DeAndre Hopkins' return sparks hope for anemic Cardinals' offense

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The numbers don't lie, but they might not always tell the entire story either.

Take wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who returns Thursday night from a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy when the Arizona Cardinals take on the New Orleans Saints (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video). He didn’t reach 100 yards in any of the 10 games he played last season, which was unusual for a receiver with 37 career games in triple-digit yards.

That means Hopkins didn’t reach 100 yards in any game during the Cardinals’ scorching 7-0 start last season, which was surprising, considering he was Arizona’s No. 1 receiving option.

“A lot of people look at it as a down year for someone like myself,” Hopkins said. “But, I look at that as a productive year because I got a lot of guys open.”

Just making defenses account for Hopkins was a factor in Arizona's regular-season success in 2021.

The Cardinals hope his presence makes a difference Thursday night, when he takes the field for the first time since Dec. 13, 2021 after he suffered an MCL injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season. The Cardinals badly need a spark for an offense that’s been ineffective and downright frustrating to those who operate in it.

It's a tall order for someone who will not have played in 311 days. For as much as the Cardinals welcomed Hopkins back with open arms this week, they have also been realistic: Hopkins can't solve all of the Cardinals' problems on offense himself.

"We’ve still got things we’ve got to be better at," quarterback Kyler Murray said. "We’ve still got things we need to fix. Obviously, having [Hopkins] back definitely helps, but we’ve still got to be better in all the areas that we’re not good in right now.”

Hopkins is returning to an offense in desperate need of CPR.

The Cardinals have scored just three points in the first quarter all season. The offense ranks near the bottom of the league in:

  • yards per pass attempt (32nd)

  • yards per play (31st)

  • third-down conversion percentage (28th)

  • offensive points per game (27th)

  • point margin per game (28th)

  • offensive efficiency (26th)

  • touchdowns per attempt (30th)

It’s all contributed to Arizona's 2-4 start.

Coach Kliff Kingsbury doesn’t place any of the blame for Arizona’s offensive woes on Hopkins’ absence.

“I think you can watch how we’re playing offensively and see there’s more to it than that,” Kingsbury said. “But he definitely brings a dynamic that any team would want to have. When you have a true No. 1 like that, a playmaker that defenses have to be aware of each and every snap, it makes a difference in scheme and playcalling -- things of that nature.

“We have more issues than that we’ve got to correct and we can’t just expect him to be the savior. We’re all excited to have him -- what he brings, the competitor he is and all those things, but we’ve got a lot we’ve got to get better at.”

Having Hopkins back can and will undoubtedly help.

For starters, they've won more with Hopkins on the field. They’re 8-2 since the start of 2021 with Hopkins and 3-8 without him, including a 1-4 finish last season that featured a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC wild-card game.

Since the start of last season, the Cardinals have averaged 12 more points per game with Hopkins in the lineup, scoring 29.5 points per game with Hopkins compared with 17.2 without him. But the differences don’t stop there. Arizona is ranked 23rd in the NFL with 556 receiving yards outside the numbers this season, compared to Hopkins ranking seventh by himself from 2020 to '21. The Cardinals’ receivers have a 29% catch rate on tight-window throws. Hopkins, alone, has a 40.5% catch rate on such throws since 2020.

“He's going to be a huge help,” former Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “They need him, they need his presences, they need his leadership in terms of his playmaking ability.”

Maybe most importantly to the Cardinals turning this season around, Murray has been better with Hopkins in the lineup.

Murray’s QBR was 45 without Hopkins during the past two seasons and 69 with him.

Among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 50 passes, Murray is ranked last in the NFL in air yards per completion (4.0). He averaged 5.9 last season.

“I’m excited to be able to throw him the ball again,” Murray said. “I never took that for granted, but I’m just happy for him. The team is definitely appreciative of having him back.”

No one may be more appreciative than Murray and Hopkins’ fellow receivers.

“He can open up a lot,” wide receiver A.J. Green said. “Keeps the defense honest because if [No.] 10’s over there by himself, the ball is going to him, so he’s just getting doubled. So, it’s going to be a lot of guys getting one-on-ones.”

Hopkins will ease the pressure and coverage off his fellow receivers from the first snap Thursday night. All season, receiver Marquise Brown had been the focus of defenses’ attention. He was a marked man, getting every team’s No. 1 cornerback such as Philadelphia’s Darius Slay, the Los Angeles Rams’ Jalen Ramsey and Seattle’s Tariq Woolen. Even though Brown can’t benefit from Hopkins’ return for the time being because a foot injury has sidelined him indefinitely, everyone else in the receiving room can.

Helping Hopkins in the wake of Brown’s foot injury that will keep him out at least a month, will be the addition of Robbie Anderson, who the Cardinals traded for Monday. If he plays Thursday, Anderson will likely take over Brown’s role.

Anderson is a bit bigger than Brown – he’s six inches taller and 20 pounds heavier – but the two have similar top speeds. And Anderson can be a big-play threat for the Cardinals, who are desperately in need of some.

Fitzgerald thinks defenses will have to show their hands earlier with Hopkins on the field, that shells will be more pronounced, that they’re going to try to roll over the top of him with various schemes, whether it’s two shell, quarters or palms.

The vibe around the Cardinals has been different since Hopkins returned.

Kingsbury has noticed that players stepping up their game when Hopkins is on the field, a byproduct of the type of expectations that Hopkins holds himself too, the coach explained.

“He's going to make it easier for everybody else on the field,” Fitzgerald said. “He’ll make it easier for A.J., he’ll make it easier for Rondale [Moore], he'll make it easier for Zach [Ertz]. He’ll make it easier for the run game just because there’s going to be so much attention focused on him just based on what he's done his entire career. So, I mean, he's going to make the reads easier for Kyler.

“Kyler can get into good checks. I think speeding the game up in terms of no-huddle, especially against a fast blitzing defense like New Orleans, is something that they can use at their advantage.”

Hopkins believes his opponents are more nervous to face him than he is to line up across from them.

“I’m able to create mismatches on the field,” Hopkins said. “I think my presence out there dictates that, and I think last year was a great example of that.”

Hopkins has lined up wide left on 83.1 percent of his snaps for the Cardinals. Kingsbury said he plans on moving Hopkins around which will give Arizona a distinct advantage on Thursday night, Fitzgerald said. The Saints won’t have tape of how the Cardinals will use him this week. Sure, they’ll know what his tendencies are from tape of years past, but Arizona’s strategic advantage can help be the difference.

Hopkins, ever the optimist, “absolutely” believes the Cardinals can change their offensive fortunes in one game.

“Obviously, one person can’t go out there and win a game,” Hopkins said. “But it does help having someone like myself out there, who can dictate a lot and dictate how defenses play us.”

Fitzgerald disagrees.

One player can change a team’s fate, he said. And for the Cardinals, that’s Hopkins.

“You see it more with a quarterback, you see it more with a guy who touches the ball every single snap like that,” Fitzgerald said. “You get a guy back who's been out and is able to galvanize his team and really motivate and inspire people because he's back and DeAndre's one of the few skill guys in the league that I think he has that ability ...

“There's not many guys that could do that.”