DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Johnson's former pupil, is paying it forward

Former Texans star Andre Johnson, left, on DeAndre Hopkins, right: "Every time I see him, especially on the football field, all we talk about is football. He's always wanting to know things to become better. So our relationship has been great." Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports

HOUSTON -- Watch the Houston Texans' wide receivers in practice and it's easy to see DeAndre Hopkins leading the group.

The Texans' star pass-catcher often goes through the drill first, giving his fellow receivers something to emulate, and then he pays close attention as everyone else goes through it. It's not rare to see Hopkins act as an extra defender, giving the other receivers tips and instructions as if he were a coach.

Texans coach Bill O'Brien said Hopkins "brings juice to practice," noting when he's not out there, "it's a different practice." Hopkins, who signed a five-year, $81 million contract extension a year ago, even jumps in on the scout team from time to time at practice.

Although just 26, Hopkins has the savvy of a grizzled veteran. He is on a Hall of Fame pace entering his sixth NFL season, despite playing with a long list of journeymen quarterbacks before Deshaun Watson was drafted in 2017. Hopkins, over the past four seasons, has totaled 34 touchdown catches while averaging 90 receptions for 1,266 yards.

Though Hopkins has been described as a natural leader by teammates, he had help in his development. Early in his career, another potential Hall of Famer took Hopkins under his wing.

"Andre Johnson did a great job of mentoring me, so it's only right that I do the same for those young guys and help them become whatever they want in the NFL," Hopkins said.

Johnson and Hopkins have developed a friendship since Hopkins was drafted in 2013. Johnson was the No. 1 receiver in Houston then, and they played together for two seasons before Johnson left as a free agent, at which point Hopkins had established himself as Houston's go-to receiver.

Johnson, who was inducted into the Texans' Ring of Honor last season and is the franchise leader in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns after 12 seasons in Houston, still shows up at Texans practices every once in a while. This year, he made an appearance at The Greenbrier resort (White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia) at the beginning of training camp and later in Houston. When he's there, it's usually not too hard to find Hopkins.

During an early-August practice, Hopkins was working on a release drill and Johnson was watching nearby. After the drill, Hopkins asked Johnson what he thought.

"He walked over to me and was like, 'Did I do that right?,'" Johnson said with a smile. "I was like, 'You were just working a release drill.'

"Every time I see him, especially on the football field, all we talk about is football. He's always wanting to know things to become better. So our relationship has been great."

Hopkins said Johnson is someone he's looked up to since he's been in the NFL and still does to this day. The 2017 All-Pro selection said he appreciates that Johnson is always willing to let him pick his brain and is honest about what he's seeing on the field.

"It's always just me asking, trying to get better in my craft," Hopkins said. "He sees something I need to work on, and he's one guy that's always going to be honest with me. If I'm short on a route or if I can do something -- a lot of people will tell me good job, but he's the one guy that will be like, 'Nah, you need to do this,' or, 'You can do this better.'

"So just having that honest advice in somebody that wants to see me better than him, you can't beat it."

Hopkins has tried to take that mindset when helping the other receivers. The group includes Will Fuller V, Braxton Miller, Quan Bray and rookies Keke Coutee, Vyncint Smith and Jester Weah. Only Bruce Ellington and Sammie Coates Jr. are older than Hopkins.

Fuller described Hopkins as "the most competitive guy I know," and that shows on the field: "It doesn't matter what we're doing -- he always wants to win."

Though he's competitive on the field -- "and very vocal," according to Coutee -- Hopkins' success through his first six seasons makes it easy for him to be a guy the whole team looks up to.

"Hop has just been himself," Watson said. "He's just been able to help the younger guys, study the game, study the offense, be able to encourage them, motivate them to go out there and make plays and just be the All-Pro he is.

"Everyone looks up to him. He doesn't have to say too much to be able to lead. Everyone just watches his lead, watches his steps and follows."

Though Hopkins has had Johnson to look up to since he got into the league, Fuller feels he has that same relationship with perhaps another future Hall of Fame receiver as well.

"We've been with each other since I got here, and [Hopkins has] been putting up outstanding numbers each and every year, [and] it doesn't matter who the quarterback is," Fuller said. "It's easy to look up to him, because you know how great he is, and I can learn something from him every day."