Well, so much for Memorial Day weekend being a relaxing one for NFL coaches and executives. On Friday, it was announced that the Arizona Cardinals released receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and that will perk up the ears of the shot-callers in all 31 other NFL stops.
Selected by the Houston Texans with the 27th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft out of Clemson, Hopkins has been at his best an elite production machine. From 2014 through 2020, Hopkins led all receivers in targets (1,117) and receptions (695), only Julio Jones had more receiving yards (10,159) than Hopkins’ 9,207, and only Antonio Brown, Davante Adams, and Mike Evans had more touchdowns than Hopkins’ 58.
However, Hopkins hasn’t played a full season since 2020. Hamstring and knee injuries limited him to 10 games with the Arizona Cardinals in 2021 — his second in the Valley of the sun after a major 2020 trade — and he was suspended for the first six games of the 2022 season for violating the NFL’s policies no performance-enhancing substances. His 106 catches on 160 targets for 1,289 yards and 11 touchdowns over those two seasons would have been about one season’s production before.
It was too much for the Cardinals, who had tried unsuccessfully to find a willing trade partner for the veteran receiver. The primary issue was not performance, but salary. Hopkins signed a two-year contract extension in 2020 that gave him $54.5 million in new money with $42.75 million guaranteed at signing. By releasing him now, Arizona saves $8,911,114 of his $21,077,776 car hit this season, and they still take on $21,077,776 in dead cap in 2023.
That’s the bad news. The good news for the Cardinals is that they’re obviously rebuilding at all levels, and getting Hopkins’ entire contract off the books in 2023 makes the most sense of all available solutions — unless we’re talking about the one solution of seeing what Hopkins has left in the tank at age 30.
That’s now for the rest of the NFL to decide. So, for those interested and interesting teams, what does DeAndre Hopkins have left to offer?
He's more of a YAC monster than a speed-burner.
Not that Hopkins was ever a speed receiver — at 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, he’s more about route exactitude and winning contested catches. But in 2022, he had just five catches on passes of 20 or more air yards on 13 targets for 130 yards and no touchdowns. Even in 2020, his last full season and his last great season, Hopkins had just eight deep catches on 15 targets for 294 yards and three touchdowns. So, if you’re looking for a guy to test safeties up the seam, you probably should have looked elsewhere at this point.
That said, Hopkins did have eight explosive plays among his 64 receptions last season, and watching them is instructive. On this 33-yard touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 12. Hopkins meandered through his opponent’s Cover-4 defense, and just embarrassed safety JT Woods with a nasty spin move to facilitate his move to the end zone. Linebacker Kenneth Murray wasn’t going to catch up.
He's best as a slot target.
Last season, Hopkins spent 27.3% of his passing snaps (106 of 388) in the slot, which was his highest rate since the 37.5% he had in Houston in 2019, his last season there. When the Cardinals acquired him, former head coach and offensive shot-caller Kliff Kingsbury lined him up as the backside iso receiver in Arizona’s frequent 10 and 11 personnel packages, and that didn’t really work. It was only in Kingsbury’s last season that he seemed to get where Hopkins works best.
If Hopkins is going to work outside, he’s best suited to switch and stack concepts in reduced splits that allow him to work through coverages as opposed to beating them over the top — again, that’s not his game. But in those specific concepts, he can be very effective.
This 23-yard catch against the New England Patriots in Week 14 had Hopkins rolling from left to right on an over route, while receiver Marquise Brown took Cover-3 over the top to the other side, clearing the path for Hopkins.
…was this 25-yard catch against Jalen Ramsey and the Los Angeles Rams in Week 10. Ramsey had Hopkins all the way up the chute, but Hopkins did a great job of breaking his route back at the perfect time. It’s the understanding of the position that Hopkins’ next team will do well to exploit.
Anatomy of a route tree.
Let’s keep with the comeback concept. Last season, Hopkins ran more hitch routes than any other with 65. He ran 64 go routes, but he was far more effective on routes that allowed him to create open space (20 catches on 24 targets on hitches as opposed to five catches on 11 targets on go routes).
This might be the future of Hopkins’ career — taking the underneath stuff and the hits that come with it, while getting as many yards after catch as possible.
You’ve already seen how well Hopkins works the deep over, and he ran 34 of those in 2022, with four catches on six targets.
He's a cog, not a superstar.
Recently, Hopkins made it clear what kind of team he wants to be with, and the ideal quarterbacks he’d like to work with.
What’s DeAndre Hopkins looking for from his next team?
•A QB who loves the game
•A great defense, because defense wins championships 🏆
Where do YOU wanna see DHop land next? 🤔💭
— I AM ATHLETE (@IAMATHLETEpod) May 26, 2023
On a recent appearance on the “I Am Athlete” podcast, free-agent WR DeAndre Hopkins listed the five QBs he’d most like to catch passes from: the Bills’ Josh Allen, the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) May 26, 2023
It’s entirely possible that Hopkins lands in a situation that’s ideal for his current attributes, and as long as he and his new team understand what those attributes are, he could experience an impressive career revival. Just because he’s no longer the field-tilting X receiver he used to be, doesn’t mean that he’s still not of value to the league.
As a medium- to high-impact slot target with veteran savvy and primarily after the catch ability, DeAndre Hopkins could still be a force.