HOUSTON -- It didn’t take long after the Houston Texans added the general manager title to coach Bill O’Brien’s roles for him to make a huge, franchise-altering move.
On Monday, the Texans traded All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2020 fourth-round pick, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
It’s been less than a year since the Texans fired GM Brian Gaine and essentially gave O’Brien control of personnel decisions. In that time, he has taken big gambles. Just before the start of the 2019 season, O'Brien traded away defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, while also paying nearly half of his salary, after the team used the franchise tag on the pass-rusher. By waiting to trade him, O'Brien weakened the market for Clowney, who is a free agent after playing for the Seattle Seahawks last season.
O'Brien also paid a huge price (including two first-round picks) for left tackle Laremy Tunsil but was unable to come to an agreement on a contract extension before the trade took place, effectively giving the left tackle an incredible amount of leverage this offseason.
O’Brien has shown that while in charge he is anything but conservative, opting to build the team his way with little regard for the future.
At the end of last season, not long after the Texans had blown a 24-0 lead to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs, O’Brien was asked if he thought the trades made before the season were a “success.” He said he thought they did pay off, adding, “Any move we make, we try to think about the long term.”
“Now, you could probably pick and choose some moves where maybe contractually it doesn't seem like it's long term, but within the building and within the meeting rooms, we think about it more for long-term purposes as we move forward here.”
Perhaps O’Brien will say the same thing about this trade when he speaks to reporters this spring about this deal. But it certainly doesn’t appear to help Houston in the short term.
Here’s a deeper look at what this trade means for the Texans and answers to questions that are sure to come up:
Why does O'Brien keep trading his best players?
For the second time in less than a year, the Texans traded away a star player and did not appear to get an equal value in return.
Sources have told ESPN there was some friction between O’Brien and Hopkins, and the coach did not like that Hopkins did not practice every day.
Last year, Clowney was traded after negotiations for a potential contract extension didn't go very far. O'Brien also had some issues with Clowney, who spent the first two years of his career injured before blossoming into a Pro Bowl-caliber pass-rusher.
The question now is: Will this become a trend with O'Brien and the Texans? Will star free agents want to come to Houston if they see this is how the team is being managed?
How will this move affect Deshaun Watson?
Hopkins, 27, is an All-Pro. He has 632 catches in his first seven seasons, which is tied with Antonio Brown for the second most in NFL history through seven seasons, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. And perhaps most importantly, he has earned the trust of Watson.
“[He’s] a guy that can go out there and catch every ball, knows what we need, especially on third down, and a guy that finds ways to get open even if he's doubled,” Watson said last season.
Less than two years ago, Hopkins told reporters he and Watson were going to be the best quarterback-receiver duo in the NFL. They proved that they were in two seasons.
Both Hopkins and Watson starred at Clemson, which created an immediate bond between the two, even though Watson's college career started just after Hopkins finished. Hopkins spent the first part of his time in Houston with journeyman quarterbacks and he was ecstatic when the Texans drafted someone with whom he already had a connection.
O’Brien talks about wanting players who are smart, tough and dependable. Hopkins has missed two games in his NFL career, and one was last season when the Texans rested the majority of starters in Week 17 after clinching the AFC South title. In Houston's playoff loss during the 2018 season to the Colts, Hopkins played the second half with a noteworthy shoulder injury.
What will David Johnson contribute?
Johnson, 28, could be a good fit in the Texans' attack, but he is coming off two down years, including the least productive season of his career in 2019, when he rushed for 345 yards and 3.7 yards per carry in 13 games. Johnson’s breakout season came in 2016, when he had 2,118 all-purpose yards, but he has been on a steady decline since then due to injuries. The Texans like Johnson, but it will take an incredible season to make this an even deal based on how much Hopkins meant to the organization.
Carlos Hyde, a free agent who had his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2019, had a significantly lower cap hit of $1.9 million in 2019. With what the Texans are paying Johnson ($11.2 million in 2020), they are counting on Johnson being more productive than Hyde.
Along with Duke Johnson, the Texans now have two pass-catching backs in their offense.
Did the Texans make this move with Watson's contract in mind?
This might have been the thinking, but Johnson actually has a higher cap hit than Hopkins in 2020. Johnson has a cap hit of $14.1 million and Hopkins’ is $14 million. Hopkins does have three more years left on his deal; Johnson has two years left.
O’Brien might be taking that flexibility into account when making this decision, as well as the fact Hopkins wanted a new deal to better reflect where he believes he ranks among the NFL’s wide receivers.
Can Will Fuller be Houston’s No. 1 receiver?
O’Brien has said time and time again that Fuller changes the offense and makes it much better when he is on the field. But he has struggled to stay on the field in his first four seasons because of muscle strains and a torn ACL.
If the Texans are going to depend on Fuller to be their No. 1 receiver, the 2016 first-round pick has big shoes to fill. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Hopkins accounted for 29.3% of his team’s catches in 2019, which was the third-highest share by any player in the league last season. The only player with a larger target share than Hopkins (28.8% of his team’s targets) was New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas (33.0%).
In games Fuller played in the 2019 regular season, Houston averaged 26.3 points per game, compared to 19.6 when he did not. The Texans had an 8-3 record when he played and were 2-3 when he didn't. But they also had Hopkins for all of those games.
Fuller finished the season with 49 catches for 670 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games, although 217 yards and three touchdowns came in one game.
O’Brien was hoping the Texans would get a healthy season from Fuller, but now that looks like it will be necessary in order to sustain this offense.
This is also a strong wide receiver draft class, and with the second-round pick Houston got back in the trade, the Texans could add an instant contributor.