastermind Gary Kubiak (now with Baltimore), but it's also indicative of a team built around Matt Schaub under center with a whole lot of nothing behind him on the depth chart.
It goes too far to say that Hopkins stunk last season, but rather that he failed to mesh with what was an already sinking ship.
No. 1? No. 2? Doesn't Matter, the Skills Are There
One of the reasons I fail to truly blame Hopkins for any failings in 2013 is that he actually thrived when the offense managed to make him a more featured part.
Many others in Hopkins' situation would've become drop-prone (he had only one last year), stopped giving full effort in blocking (not an issue) or ran routes lazily (no chance). Instead of resting on his laurels, Hopkins made the best of his opportunities when they came along.
This is Hopkins when the deep shot works. Here, he's seen matched up with Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith. Smith is manned up in press coverage, and Hopkins fights through the press like it's barely there.
Then—and I love this about Hopkins—he accelerates through contact. Some receivers can stop on a dime and accelerate out of it. Others can manage to fight through physical coverage. Very few, like Hopkins, can do both at the same time. It's what makes him such an intriguing prospect.
In this image, he's already broken even with Smith and uses a little arm shiver to gain even more separation. (If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin', am I right?)
This is the result: Hopkins wide-open in the end zone and highlighting his ability to track the ball over his shoulder and actually come down with it.
As McCown pointed out above, Hopkins ran 25 such seam routes this past season but didn't have that kind of success. In fact, in another graphic McCown highlighted, Hopkins was only successful about half the time he went against man coverage as he did on that touchdown.
Case Keenum throws a near-perfect ball to Hopkins on that play. If Keenum had thrown that kind of pass with that kind of precision with more regularity, he'd be the rock-solid starter for the Texans in the upcoming season.
That isn't quite how things went.
Understand that these are skills we've known Hopkins has had for some time. Anyone who watched him in college certainly isn't surprised, and it's borderline crazy that the Texans seemed to misuse what they had.
Former Bleacher Report analyst BJ Kissel (now with the Chiefs website) tried to predict how Hopkins would help open up Houston's offense. Frankly, Kissel may have had some more success calling plays for the Texans, as he had some much better plans.
Noting Hopkins' speed, physicality and catching ability, Kissel talked about almost the exact same thing McCown would say almost a year later: Hopkins could be a tremendous decoy, yes, but the Texans need to actually take advantage of his dynamic play as well.
Moving forward, the big question needs to be whether Hopkins will continue to be the complementary piece to Andre Johnson or if he'll be forced to step forward into the No. 1 receiver role with Johnson's potential (at least desired) departure. Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar (then with Yahoo Sports) wrote about that possibility before Hopkins was even drafted:
In the pros, Hopkins could be a featured "X-iso" receiver for some teams, but among teams in need of a second receiver with toughness and route awareness to complement a pure speed receiver, Hopkins might be even more effective. Make no mistake, though—in this receiver class, there's nobody that stands head and shoulders above him, and the more you watch Hopkins, there's more to like.
Hopkins, as Farrar said, has all of the tools a No. 1 receiver should have, but at 6'1" and 214 pounds, he lacks that elite size that many teams want in their true perimeter receiver. That doesn't mean he can't do it, just that the Texans should probably try to keep Johnson around.
Whether he's the No. 2 (at "Z" or in the slot) or the true No. 1, though, Hopkins should be a bigger part of the offense this season. He's simply too talented to keep down.