Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
23 Jun 2014
by Rivers McCown
In this sports culture, a world where we are expected to have Hot Takes quickly and watch them blossom, sometimes we are actually wrong. Like, really, really, wrong. In that spirit, I take you to Cian Fahey's article about DeAndre Hopkins after Week 2 of the season.
Hopkins showed off that ability with big plays late in the game against the Tennessee Titans in Week 2. Those were the spectacular catches, but he also shares a trait that Michael Crabtree has seemingly perfected: he is able to set up defensive backs for yards after the catch with how he contorts his body before he catches the ball.
Fahey allowed for the idea that Hopkins may suffer for opportunities in a run-first offense, but the tenor of the piece was clear: the Texans had reason for optimism when it came to their first-round pick. This was the kind of player who could help them fend off the Colts and keep a stranglehold on the division.
Then they lost 14 games in a row.
Hopkins was targeted 19 times in the first two games of the season. He was then targeted just 5.1 times a game over the last 14 contests despite a solid 6.9% DVOA. What changed in Houston? Why weren't they able to exploit a receiver with such NFL-ready skills?
I looked at where Hopkins lined up before each snap. I gave an educated guess on whether he was facing man or zone coverage, as well as one for the type of route he ran. This can be hard to tell at times, and I still don't think my eye for film matches up with the best in the industry, but I did my best. I don't come into this looking to make sweeping conclusions based on the data we use. In fact, I don't come into this column looking to have a final say on anything.
The target totals listed below don't quite match the total listed on our wideout stats page. This is because we did not consider certain plays, including:
Here are my observations:
"Behind the line of scrimmage" includes passes that traveled less than one yard. "Short" indicates passes that traveled between 1-15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. "Deep" indicates passes that traveled 16 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Red numbers show a Success Rate of 50 percent or higher. Black numbers show a Success Rate between 40-49 percent, and blue numbers show a Success Rate of 39 percent or lower.
Success Rate is defined as the percentage of receptions where the player gains 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down. Some of these numbers may look "off" at times because pass interference plays are incomplete passes that are "successful."
Hopkins doesn't have sprinter speed. He has some elusiveness, but he's no threat to make five people miss a tackle on one play like Percy Harvin. Hopkins excels in a more uncommon way: he welcomes contact from defensive backs.
Over the course of this series, I haven't seen anyone take as many jams as Hopkins did at the top of his routes. He often was the one initiating the jam, and he intuitively shields himself well from the contact at the point of attack. He plays wideout like an MMA fighter.
Combine this with his terrific route running and above-average vision, and you get an NFL-ready wideout that could compete right away. And as you can see from both our DVOA numbers and the zones chart above, he more than delivered on that promise ... when he was part of the offense.
Another thing that stood out was how effective Hopkins was against zone coverage. Like Andre Johnson, he was effective at finding a spot between the zones and holding his ground there. Hopkins attacks every ball in his area, and was so powerful that the Texans -- a team that had become notorious for not throwing fade passes in the end zone -- were willing to lob some in his direction with success.
"Slot" plays include all plays in which a receiver was inside of another receiver, regardless of how tight to the line he was. (For tight ends, if they are lined up at the LOS, they are counted as inline.) Some plays in the charting project include two or three "slot receivers" by this definition.
If we had to limit it to a time on the clock, what would you guess would be the most accurate indicator of a hurry-up offense?
I ask because if we play around with splits a little bit, we find some truly disturbing things about Hopkins' usage. 66 of his 92 targets were thrown in the second quarter, fourth quarter, or overtime. 34 of those came in the last five minutes of the second or fourth, or at any time in overtime. That's more than a third of his total targets in pure passing situations.
It would be one thing if Hopkins was never out on the field: if he had been phased in slowly to the offense like Justin Hunter was, and those splits gradually faded away by the end of the season. But Hopkins played 88.8% of the offensive snaps in 2013. He played more snaps than Andre Johnson. (Barely, but he did.)
So how exactly did the Texans manage to spend the entire season ignoring their second-best receiver until the game was out of reach?
Obviously we don't have the actual play calls. These charts are educated guesses and should not be considered gospel.
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.
But, if your physical and extremely gifted route-running wideout can separate deep too (and Hopkins can do that), shouldn't this be a bonus rather than his calling? Look back at the field zones chart and see all the red Hopkins provided underneath. This is a receiver that could bully the first 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Slants should not be a supplemental idea with Hopkins.
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.
This isn't why the Texans lost 14 games, but it's definitely a symptom of the fever.
Bill O'Brien's system should be much more friendly to Hopkins. Of course, he may suffer from the same issues Kendall Wright faced last year: being the No. 1 threat on a bad offense and trying to catch balls with no touch from Ryan Fitzpatrick. (Assuming Andre Johnson actually holds out or is allowed to leave, that is.)
Hopkins doesn't have the pure physical talent to be a top-of-the-line wide receiver. He's not going to be the next Johnson: Calvin or Andre. But he very well could be the next Anquan Boldin. His dedication to his craft was evident on the field, and he's got the talent to be a top-20 NFL wideout.
It all comes back to opportunity with Hopkins, as Fahey noted in his piece back in Week 2. If the Texans had given him more of one last season, they might not have Jadeveon Clowney right now. So, depending on your interpretation of how much that means to Houston, maybe Hopkins' slow start wasn't the worst thing that could've happened.
But here's one more entry into the land of Hot Takes: Hopkins is going to go from 90 targets in 2013 to catching 90 balls in 2014.
8 comments, Last at 26 Jun 2014, 3:11am by Andrew Potter