This was supposed to be a year of getting down to business for the Houston Texans. Hype was building. Houston finally has a quarterback in Brock Osweiler, added a potential star running back in LaMar Miller and already had J.J. Watt to anchor the defense. Then training camp started and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins wasn’t there, and the focus changed.
Hopkins has a way of evading coverage. Maybe it’s because of his lack of dominant straight-line speed or size. Perhaps it’s due to his late start, not playing football until his sophomore year of high school and not splashing as a wide receiver until he showed up at Clemson. It could also be the fact that until last season, he was never the most heralded receiver on his own team.
But then 2015 came, his first with Andre Johnson playing somewhere other than Houston, and Hopkins suddenly became the best bargain in football. In the fourth year of his rookie contract, which earned him $2.4 million due to being the No. 27 pick in the 2013 draft, Hopkins exploded for 111 catches and 1,521 yards, both marks ranking third in the NFL behind Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.
The rookie scale helps turn all young stars into bargains. Still, Hopkins rose above last season, given that he played with four different starting quarterbacks, no complementary receiver drawing any coverage away and no running back who reached the end zone more than twice.
So Hopkins was justified in claiming he was underpaid, which led to a 30-hour holdout. He’ll play this season at an increase before he will be eligible to earn $7.9 million in 2017 as part of the fifth-year option. Despite it all, he might still be shadowed by the noise created by the singing of free-agents Osweiler and Miller.
Hopkins was a cornerback in high school and set a Daniel High School (Central, S.C.) record with 14 interceptions in his first season of organized football in 2007. By the time nearby Clemson began recruiting him he’d never played receiver. He finished high school with almost half as many interceptions (28) as catches (57).
“When he got the scholarship to Clemson, I’m like, ‘Dang, are you going to play corner?’ And he’s like, ‘Nah, I’m playing wide receiver.’ I’m like, ‘Wide receiver? You’ve got more picks than you’ve got touchdowns on offense,’” said Jets defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, who played with Hopkins at Daniel and at Clemson.
Hopkins went on to become Clemson’s all-time leading receiver. And yet he was still outshined by the prowess of fellow wideout Sammy Watkins. He was cast as a cog in an offense loaded with eventual NFL stars; Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant, Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen and Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington.
Entering the draft, Hopkins had solid but not overwhelming size at 6-foot-1 and 214 pounds. His time of 4.57 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine concerned plenty, even though his game speed has always been quicker than that (he ran a 4.41 at his Clemson pro day).
“He’s always had people say he couldn’t do things, but he’s always just proven people wrong,” said Bengals defensive tackle DeShawn Williams, who also played with Hopkins at Daniel High School and at Clemson.
He was a late first-round pick, thanks in part to a monster final game against LSU (13 receptions, 191 yards, two touchdowns). But even in Houston, he was joining a team headlined by Johnson, an 11-year veteran with more than 11,000 career receiving yards.
Even his most impressive play as a pro — the turn-around, one-handed grab of a deep ball in double coverage against the Giants in 2014 — didn’t count due to a penalty. But it did showcase his 10-inch hands.
In three years at Clemson, Hopkins jumped from 637 receiving yards to 978 to 1,405. In three years with the Texans, he’s ascended from 802 yards to 1,210 to 1,521.
So, while his mini-holdout is over, the premise behind it isn’t. Hopkins is shooting for the type of recognition and compensation that stars receive.
The current market scale for No. 1 wide receivers goes from Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton (five years, $65 million) to Dallas’ Dez Bryant and Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (both at five years, $70 million) to Jones (five years, $71.2 million). In the three years Hopkins has played in the league, nobody in that group has logged more games, and only Thomas has more yards.
Those stars all pass the eye test in ways Hopkins can’t, whether it’s the size of Bryant, Thomas and Jones or Hilton’s speed. But Hopkins matches them in production.
“You can measure height, weight, 40 time, but you can’t measure whether somebody is a football player or not,” Williams said.
“He has that dog in him.”
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.