HOUSTON -- It looked like things were finally coming together for DeAndre Hopkins early in the 2017 season.
In September, the Houston Texans wide receiver signed a five-year, $81 million contract with $49 million guaranteed -- the most guaranteed money ever given to a receiver -- and he finally had a reliable quarterback after rookie Deshaun Watson took over for Tom Savage in the season opener.
Hopkins had never played with a quarterback of Watson's caliber at the NFL level -- of the nine QBs he played with in his first four seasons, journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick was statistically the best when targeting Hopkins -- but he was never one to throw his quarterbacks under the bus. Yet it was clear Hopkins had the best stretch of his career this season with Watson throwing him the ball.
In just seven games before Watson tore his ACL in early November, Hopkins caught seven touchdown passes, the most he has from any quarterback. The highlight came Oct. 29 in a 41-38 loss in Seattle when Hopkins caught 11 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown. With Watson under center, Hopkins was on pace for 100 catches, 1,369 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
To put that in perspective, only two players in NFL history have ever hit those three benchmarks in the same season: Cris Carter in 1995 (122 receptions, 1,371 yards, 17 touchdowns) and Randy Moss in 2003 (111 receptions, 1,632 yards, 17 touchdowns).
Hopkins ranks sixth in catches and yards among wide receivers since he entered the league in 2013. Yet the average Total QBR of the nine Texans quarterbacks throwing to him during his first four full seasons is 50. That list consists of Savage, Brock Osweiler, Brandon Weeden, T.J. Yates, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and Matt Schaub. It was easy to wonder how much better Hopkins could be with consistent production at that position. For seven games in 2017, the Texans got a glimpse of that with Watson throwing Hopkins the ball, showing what's possible for Houston in the years to come.
"He's covering up some quarterback inefficiency. ... No matter who he plays with, he's productive. He's making average quarterbacks outside of Deshaun Watson look much better," ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick said.
Numbers even more impressive
Hopkins had a down season in 2016 coming off his breakout 111-catch, 1,521-yard, 11-touchdown performance the year prior. But Texans coach Bill O'Brien didn't see it that way.
"Last year, people said he had an off year," O'Brien said. "He didn't have an off year. He made some huge catches for us last year to help us get to the playoffs."
That might be true, but Hopkins struggled to find chemistry with Osweiler and Savage. That showed in the receiver's final 2016 stat line: 78 catches for 954 yards and four touchdowns. Of the 10 quarterbacks Hopkins has played with in his NFL career, the 15 games the wide receiver played with Osweiler is the most with any quarterback. Yet Osweiler had a completion percentage of just 53 percent and averaged 12.4 yards per completion when throwing to Hopkins last season.
Hopkins' stats are especially impressive given the number and quality of quarterbacks he has played with compared with the other elite receivers above him. The five receivers who have more yards since Hopkins entered the NFL in 2013 -- Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green -- have simply had better quarterbacks throwing them the ball.
"A lot of the times you see a quarterback throw him the football, and if many receivers were covered the way he's covered, they lose those 50-50 balls, they lose those contested catch targets because they don't have the same kind of ball skills as him," Riddick said. "So what he's doing is helping the quarterback he's playing with, he's helping their completion percentage and helping their passer rating. And he is their best friend without a doubt."
Each of the 10 quarterbacks Hopkins has played with throws the ball differently. Riddick stressed how difficult it is to constantly be working with a new quarterback.
"You are always trying to develop chemistry and see the nuance and route running, coverage recognition, matching it all up with the timing of the quarterback coming away from center, what he's reading," Riddick said. "You're always trying to develop that relationship from scratch again and again and again and again. And it's something that takes time, something that can take years. And how can you do it when you're having quarterbacks changed in the middle of seasons, in the middle of games, every other season?
"I mean, it's just ridiculous when you look at his production given the fact that he has had to do this over and over and over."
Hopkins has 379 catches for 5,366 yards and 32 touchdowns in 74 NFL games. Hopkins is having a similar start to his career as the Texans' franchise-leading receiver had in his first 74 games. Andre Johnson was in a similar position to Hopkins, with subpar quarterbacks throwing him the ball. In comparison, Johnson had 395 catches for 5,114 yards and 26 touchdowns in the same span.
"Try to be consistent no matter the circumstances around you. That's really the main thing. [Johnson] told me and showed me with his play," Hopkins said.
Hopkins' success has come as the clear No. 1 option on a Texans offense that has been inconsistent for most of its history.
"OB [O'Brien] stands up here and tells you guys every week there's no secret that we're going to throw the ball to Hop [Hopkins]," Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said. "Defenses know it. They're smart coaches and they do what they can to try to neutralize that, but obviously he's still able to go out and make plays and be productive for us."
In for 'dogfight' vs. Hopkins
Hopkins has made his living making quarterbacks look better than they are. Hopkins is perhaps best at toe tapping on the sideline, somehow making sure his feet stay in bounds while catching a pass. Hopkins joked that he thought about going to "ballerina school" to continue to work on his craft. When he's thrown a contested pass, chances are he's going to find a way to catch it.
"He's the best that does it," Savage said. "Just really going out there and just keeping it in bounds enough for him to go make a play. A lot of times I know it looks like where I'm throwing it high over his head, but it's really one of those throws where it's my guy, [or] no guy, and it's usually my guy."
"You know it's going to be a dogfight," Butler said. "He's not one of these receivers who likes to shy away from contact or shy away from competing. And as DBs, you kind of like that. A lot of these receivers, they always cry or look for a flag, but he plays a physical game and it's fun going up against him."
Hopkins is a great route runner, but he doesn't create a lot of separation with his speed or lower-body explosiveness. Instead, he does it with his "route precision and then by being strong, great hand-eye coordination," Riddick said.
"He's probably the best contested-catch receiver in the league," Riddick said. "[He has] great high-point skills and just ridiculously strong hands. He's very rarely in man-to-man situations wide open, and that's not a knock against him. That's just his game. That's just what he is, physically what he is.
"But if you don't have superior strength or football skills as a defensive back, you're never going to get the ball away from him. And that's his greatest asset, and it's worked well for him and going to continue to work well for him. He's one of the best receivers in the league as a result of it."
Said Ryan: "I think [his success over the years is] a testament to the guy being a playmaker. It really is. You put the ball in his catch radius, which is a pretty impressive catch radius, and he makes plays. It's impressive."
Optimism for 2018
Entering the 2016 offseason, the Texans' top two priorities were to figure out their quarterback situation and pay their top pass-catcher. General manager Rick Smith traded up to draft Watson in the first round and toward the end of preseason paid Hopkins. By locking up Hopkins, the Texans solidified their duo of the future. And in seven games, the pair showed how good it can be.
The Texans are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015, but may have more hope going into the 2018 season than the previous two years, highlighted by the electric combination of Watson and Hopkins.
While Hopkins will have to wait for Watson's return, he'll continue to do what he's done his whole career: make his quarterback better no matter who that is.
"[He's] a guy that you trust, that you're going to go to in those situations where you have to have it," Ryan said. "You feel great about that's our guy and that's where we're going to go with the ball, and if you put it in his radius and give him a chance, there's a very good possibility that that guy's going to make the play for you."