Players get older. But winning? That never does.
It was a refreshing Sunday afternoon at Nissan Stadium for the Tennessee Titans. With an emphatic 27-3 beating of the Cincinnati Bengals in the books, a Hall of Fame-caliber wide receiver sat in a jubilant locker room, savoring the moment as a veteran who knew enough to see it coming.
“We showed today how good we can be,” DeAndre Hopkins said to The Tennessean. “ . . . I think what we did today showed, not just the league, but showed us that we are a good team. We knew that. We know that.”
Hopkins did know that about the Titans. He trusted it.
That’s a big reason he’s here, why he opted to sign with Tennessee this past offseason as a highly coveted free agent. “I knew these guys didn’t need much,” he said.
Maybe so. But they definitely needed Hopkins.
He was added late as a much-needed No. 1 receiver for an offense that suffered in 2022 without A.J. Brown. The receiving room clearly needed a boost. Meanwhile, Hopkins arrived with motivation to rejuvenate his career at age 31 and on his third team.
So far, the partnership is going well.
This Titans’ offense has been fortunate to have Hopkins, and he says he’s glad to be here.
“Oh man, it's been amazing,” he said. “It's been the pinnacle of my career. Being close to home, my family can drive and come see me. Playing with people I played against my whole career (glancing at running back Derrick Henry beside him), it's fun.”
He's been there when the Tennessee Titans needed him
Hopkins is still a special player. Takes about a minute of watching him practice to know it, too. If he has lost a step, it doesn’t show. He has been that guy in Tennessee, much like he was in Houston and Arizona. He has been a safety blanket for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, proving dependable, durable and as capable as expected.
He has led the Titans in targets in all four games. He leads them in receptions (18) and receiving yards (216).
“When we’ve needed a play,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said, “he’s come up huge.”
That includes a watershed moment in Sunday’s game. With the score tied 3-3 and the Titans’ offense facing a third-and-7 at their own 25-yard line, Hopkins raced past a cornerback with a wicked stutter step, allowing Tannehill to toss a throw to him near the sideline before the safety arrived.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) October 1, 2023
Third-and-long isn't easy in the NFL, and it certainly hasn't been for the Titans. That 38-yard completion to Hopkins instantly changed the game and the Titans' confidence. On the next play, Tannehill threw to Josh Whyle for 24 yards. The play after that, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine had a 13-yard touchdown catch. Tennessee would finish the quarter with touchdown drives of 78, 73 and 80 yards.
“I went out and had a ball I felt like I should have caught,” Hopkins said, referencing an early deep shot on a trick play into the end zone that he couldn’t quite corral. “It got caught in the sun, but for me, that's no excuse. I just knew the next time I got a chance, I was going to make a play, and Ryan trusted me.
"I do feel like that's kind of what got the offense going and the momentum going, and it's a momentum league.”
'What I want to prove is team success'
But it’s more than that. Hopkins is benefiting the Titans in ways that aren’t seen. He has been a leader by example, showing teammates what it takes to be one of the best.
Defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said he has looked over in practice at the offense and watched Hopkins doing a drill or activity, and before long, “I see all the receivers doing it.”
Like Chris Moore, for instance. This is Moore’s eighth NFL season as a receiver, yet he recently noticed how Hopkins positioned his hands a certain way to smoothly snare a football near his hip.
“I'd never tried to catch the ball like that,” he said. “Because I saw him do it, I was able to try to replicate it. . . . The way he practices and things he's able to do, it makes you want to step yourself up.”
Odd that Sunday’s offensive breakout came without Treylon Burks, the first-round receiver drafted in 2022 through the A.J. Brown trade, who missed the game because of knee trouble. Burks has a wealth of potential but hasn’t been able to stay healthy enough to reach it.
Hopkins isn’t totally healthy, either. He has been nursing a hurt ankle since the season opener in New Orleans, yet he’s found a way to play each Sunday.
“Eight years, I didn't miss many games,” he said. “In that eight-year period there, obviously, I was hurt a lot. But that's part of the league. That's part of playing football. You've got to go out and do what you've got to do and be ready on Sunday.”
Some Sundays prove better than others. This one was pretty good for the Titans.
And for their star receiver.
“For me,” Hopkins said, “proving what I want to prove is team success. If that's me going out and being a decoy and helping somebody else get open, I've gained a lot off the field and on the field. So for me, it's trying to come out and help this team win however I can.”
You can't help but believe him.
That's because, since he's been here, Hopkins has given no reason not to believe him.
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter) @Gentry_Estes.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: DeAndre Hopkins is proving to be exactly what Tennessee Titans needed