The Texans once had a DeAndre Hopkins. Now, they don't.
He was traded away for the 40th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft (which became Ross Blacklock, a defensive tackle out of TCU) and David Johnson, an aging running back. This move, as was immediately concluded and extensively covered, did the exact opposite of what a trade should do in the NFL. It made the team worse.
Whether or not Hopkins was legitimately the best receiver in the NFL or was simply one of a few in that top echelon, teams don't get better when they lose such premiere players. There aren't enough middling veterans to combine into the sum total of Hopkins nor is there a draft prospect with enough certainty in his evaluation to replace Hopkins.
There's a chance the Texans receiver room is still good, even if it is inarguably worse given the departure of Hopkins. In the immediate wake of his departure, it looked like his 150 vacated targets would fall into the lap of the oft-injured Will Fuller and newly-acquired Kenny Stills. But the Texans immediately went to sign Randall Cobb, paying Cobb $27 million over three years — $19 million over two years, if you look at how the contract is likely to play out — to occupy the slot, where they had struggled to find a permanent player between DeAndre Carter and Keke Coutee last season.
Houston then acquired Brandin Cooks via trade with the Rams, sending its 57th overall pick for him and a fourth-rounder in the 2022 draft. Cooks doesn't represent a gap unfilled in the current receiving corps the way Cobb did; he brings speed, which the Texans already enjoyed in their starters Stills and Fuller, both of whom are sub-4.4 players like Cooks. Was Cooks' skill set really needed in the room, which is now thirsting for a dominant catch-point receiver with size and strength? Of course, such a player could have been available at No. 57 overall, for example, Baylor’s Denzel Mims, who went two picks later at No. 59 to the Jets.
I wrote on the potential receiver options for the Texans at No. 57 in lieu of Cooks at the time of the trade, and as many said then and say again now, they should have held on the pick and drafted a rookie. The fact that Houston instead traded a second-round pick for a one-year rental of Cooks at $8 million shows just how short-sighted head coach/general manager hybrid Bill O'Brien has become in his haste to win now.
When we ask if the Texans' receiver room is still good, we actually have to ask two questions: Is it good now? And is it good later?
The Texans receiver room is unquestionably good now. Cooks, Stills, Fuller and Cobb are all proven starting-caliber receivers in the league, even if there isn't a dominant WR1 among the group. The most talented player is likely Cooks, who has the combination of physical tools (speed) and route-running to beat man coverage. The same can be said of Fuller, but Fuller has far worse catch technique than Cooks and a bigger availability issue. The Texans are, however, nicely built to handle an injury or two, with the depth comprised of these starting four receivers. Cobb isn't nearly what he was in Green Bay during the mid-2010s, but he did have his most explosive season in his career, hauling in 15.1 yards per reception. That figures to go back down to his previous career average of 11.8, and maybe even lower, as he fills the underneath role desperately needed on this team. Stills will remain a dynamic second or third option and potentially grow into more if he stays healthy for the 2020 season.
The Texans receiver room in probably not going to be good later, however, and that's the problem. Cobb is likely on a two-year deal while Cooks is probably only going to be around for one season. Stills and Fuller? They're both on contract years. If we assume Cooks is a cut, the only receivers the Texans have under contract for 2021 are Cobb, Coutee (who found his way into O'Brien's doghouse last season after a promising rookie campaign in 2019), practice-squad player Chad Hansen, 2020 undrafted free agent Tyler Simmons and 2020 rookie Isaiah Coulter.
Anyone of the expiring contracts could be extended — a large part of Hopkins' shocking trade was the figure that he demanded in an extension and won't be getting that money from Houston, it can be allocated to other receivers. But this is a veteran group with injury concerns; in the future, they'll only get older and more banged up. Even if the same four remained on the roster for 2021 and 2022, the outlook would likely get bleaker with every passing year.
Houston's got some juice. It's extremely exciting to think about three- or four-receiver sets that put Cooks, Stills and Fuller all on the field, as there isn't really a solution to that much speed and a receiver with the quick trigger of Watson at the helm. This receiving corps won't be the weakness of this team this year and is more than enough to sustain a playoff-caliber passing offense in a supercharged AFC.
But that's this year. It gets bleak quick, and with the way the future has been mismanaged — the Texans have no first or second-round pick next year — it doesn't look like a quick turnaround. Enjoy the good receiver room while it lasts, Houston; it may not be long for you, and it certainly won't be what it could have been if Hopkins were simply retained.