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Anatomy of NFL's WR1: What makes DeAndre Hopkins great

HOUSTON -- Before the Texans' Divisional Round game against the Patriots a couple seasons ago, I asked Bill Belichick what makes DeAndre Hopkins so difficult to cover. I made a point to say Hopkins isn't the biggest receiver out there, at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, or the fastest -- he ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2013, leaving him well outside the top 15 at his position. So what is it about Hopkins that makes him so unstoppable?

First, Belichick, like everyone you ask, brought up Hopkins' hands. They're arguably the strongest in the league and they're long. He wears size XXXXL gloves.

When I walked through the tunnels of NRG Stadium with Hopkins on Thursday as the Texans prepared for their Wild Card Weekend game against the Colts, I asked him how he strengthens and trains his hands. "I got some secrets," he said, grinning.

Hopkins had a career-high 115 catches this season (third-most in the NFL) and still hasn't dropped a single ball. Zero. It's almost hard to comprehend.

He didn't want to reveal all of his tricks, but did say he uses a gripper every day when he's sitting at home. There are different variations of the hand exerciser, and Hopkins uses a version that is a squeeze type of ball.

"I take my time with the ball on each finger and I keep doing that," he said, as he showed me a motion of touching each fingertip to his thumb, one at a time. "So I work the little muscles. People always think it's the big muscles. Little muscles react first, then it's the big muscles."

The strength of those hands helped Hopkins to back-to-back first-team All-Pro selections -- he received the most votes of any offensive player for this season's team. He'll tell you that hand strength is the reason he's able to make so many contested catches, and those types of receptions are what separates him from everyone else.

As for Belichick's scouting report on the Texans' WR1, the second attribute he focused on was Hopkins' massive catch radius.

"Even when he's covered, he's not covered," Belichick explained. "He can reach and catch the ball somewhere where the defender can't quite get it when it's thrown there."

"I found that out quick," Deshaun Watson told me of Hopkins' catch radius. "I found that out last year when I was throwing to him. It's ridiculous."

Hopkins told me his flexibility plays a larger role in expanding his radius than most would realize. He's constantly stretching and making sure he is not tight following games. He believes most players are more flexible than they know -- they just don't make it a focus in their training. Obviously, genetics also plays a role. He's been told he has a wingspan of a person who is 6-8 or 6-9.

"Really, my first start in Cincinnati last year, some balls there I kind of threw high," Watson recalled. "Some stop routes. I'd come over and be like, 'Hey, it's my bad, I'm going to get it down,' and he was just like, 'No, I want it just like that. I want it high. I want it outside. I want it low,' and he just found a way to get it."

With Watson, by far the most talented quarterback Hopkins has played with in the NFL, he has finally gotten his name thrown in the conversation for best receiver in the game in Year 6. The former Clemson stars connected for 1,572 yards (second in the NFL) and 11 touchdowns (fifth) this season, making Hopkins the only receiver in the league with over 1,500 yards and more than eight touchdowns.

There's also the willingness to sacrifice your body. It's easier to do when your body can take the beating. Hopkins confirmed to me what I've heard for some time -- he can lift with anyone on the team. You don't notice it because of his wiry frame, but he's that strong.

"A lot of people, they have trouble tracking the ball when it's around them," he said. "They don't trust to open up. For me, when the ball is not in your vicinity, you have to open up. You have to expose your body. For me, I'll take that hit for the team where I open up. A lot of guys try to short-arm catch it or they don't want to leave their feet. For me, that's my ball, man."

It's easy to see who the biggest and fastest players are on the field. But those players aren't always the hardest ones to stop. With DeAndre Hopkins, it's the perfect blend of specific skills and sometimes-unnoticeable physical attributes that make up a gifted player.

"I mean, usually, he's going to make a play happen regardless if you think he's open," Watson said. "If he's not open ... he's open."

*Follow James Palmer on Twitter @JamesPalmerTV. *

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