by Scott Kacsmar
While he had a big night on Thursday, Tavon Austin entered Week 15 ranked dead last (73rd) in DVOA and DYAR among wide receivers this season. Barring a dramatic improvement, the Rams will always be skewered for making Austin the first wide receiver taken in the 2013 draft. The second receiver taken that year? DeAndre Hopkins lasted 18 more picks after Austin, falling to the Texans at 27th. Now in his third season, Hopkins' only competition for the title of best wide receiver from his draft class is Keenan Allen.
Hopkins already has more than 1,200 receiving yards for the second year in a row and a career-high 10 touchdown catches. While "Nuk" has cooled off in recent weeks, Hopkins is one of the leading candidates for first-team All-Pro honors at his position this season. On Sunday, he will play in the biggest game of his young career as Houston looks to beat the Colts to take control of the AFC South. Hopkins will have to shine with Houston's third starting quarterback of the season, T.J. Yates. That may be one of the best arguments in Hopkins' favor -- he has also caught passes from Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett this season. Antonio Brown's production is largely tied to the availability of Ben Roethlisberger. Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. have more stable quarterback situations with Matt Ryan and Eli Manning.
That difference in quarterback would seem to explain a lot of the negative 2015 numbers associated with Hopkins, namely his ranking of 34th in DVOA, and the second-lowest YAC rate (15.3 percent of his total yardage) in the NFL. Only Sammy Watkins (13.7 percent) produces less YAC than Hopkins, but his average target is nearly 5 yards deeper (19.2) down the field. Interestingly enough, Austin leads all wideouts with roughly 77 percent YAC after last night's game, which is what he did in 2012 for West Virginia. Going back to their college days together at Clemson, Watkins had numbers similar to Austin, while Hopkins had 28.0 percent YAC in 2012.
Maybe adjusting to all of those inaccurate passes makes it difficult for Hopkins to do a lot after the catch. However, after doing a catch radius study on Hopkins' three seasons, I have changed my mind on him. Instead of wondering if Hopkins could be the best wide receiver in the NFL, I am not sold that he is even the best in the AFC South, not with T.Y. Hilton's history and the breakout year from Allen Robinson.
That statement is not so bold when you remember that Hilton had 1,345 yards a year ago and has played with banged-up quarterbacks this season. Robinson is currently tied for the league lead with 12 touchdowns, and it's not like Blake Bortles is a pillar of efficiency. But before I qualify that statement, let's quantify the catch radius for Hopkins in his three seasons.
|DeAndre Hopkins: Catch Radius (2013-2015)|
|Type of Catch||2013||Pct.||2014||Pct.||2015||Pct.||Total||Pct.|
|Above the head||6||11.5%||3||3.9%||7||7.9%||16||7.4%|
|Below the waist||2||3.8%||1||1.3%||1||1.1%||4||1.8%|
|Diving to ground||3||5.8%||6||7.9%||8||9.0%||17||7.8%|
|Over the shoulder||3||5.8%||2||2.6%||8||9.0%||13||6.0%|
|Pass thrown wide||1||1.9%||4||5.3%||3||3.4%||8||3.7%|
Despite all of the quarterback changes in Houston, these numbers are not that jumpy from year to year. This season, Hopkins has made more over-the-shoulder catches as the Texans love to use him down the sideline in the range of 20 to 30 yards. That is where he is at his best as a deep threat. He has also dug out more passes that were low to the ground, though six of those came from Mallett and only two from Hoyer.
If this is the first time you have seen any of my catch radius numbers and are wondering what other wideouts do, here is the updated table of all 45 player-seasons that I have studied. The chest-level and eye-level catches are usually the sweet spot for a typical catch in the NFL, so the last column combines those together and is shown in ascending order -- the lower this number, the more often a receiver has to reach high, low or to the side to make a spectacular catch. Hopkins' 2015 season is his most impressive in many ways, though he is still not that far off from the averages studied to this point.
|Summary of Wide Receiver Catch Radii Study|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||2014||NYG||71||91||41.8%||20.9%||22.0%||3.3%||3.3%||7.7%||62.6%|
I obviously need to study more players and seasons, but the element of height is always interesting for this. Some quarterbacks seem to take advantage of their tall receivers with high passes that are still caught above the head. We saw this last year with Kelvin Benjamin, who had 19 above-the-head catches, trailing only Beckham (20) in total. The 6-foot-1 Hopkins has 16 such catches in his three seasons combined.
The following are some highlight grabs from 2013 and 2014. While he can get down for some low balls, Hopkins' specialty skill so far has been winning contested catches, especially in the red zone.
Note: the following images are captured from NFL Game Pass at the moment of first contact with the ball.
Another thing I learned from this is that with Houston playing so often in the early afternoon slot without CBS' top broadcast teams, you do not get as many nice replays as the higher profile games get. Still, I tried to do my usual job of picking out impressive plays, but only found those eight for Hopkins' first two seasons. I have eight catches highlighted for Hopkins' 2015 season to this point.
The Ease of Bias
I freely admit I do not watch every play of every game in the NFL season due to life's time constraints. I see highlights of every game at a bare minimum, and I watch every close finish in great detail each week. In addition to prime-time games, there are a handful of teams for with I make it a point to watch the full game, and Houston has not been one of them.
Having said that, it is easy to understand why I expected so much more out of this catch radius study. The first time Hopkins really caught my attention was the second game of his career against the Titans in 2013. He made three big catches on a late game-tying drive and caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime. The longest catch of his rookie season was a 66-yard bomb in the fourth quarter against the Patriots. That season the Texans were 2-10 at game-winning drive opportunities, so I got to see a lot of Hopkins' work in crunch time, as well as his only two touchdowns and sole 100-yard game in 2013.
In 2014, I was amazed by the highlights of Hopkins' 238 yards against Tennessee. He had to dive on the ground to make his first three catches that day. Moving on to 2015, Hopkins had a season-high 169 yards against the Colts on a Thursday night. He caught two game-winning touchdowns in the fourth quarter to beat the Jaguars and Bengals, the latter a brilliant one-handed catch over Adam Jones on a Monday night.
— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) November 17, 2015
"Highlight syndrome" is a real problem for many, and I may have let myself fall victim to it by focusing so much on Hopkins in these high-leverage moments. Houston's quarterback situation in the last three years is an easy way to justify these thoughts about Hopkins' playing style. In addition to this year's unholy quarterback trinity, Hopkins has also caught passes from Matt Schaub (in meltdown mode), Case Keenum, Tom Savage, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Hopkins had been high on my to-do list for catch radius. Given my NFL viewing habits, what I had seen of him and knew about him statistically, and his offense's situation, I expected results that would be very favorable to Hopkins. Like the way A.J. Green reaches up for those hospital balls from Andy Dalton, or the incredible success of last year's rookie class, I thought we could call Hopkins "The Contortionist" as a newfound sign of respect for the way he produces in his offense.
On video, it just never really materialized for me. Hopkins is a very good receiver, but the NFL has a surplus of those right now. It is one thing to mention Hilton or Robinson, but at full health, is anyone really taking Hopkins over Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson, Dez Bryant or A.J. Green? Some of the "old reliables" such as Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald are playing very well too and have a track record that cannot be ignored. In addition to Robinson, Watkins and Martavis Bryant from last year's draft are also excelling as young wide receivers.
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In watching Hopkins, you can see why he has taken over as Houston's best receiver, a title Andre Johnson had on lockdown for a decade before passing the torch in 2014. However, the decline and departure of Johnson has also opened up more targets for Hopkins, who has had a few garbage-time hero efforts this season with Houston trailing by significant margins. Regardless of when the catches are being made, you also see some holes in Hopkins' game that start to put some of the other stats in context.
The YAC Dilemma (If There Is One)
Hopkins runs nice routes and I like that he really attacks the ball instead of waiting for it to come to him. He has incredible timing on his jumps and very reliable hands. The deficiencies in his game mostly happen after he catches the ball. That is where his game is bland, to put it frankly. As mentioned in the beginning, Hopkins has the second-lowest YAC rate in 2015 at 15.3 percent. He was at 22.6 percent as a rookie and 30.8 percent in 2014. The average wide receiver this season is around 33.8 percent, so he clearly is a below-average YAC wideout. That is not necessarily a bad thing for Hopkins, but the thought that it was a result of his quarterback play does not seem to hold up given the types of catches he has made over the last three years.
YAC+, which adjusts YAC for where the pass was caught, also looks down on Hopkins, who ranked 43rd in 2013 (minus-1.0) and 18th in 2014 (plus-0.3) among qualified wideouts. The 2015 data is still to come, but for 2013-14, Hopkins had negative YAC+ with every quarterback except for Fitzpatrick (plus-1.0).
Hopkins just does not impress physically with the ball in his hands the way a Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas does. While no one would confuse his skillset for that of Golden Tate, Hopkins also lacks the stop-on-a-dime moves of Antonio Brown or the fluidity of Beckham.
In other words, Hopkins lacks the top-end speed of his peers, and that is probably always going to limit his impact on the field. That may also be why he fell to 27th in the draft. Hopkins ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the combine, but improved that time to 4.41 seconds at Clemson's pro day. Still, it is apparent watching him on film that he is just not likely to break a big play after the catch. However, he is just quick enough to make Brandon Browner look foolish, which may have been my favorite play out of this whole study.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 18, 2015
Houston's offense has wisely taken advantage of what Hopkins does well. You rarely see him catch passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Out of his 217 catches, only nine were screens or smoke passes, and those plays gained a total of 20 yards. It is not as though Hopkins is incapable of making defenders miss -- see his 2014 game against the Eagles for good YAC plays -- but it is something he lacks as a No. 1 wide receiver who will be looking to cash in big in the near future.
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Well, this is probably the weekend where Hopkins goes off for 180 yards and three scores, leading Houston to its first win ever in Indianapolis, where it is 0-13. I want to make it clear that I think Hopkins is a gifted wide receiver, and he should be very high on the list of players you would want going forward due to his age (turns 24 in June). His best days are still to come, and he could benefit from some stability at quarterback for a change.
We just do not want to keep making the "quarterbacks are slowing him down" narrative overblown, as Hopkins' playing style requires a pinpoint passer that few teams in the league have at any given time. The Texans are certainly not one of those teams, but if they soon become one, then you may see Hopkins' efficiency explode.