I like to think of every NFL season as a separate story within the larger book of the league’s history. Not every paragraph from each story is etched into our memory. Years later, we don’t recall every detail from an NFL season. However, just like any good story, there are pivotal characters and plot points that stick with us throughout the years. A certain set of players and coaches will help carry the story of the 2020 NFL season. In this series, we’ll look at one of those key characters, starting with an elite wide receiver who finds himself in a new home following a shocking trade.
We’ve all come to expect the unexpected in NFL free agency. Over the last few offseasons, a rising cap and league-wide philosophical shifts have allowed for teams to be more aggressive in their roster construction efforts. Player-for-player trading is on the rise, while it’s customary to see at least a couple teams comfortable taking big swings on the market, thanks to their quality starting quarterback still playing on a rookie contract.
It was logical to assume that the Arizona Cardinals would be one of those aggressive teams. They had enough cap space and an incentive to push the chips in given that quarterback Kyle Murray was fresh off a 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year performance.
Nevertheless, almost no one expected the blockbuster move they made in early March. Over 99 percent of the football universe was completely stunned when news broke of the Arizona Cardinals trading for DeAndre Hopkins.
Hopkins will be a central character in the story of the 2020 NFL season, simply because this trade was such a shocking headliner. The Houston Texans trading away Hopkins for running back David Johnson and a second-round pick is the worst trade in NFL history. You can decry other hideous deals with the benefit of hindsight, but nothing about this transaction can be painted in a positive light, or frankly, does it make any sense at all for the Texans.
For that reason alone, all eyes will be on DeAndre Hopkins next season. We all just want to see him hammer home how bad of an idea it was to deal him. However, Hopkins will also be a key character thanks to his attachment to Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury.
What the DeAndre Hopkins-to-Cardinals means for Kyler Murray
The football universe at large is expecting a sophomore leap from Murray, with fantasy drafters at the forefront. The “experts” tracked by Fantasy Pros have Murray ranked as the consensus QB5. He sports a fifth-round ADP in early Yahoo drafts. From a raw fantasy finish perspective, that isn’t a massive leap. Murray was the QB7 last year but that was largely on the back of rushing stats. The rookie was second in quarterback rushing yards, third in attempts, and fourth in QB rushing TDs, trailing only Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson.
His passing stats, on the other hand, were rather uninspiring. Murray ranked 24th in adjusted yards per attempt, threw just 20 scores, and finished with a -1.5 completion percentage over expectation (per Next Gen Stats).
Of course, as always, all this proves why it’s important to watch the games.
As the season went on, Murray started to display star-level traits as a thrower. He offered up some unbelievable throws drilled into tight windows with a razor-thin margin for error. And that was with a receiver corps that was largely broken throughout the year. Honestly, I’ve often wondered what the phrase “arm talent” means when scouts throw it around. Then I watched Kyler Murray.
Whatever arm talent is, Murray has it.
As The Draft Network’s Jordan Reid notes above, on the other end of those unreal Murray throws in 2020 will not be Damiere Byrd or whatever roster bottom-feeder Arizona rolled out last year.
It will be All-Pro wideout, DeAndre Hopkins.
Hopkins is inarguably one of the top-three receivers in the NFL, at worst. He’s squarely in his prime. Hopkins has piled up 315 catches, 4,115 yards and scored 31 touchdowns in the last three regular seasons. He ranks second, third, and first in the NFL in those categories, respectively. He won’t turn 28 until June. To put the icing on the cake, Hopkins just had the best season of his career in my wide receiver route running evaluation methodology, Reception Perception:
The Texans just gift-wrapped the Cardinals one of the best players at his position in the league operating at the height of his powers. It also happens to be the exact type of player this team needed at this intersection of the Kingsbury/Murray era. What a coup.
With all that said, from a raw production standpoint, it’s fair to dial back our expectations for Hopkins just a bit from his previous standards. Even if we expect Murray to be a great quarterback in due time, and even an exciting playmaker this year, Deshaun Watson is by any measure a better quarterback at this point. There’s also the matter of changing teams mid-career, a proposition that hasn’t gone well for wide receivers of late. In his analysis of DeAndre Hopkins as a Round 1 fantasy selection, Jared Smola notes that “Hopkins became the ninth wide receiver since 2010 to finish as a top-12 PPR WR and then change teams in the offseason. Six of the previous eight scored fewer points in their first season with a new team.”
That’s troubling and it stands to reason a transplant wideout would have a bevy of obstacles to reach their former standards: A new offense, a new route tree, a new quarterback, just living in a whole new city, etc.
Of course, one could argue (as I would) that only Brandon Marshall even comes close to matching the ability that Hopkins brings to the table as a pure player. Vincent Jackson, Eric Decker, Brandin Cooks and the like are all quite good players but we just don’t see true No. 1, alpha-type receivers moved squarely in the middle of their prime. We don’t have much of a sample to work with when you factor in player quality.
History is not on Nuk’s side
Now, we did see two of this receiver type get traded last year. Antonio Brown was shipped off to Oakland. The Browns acquired Odell Beckham Jr. in a blockbuster trade with the Giants. Neither really provides a helpful example.
Brown flew three degrees off the handle and never played a snap for the Raiders. He enjoyed one game with the New England Patriots following his release but was soon after dumped by the Pats after a sexual assault claim surfaced.
Beckham certainly didn’t play or produce up to his Giants’ standards in Cleveland. Yet, he likely operated through a sports hernia injury all throughout 2019 and was not helped at all by his floundering quarterback or embattled coach. It’s unlikely everything that could go wrong will go wrong to this degree with Hopkins.
Hopkins is also a different breed of player, too. Unlike other receivers, we’ve seen his production maintain at a high-level almost no matter what vagabond passer Houston rolled out before Watson arrived and stayed healthy. He told me back in January that this all comes down to his preparation: “So for me, it's being really his best friend, man,” he said. “Because most of my quarterbacks I've never had offseasons with to throw with or to kind of like help our game besides Deshaun. So the rest of those quarterbacks, my offseason was during the season really.” That’s the kind of dedication Kyler Murray can look forward to.
In our COVID-adjusted world heading into the 2020 season, if there was ever a wide receiver that could quickly catch up and get on the same page with his new quarterback and system, it might just be DeAndre Hopkins.
History is clearly not on Hopkins’ side, but he is a rare case. Hopkins might well be a history-breaking player. Both sides have to be taken into account when projecting him for 2020.
Even if Hopkins doesn’t produce top-three wide receiver numbers in his first season with the Cardinals, that doesn’t mean he can’t be an overwhelmingly positive force for the team. Regardless of what he’s putting into the stat sheet, Hopkins is a coverage-dictating receiver. Hopkins owns two of the highest double-coverage rate seasons (out of over 250 sampled) in my Reception Perception methodology’s history. Few wideouts command extra attention as he does. Will Fuller was able to put up monster games on the other side of Hopkins because of those extra openings.
His presence alone will only open wider windows for players like Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk, and all the other receivers asked to play above their heads in 2019. That will be an extra boost to Murray’s efficiency and let him take the downfield chances he couldn’t afford in his rookie season. It will allow Kingsbury to get back to playing the offense he wants, as well.
Hopkins also prides himself on this portion of playing wide receiver too, telling me, “What the average fan wouldn't understand about a receiver is that they can impact the game without getting the ball. They can really impact the game without having 100 yards or a touchdown. But a good receiver — a great receiver — has a real big impact on a football game. If there are nine guys in the box and this receiver's one-on-one, he's gonna get the ball more than likely. But if there is a safety cheating over, then that helps out the run game, which is ... huge. So one receiver can really impact the game without getting the ball or a lot of touchdowns or a lot of yards.”
Therein lies the true value of an alpha receiver like Hopkins, and why he’s destined to be a central cast member in the story of the coming season.
He will be a key factor in unlocking the true ceiling — one his “arm talent” would tell us is outrageously high — of Kyler Murray. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick can take a leap into the same grouping of young quarterbacks set to fill the gap when the old guard retires in the next two years. But he will need Hopkins’ help to do it.
At the same time, we’ll all be actively measuring just how catastrophic of a loss he is to the Texans and Deshaun Watson. Make no mistake, Watson is proven to be a talent elevator, as he helped Hopkins and especially Will Fuller reach new heights the moment he took the field in Houston. Still, as mentioned, the lack of a coverage-dictating receiver will be tough to overcome. Watson, a strange cast of receivers and head coach/czar Bill O’Brien will all have to operate above their previous standard to raise the bar for an offense that was already a bit overrated, one that just lost a transformative talent.
Since the Texans are a contender, this might be an even bigger storyline in the 2020 season than whatever takes place in Arizona. Hopkins is still one of the leading actors in that play, even if he doesn’t call Houston home.
Fantasy managers and stat-counters alike may not get the same bottom-line they are used to get from Hopkins, at least for 2020. Emphasis on may for all the reasons above. However, either way, his move to Arizona only increases his spotlight as a central character in the league’s story.