ANDRE JOHNSON REMEMBERS the moment he realized DeAndre Hopkins was different. It was two months before Odell Beckham Jr. made a catch -- the catch -- that would vault him from top draft pick to household name in 2014. That September, Hopkins, then in his second year in the NFL, also made a one-handed grab. Like Beckham, he was chasing an overthrown deep pass (from Ryan Fitzpatrick), spun around to track the ball, then caught it as he fell backward, plucking it out of the air with his left hand as nonchalantly as a child might reach for a dangling peach. It was a gasp-inducing show of strength and coordination, but unlike Beckham's catch, Hopkins' was largely forgotten because it didn't count thanks to an illegal formation penalty. And also because, well, he played for a Texans team that had gone 2-14 the previous season.
Johnson shakes his head. "I think that catch was better than the Odell catch."
It's the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the retired wide receiver is sitting on a cart in the underbelly of Houston's NRG Stadium. Every minute or so, someone -- a current player, a stadium worker, a team staffer -- stops to dap up the soft-spoken Texans legend. While Johnson doesn't work for the team in an official capacity, he often swings by the facility, primarily, he jokes, because Hopkins, whom he played with at the end of his 12-year career in Houston, gets upset if he makes a great catch in practice and his old mentor misses it. In a few hours, the Texans will notch their eighth win in a row, against Tennessee. Afterward, when a reporter points out that Hopkins has zero drops this season, quarterback Deshaun Watson replies by stating that his teammate is the best receiver in the NFL -- a take that is slowly gaining traction outside Houston, according to Johnson, who says he has believed as much for a while. "A lot of people told me I was crazy," he says.
He's biased, of course. But he isn't crazy. Statistically, Hopkins' production over the past few years is comparable to that of Beckham, Julio Jones and Antonio Brown, but he hasn't topped the charts; since 2014, he ranks third in total yards, second in touchdowns and fourth in catches. But imagine what those numbers would look like if Hopkins had played with Matt Ryan or Ben Roethlisberger instead of a rotating cast of starters that includes -- well, let's allow him to name them:
"In order?" he asks during an interview before the season. "Matt Schaub. After Matt Schaub, it was T.J. Yates. After T.J. Yates, it was Case Keenum. After Case Keenum, it was Brian Hoyer. After Brian Hoyer, it was Ryan Mallett. Then after Ryan, I think it was T.J. again. And after T.J., it was Ryan Fitzpatrick. And then Brock Osweiler came into the picture somewhere."
In Houston, when Johnson hears the word "varied" used to describe Hopkins' quarterback options before Watson arrived, he chuckles. "He went through the same thing I did. It's frustrating." During his final years in Houston, Johnson worked with Hopkins on the technical aspects of his game and also coached him on the mental side: how to maintain Zen-like calm when a ball whistles several feet over your head or when you put in maximal effort with minimal return. "Some guys are fortunate to play with Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks their whole career," Johnson says. "Some guys ... aren't."
For a while, it seemed that Hopkins' trajectory would mirror his mentor's path; that he'd finish his career without ever finding his equal under center, doomed to a sort of receiving spinsterhood. Then, in the spring of 2017, the Texans drafted Watson, and everything changed. When Johnson saw the rookie quarterback play with Hopkins for the first time, he was overjoyed. "It's like a burden was lifted off of his shoulders," he says.
CONSIDER THE PLIGHT of the wide receiver: If you're elite, like Hopkins, you'll probably get targeted on somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of your routes, which means that most of the time you're waiting for a connection that will never come, like a bored office worker who keeps refreshing his inbox. At some point, your number will get called -- but an abundance of things can go wrong before a pass even makes it your way. "A wide receiver's job depends on a lot of people," says retired wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., now an analyst with the NFL Network. "The center has to snap the ball, and it has to be a clean exchange. You've got to have a five-, seven-, or three-step drop. The linemen have to block. If they blitz, the running back has to pick it up. The quarterback has to throw an accurate pass in your vicinity. And oh, by the way -- you're supposed to beat your guys down the field in a certain amount of seconds to catch the ball."
He laughs. "Then, when that doesn't happen? You've gotta jog back and do it all over again."
While Smith played with a couple of Pro Bowl passers (Jake Delhomme made the cut in 2005, and Cam Newton did twice before Smith left the Panthers), he spent much of his 16-year NFL career adjusting to less than stellar play under center. "A great route is only a great route with a catch," he says. "It would be like if my wife made a meal every night and no one ate it, but she has to go through the process of making it." Such futility, he says, can take a psychological toll. "You become impatient. Every year that goes by, you're getting older."
"Some guys are fortunate to play with Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks their whole career. Some guys ... aren't."Andre Johnson, former teammate of DeAndre Hopkins
Eventually, those emotions seep to the surface. Watch a talented wide receiver playing with a fading quarterback -- Beckham comes to mind -- and you'll see his shoulders slump when a ball sails over his head, his helmet nod a little as he heads back to the huddle. When Hopkins was cycling through quarterbacks (during his first six seasons in the NFL, the Texans changed starters 20 times), he couldn't always hide his frustration, but he never uttered a public complaint. If anything, he was excessively kind. Hopkins had the worst year of his career in 2016, with Osweiler. According to Pro Football Focus data, just 35 percent of the passes to Hopkins were catchable. And yet, when the team cut Osweiler, who walked away with $37 million, Hopkins was effusive. "I know he's going to prove everybody wrong," he told reporters. (Narrator's voice: He did not, in fact, prove everybody wrong.)
While Hopkins isn't as reserved as Johnson, he has a similarly gentle demeanor, and he's equally reluctant to criticize past teammates. But he also allows himself a small smile when he listens to statistics that illustrate the lackluster passing he has overcome. "Honestly, I don't think anybody can do it," he says. "For receivers ... it's a lot about timing, having chemistry with your quarterback to be successful and having a guy that you work with over the course of years. I haven't seen any wide receiver, when they have a backup come in, go out and get 100 yards or multiple touchdowns." (Hopkins became the first player in modern NFL history to post 100-yard receiving games from four different quarterbacks in the same season, 2015, and the first player to catch touchdowns from eight different quarterbacks in his first four seasons.)
Through those years, he says, he looked to Johnson for guidance. "The main thing Andre told me was to make sure I communicate with the quarterback. Being receivers, we're known as divas -- when we're not getting the ball, if it's not perfect, we pout and whine. But he said: 'Go to him and see what you can do.' And so that's what I've done."
Some of the most beautiful catches are born of the most hideous passes. Their splendor stems from their impossibility -- the exertion that's required to reel in an errant throw, the dramatic suspense that builds when a ball spirals awkwardly through the air. Go watch any Hopkins highlight. Nov. 3, 2013: The rookie receiver turns, leaps and Mosses an overmatched Colts cornerback, reaching around him to rescue an underthrown ball from Yates. Nov. 27, 2016: Osweiler overthrows him on a curl, and Hopkins reaches backward, alley-oops the ball to himself and then gathers as he turns past the Chargers defender. He isn't especially fast, or tall, but he has claws for hands, with a gift for putting them in the perfect spot at the perfect moment and then willing the rest of his body to follow their lead.
Retired wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson says Hopkins' galaxy-sized catch radius has made it easier for him to adjust to the turnover under center. "You have to get used to balls being thrown at you from different angles -- you've got to figure it out every year," he explains. "The balls come out differently -- the rotation is different. The speed and velocity is different."
Keyshawn, no stranger to catching underwhelming passes over the course of his 11-year career, says playing with a motley crew of quarterbacks can dent a receiver's reputation -- and his pocketbook. "The public perception is that Andre Johnson was a good receiver," he says. "Andre Johnson was a hell of a receiver. He was one of the best of all time when he played. He just didn't have the opportunity to do anything." Keyshawn was thrilled, he says, when his hypertalented nephew, wide receiver Michael Thomas, landed in New Orleans, an arranged marriage that paired him with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. "Sometimes where you're drafted goes a long way in your career."
In the spring of 2016, it was reported that, during the previous season, the Patriots had called the Texans to inquire about trading linebacker Jamie Collins for Hopkins. The rumor offered a tantalizing vision of Hopkins catching crisp darts from Tom Brady, but it didn't really make sense for the Texans (Collins ended up in Cleveland). Instead of trading its young star, Houston signed him to a five-year extension that offseason. The contract was a reward, but it raised an ominous question: Had Hopkins resigned himself to a life of wandering the quarterback wilderness, running down wayward passes like a nomad chasing a mirage?
The answer, he would soon learn, was no.
WHEN THE TEXANS traded up for Watson in the first round of the 2017 draft, Hopkins, a fellow Clemson alum, was pleased. He had watched Watson's college career closely, and he liked what he saw -- but he also recognized room for development. "As a football scout, what was going through my head was: I hope he doesn't feel like he has to run as much," he says. The Texans initially started Savage, but after a disastrous first half against the Jaguars, they benched the veteran and dropped the rookie into the game. Watson threw his first NFL touchdown pass to Hopkins in the third quarter.
At first, Watson did lean heavily on his legs -- not just to scramble but also to extend plays. As always, Hopkins adjusted. "He's not going to get tackled, so a play isn't what you practice," Hopkins explains. "He can make any play last as long as he needs for somebody to get open." Hopkins boosted his conditioning so that he could endure longer-lasting plays and taught himself to search for open space on the field, even after his internal clock had expired. "It's almost like you're running two routes in one," he explains. "You'll see him scrambling, and you'll break a certain way -- that's your route." Following Johnson's advice, he worked to improve his relationship with Watson by spending time with the rookie after practice, going out to long dinners and playing card games such as blackjack and Tonk. "Once we had that chemistry outside of football, we knew we could do it on the field," he explains.
Hopkins' efforts paid off. During Watson's first seven games, the wide receiver caught seven touchdown passes, more than he had ever recorded in a season with one quarterback. The Texans' offense looked unstoppable, and Hopkins was on pace to shatter team records -- until Watson tore his ACL during a drill in practice, ending his season in November. The Texans lost eight of their final nine games. At one point, they even brought back Yates. (His return, while unsuccessful, did spur one of Hopkins' most thrilling catches: Near the end of a game in Pittsburgh, Yates overthrew a pass into the end zone, and Hopkins leapt several feet into the air, tipped it to himself with his right hand, then caught the ball with his left hand as he fell, miraculously contorting his lower half to stay in bounds. The Texans lost 34-6.)
When Watson returned at the beginning of this season, he turned in a few uneven performances, taking far too many bruising hits behind a crumbling offensive line. Then, as the Texans embarked on their nine-game winning streak, something clicked. The playcalling improved, the blocking jelled and Watson took another step forward as a passer. As of Monday, the passing attack ranked 11th in DVOA; since Hopkins entered the league, the team has never finished a season ranked that high.
Every now and then, the second-year quarterback regresses -- during Sunday's loss to the Colts, Watson took far too long to throw and struggled with inaccuracy downfield -- but for the most part, his performances have trended upward. And even when Hopkins has a quiet day, his chemistry with the quarterback still shines, as it did when he caught a touchdown pass from Watson in the fourth quarter. As he streaked across the end zone on a crossing route, Hopkins saw Watson scrambling in the opposite direction, so he paused, waiting for the quarterback to find him. For all of his copious skills as a receiver, patience might be his greatest gift; he has built up a lot of it over the years.
With three games left, Pro Football Focus now ranks Hopkins second among all receivers, just behind Thomas. He's the only player other than the Vikings' Stefon Diggs with a zero percent drop rate on more than 100 targets. He's catching more balls on a per-target basis than he has during any point in his career, including Watson's record-breaking stretch as a rookie. Their relationship has entered a positive feedback loop: As one player improves, so does the other.
For Andre Johnson, watching this unfold has been gratifying. When he talks about Hopkins and Watson, he sounds like a proud father at a wedding, more than a little relieved his successor has finally found his match. "Like I said, we've both kinda been through the same thing," he says. "There's nothing like knowing who your quarterback is going to be -- and knowing he's gonna be there every week." If Watson stays healthy through the end of the year, it will be Hopkins' first season playing all 16 games with the same quarterback.
"He knows what you're thinking, you know what he's thinking -- you're just on the same page," Johnson continues. "And when you're on the same page with your QB? That's hard to stop."