Why Hopkins is on the list
We are thumbing our collective nose at recency bias.
Hopkins didn't score a touchdown after the Week 8 bye, as the Texans' season descended into chaos. It's easy to forget that the No. 27 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft drew as much hype as any young player last offseason before taking home Rookie of the Month honors for September.
"Nuk" justified that lavish praise with a dominant seven-reception, 117-yard performance in Week 2. With Andre Johnson in the locker room nursing a concussion, Hopkins took over, torching Titans defensive backs for five catches on the game-tying and game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Buoyed by his breakout in Houston's last victory of the season, Hopkins surprised reporters by claiming he can become a better player than Johnson.
"That's my mindset," Hopkins said. "And that's what Andre tells me. (He says) Don't try to shadow yourself when you know you can be better."
What stands out on Game Rewind are Hopkins' ball skills and catch radius that allow him to consistently come down with contested catches. Reminiscent of Brandon Lloyd, his bread and butter is a contortionist act on the sidelines and in the end zone. He boasts huge, strong hands and plays with a physicality rarely seen in greenhorn receivers. And you can see in the 47-yard scamper below, he also has a suddenness after the catch that the Texans didn't fully exploit in 2013.
It speaks to Hopkins' talent that he finished second among all rookies in receiving yards and was still regarded in some circles as a mild disappointment.
Hopkins was billed as an above-average route runner coming out of Clemson, but Texans quarterbacks were understandably more comfortable throwing to Johnson. The rookie disappeared for long stretches of games as well as a portion of the season.
According to Stephanie Stradley of the Houston Chronicle, Hopkins' biggest difficulty was learning the playbook and eliminating the types of mental mistakes that led to a temporary benching in Week 11. He has already conceded that learning a new offense for the second consecutive season presents a stiff challenge.
Hopkins' impressive performance versus the Titans was a microcosm of his season. Before he assumed the go-to role late in the fourth quarter, he struggled to get open against man coverage and ran the wrong route on Alterraun Verner's pick-six.
Any list of obstacles has to include the Texans' quarterbacks. Hopkins spent last season as a deep threat held back by passers lacking touch and arm strength. That remains an issue with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center this year.
Johnson's offseason absence gives Hopkins an advantage. The Sideline View's Lance Zierlein confirmed to Around The League that Fitzpatrick and rookie Tom Savage are already developing a strong rapport with the second-year wideout.
O'Brien's offense should also provide a boost. Hopkins drew just two more targets than tight end Garrett Graham with Gary Kubiak calling the plays. Dialing up more slants, bubble screens and crossing routes will help. His leaping ability was also underutilized, as Kubiak has long been one of the NFL's most conservative coaches in the red zone.
Hopkins doesn't have the extraordinary physical gifts of Johnson, but the talent is there to post several seasons as a top 15 NFL wideout. Taking over the Titans game suggests No. 1 receiver potential should Johnson force his way out of Houston.
Even if Johnson returns by September, Hopkins should have little trouble flirting with 1,000 yards and a half-dozen touchdowns. After all, he was on pace for 80 catches and 1,080 yards after the first four games of his career.