The football world was shaken by Bill O’Brien this past offseason, as he took his newly-wrested control of the Houston Texans’ roster and used it to offload his best player for pennies on the dollar. Most surprising roster moves have some undiscovered nuance; this one doesn’t. While Hopkins had the attitude of a star receiver (i.e. he wanted the football thrown his way), and was soon to have the price tag of a star receiver, Hopkins also had the talent of a star receiver.
But O’Brien didn’t want to pay him what he was due or give him the offensive attention he deserved. This after Hopkins led the league in targets over the last five seasons of football, with a whopping 830 targets in 78 games (that’s right, he’s missed just two games in the last five years).
Hopkins landed in Arizona, which is thrilling news to anyone rooting for a DeAndre Hopkins Revenge Tour 2020. The Cardinals attempted passes on 60% of their offensive snaps last season under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who brings a pass-happy Air Raid philosophy to the NFL. Now, with a mobile young passer in Kyler Murray at the helm, there will be even more hidden dropbacks in that play distribution than there seems, given plays in which Murray tucked and scrambled. This team is going to work at a quick pace, leading to more plays, and they’re going to throw the ball more often than the average squad.
As such, there’s reason to be encouraged that Hopkins can keep up his pole position among WR1s in the league. But there’s reason to be concerned as well.
Hopkins took 971 snaps last season, even without playing in Week 17, which was good for more than 90% of the Texans’ total offensive output; in 2018, he was over 1,000 snaps and was on the field for an astounding 99% of the Texans’ plays.
You don’t get a lot of targets without a lot of snaps, and the Cardinals are more willing to spread their snaps around than the Texans were. Because the Kingsbury-led Cardinals work with a fast-paced offense that sends its receivers on deep routes frequently, it’s important that the Cardinals rotate receivers to keep their legs fresh for fourth quarters and 16-game seasons. Air Raid coaches in college, with deep stables of dressed players available to them, will run backup receivers onto the field with the sole purpose of running deep routes to tire out corners, before putting their star receivers back in on key downs against a weary foe.
Without the advantage of a bottomless game day roster, Kingsbury’s tempo slowed and his rotation thinned, but it was still present. Larry Fitzgerald maxed out at 84% of the snaps last year, while Christian Kirk had 75% despite missing a couple of games. No receiver took 100% of the snaps on any given day, though Kirk was regularly in the 90s; last season, Hopkins had five games in which he didn’t miss a snap. Kirk also has the advantage of running shallower routes from his slot position than Hopkins will be tasked with as an outside receiver, so the work Kirk does on a per-snap basis will be less.
Then comes the volume. Fitzgerald and Kirk as the two leading receivers in Arizona saw 109 and 108 targets respectively—Hopkins hasn’t seen that few targets in a season since his rookie year in 2013. Hopkins averages 170 targets per 16 games (over 10 targets/game!) over the last five years of his career. Combined, Fitzgerald and Kirk had seven total games in which they had at least 10 targets.
The Air Raid offense isn’t built to feed a high-volume receiver; it’s built to feed many high-volume receivers, attacking matchups and space with reckless abandon. Despite going to a better passing offense altogether, Hopkins will now share time with Fitzgerald and Kirk, in a system oriented on spreading the wealth in the passing game. It’s unlikely that he continues to hit that astounding 170 target mark.
Over 100? Sure. If you take targets off of departed running back David Johnson (47), rookie sixth-rounder KeeSean Johnson (42), and journeyman Pharaoh Cooper (33), you’re already there, no sweat. But it isn’t that easy. The Cardinals had nine players with at least 20 targets last year, and that was with rookie second-rounder Andy Isabella struggling to onboard and rookie fourth-rounder Hakeem Butler on IR for the year. This team wants to spread the wealth, and will continue to do so even with Hopkins around.
He’s going to be great for Arizona; he’s going to make Houston and O’Brien wish they signed him to a lifetime deal. But he’s also probably going to lose his target supremacy as well.