TEMPE, Ariz. -- The play started like many of DeAndre Hopkins' toe-tap catches, looking like a typical route.
The Arizona Cardinals were facing third-and-goal from the Tennessee Titans' 5-yard line in the 2021 season opener. The three-time All-Pro wide receiver was lined up left of quarterback Kyler Murray, with cornerback Janoris Jenkins across from him.
With all of the Titans' back-line defenders standing at the goal line, Hopkins had the full end zone in which to operate -- an artist with a blank canvas.
Murray took off to his right, trying to evade linebacker Harold Landry. With a step on Jenkins, Hopkins sprinted parallel to Murray, who was just outside the numbers at the 19-yard line when he threw a pass on the run.
Hopkins, running along the back line of the end zone, leaped to secure the ball with his XXXXXL gloves and -- still in midair -- looked down to see where he was in relation to the boundary. Then, before he was steered out of bounds, Hopkins got two feet down before hitting the ground.
.@DeAndreHopkins gets two feet in. Touchdown, @AZCardinals!— NFL (@NFL) September 12, 2021
📺: #AZvsTEN on CBS
📱: NFL app pic.twitter.com/0Sv1PLF7s1
Catch made, toe-tap complete, touchdown. All in less than a second.
Hopkins made it look easy, but behind that one catch -- and all the other toe-taps he has completed in his career -- were hours of work and study to complement his natural talent
"It's very hard, man," Hopkins said. "That's why we are at this level that we are, because we're the best doing what we do."
A toe-tap is a catch made as the receiver is going out of bounds and taps or drags his feet, knees or other body parts to complete the act of a catch before reaching the sideline. Hopkins has made the extraordinary toe-taps look routine throughout his 10-year career, the first seven spent with the Houston Texans. Toe-taps are among the most difficult catches to make.
"It's damn-near impossible," said former Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who ranks No. 2 all-time in career receiving yards. "By the time you see the ball out of the quarterbacks and you've realized that it's going to be high, you're gonna have to jump, maybe you're on the wrong foot to be able to leap and you know, the defender's coming, and he's gonna try to push you out of bounds but you got to get your feet down.
"All of these things are happening in nanoseconds, literally. And to be able to have the wherewithal to be able to gather yourself, 'OK, I'm gonna catch this ball. I'm gonna turn my hands this way, I know I'm probably falling out, the first down here, so I know I can't put my feet down here, they gotta be here to be able to ensure the first down,' like all these things. [Hopkins] is processing this in an unbelievably short amount of time and then to be able to physically do it is a completely another thing. So he's special."
Hopkins' 32 toe-tap catches are the most since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking them in 2017. He'll look to expand on that total Monday night against the New England Patriots (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). Hopkins has three toe-taps in six games after missing the first six games of this season for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.
"It's very unique," said former Texans quarterback Matt Schaub of Hopkins' toe-tapping ability. "I mean, a lot of guys can catch the ball. A lot of guys can catch the ball and be able to stay in bounds. But to do it, to the extent Hop does, I mean, it's rare."
THE TOE-TAP IS as much art as it is technique.
For Hopkins, the key to executing a perfect toe-tap is awareness of where he is on the field in relation to the boundary, whether that's on the sideline or end zone.
"When you're doing it, you don't focus on the ball," Hopkins said. "You just kind of let that happen."
Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, who has the third-most toe-tap catches since 2017, is impressed with Hopkins' abilities.
"You see some guys across the league, they're kind of unaware of the sideline, and they're catching the football but they're out of bounds, and they're not really making a tough catch to be able to keep their feet in," Thielen said. "He does a great job of that."
Hopkins has been working on that aspect of his game since his high school days.
In practice at Daniel High School in Central, South Carolina, Hopkins used to ask his quarterbacks to throw passes out of bounds so he'd have to go get them. It wasn't something coach Randy Robinson saw often during his career. If he did, kids mostly tried to get one foot down, which is all high school rules require. Not Hopkins, who practiced getting both feet in, years before the rules required it.
"He's a different kind of guy when it comes to being the best at what he does," Robinson told ESPN. "He's competitive and he worked at it. If you threw him an outside ball out of bounds, he would try to get his toes down and hang on to it."
For a toe-tap to be an option for Hopkins, he has to make the catch first. With Hopkins, that's all but guaranteed. In his 10 seasons, Hopkins has 20 drops on 1,320 targets, for a drop rate of 1.5% that ranks fifth among receivers with at least 300 catches.
During his days at Clemson, when Hopkins was doing drills in practice, receivers coach Jeff Scott would turn to the other players next to him on the sideline while the ball was still in the air and start preparing them for the next play.
"I literally did not even have to watch to see if he caught it," Scott said. "It was just automatic. I miss those days."
A receiver trusting his hands like Hopkins does is half the battle. But his feet are important, too.
"You've gotta be able to have great feet," Scott said. "And then also he's got really good overall body awareness."
In addition to quick feet, Hopkins has a unique ability to contort his body, said Jerry Sullivan, a former Cardinals receivers assistant, who has coached the position for 50 years. And Hopkins can do it quickly, Sullivan said, which allows him to make a catch and either form his body in a way to get his feet in or keep his body stiff enough to drag his feet as he falls out of bounds.
At the 2013 NFL combine, Hopkins' hands were measured at 10.08 inches, which was in the 90th percentile among receivers in that class. Having large hands helps Hopkins beyond the ability to catch nearly everything thrown his way. They also help keep the ball in his possession when he hits the ground.
The downside of the top-tap? Receivers can open themselves up to injury by putting their bodies in vulnerable positions to make those difficult catches.
"At some point when you're toe-tapping and doing all these things, you're sacrificing your body on the line to literally fall face-first on the ground," former Texans quarterback T.J. Yates said. "You just have to accept that."
Hopkins thinks about that a lot because of how much his body is exposed when he's trying to make a sideline catch.
"That just shows how much I love this game and how much I really feel like each ball I get I gotta make it count," Hopkins said.
He has seen what can happen. On his end-zone-tapping touchdown catch against the Titans in 2021, Hopkins tore cartilage in his torso when he was extended and got hit. He had to deal with the injury, which he called worse than a break, all season.
"I know certain things that I'm exposed to," Hopkins said. "But I think it's worth it when you go out and make that play that can change the game."
HOPKINS' ABILITY TO GET both of his feet in bounds long enough for a catch to count hasn't just saved many plays over the years -- it has become a strategy of sorts: Throw it close to him, and he'll catch it.
"To play with a guy like him, you just feel confident no matter who's on him," Murray said. "Give him a chance and most of the time he comes down with the ball."
If that means throw it out of bounds and let Hopkins utilize his body control to make a play, so be it.
Both Yates and Schaub kept referring to Hopkins' catch radius. Yates estimated it's probably about six feet. Schaub didn't put a number on it but said a quarterback can afford to miss more with Hopkins.
"You can miss in a lot of different spaces and it might look like a miss, but it's really in a spot where only he can catch it," Schaub said. "Knowing that he can get it, with his length, his reach, his hands and still be able to have the wherewithal to keep his toes in bounds, it expands the field and you don't have to be as perfect."
It has given quarterbacks who have played with Hopkins a sense of comfort, Yates said.
"A lot of the times when you're throwing to certain guys, and maybe it's a smaller target or a guy you know that doesn't have hands like a guy like Hop does and you gotta, like, aim the ball, you end up being less accurate and all that stuff," Yates said. "But just a guy like that of his caliber, the type of player he is, he allows a quarterback to play free."
For all of Hopkins' natural gifts that have aided in his ability to consistently toe-tap over the years, he still had to put in the work.
"My first couple years and my first two years in NFL, I wasn't the best at it and [former Texans star receiver] Andre Johnson used to always get on me about it," Hopkins said.
Hopkins would stay after practice to rep sideline catches. He had Johnson to watch on a daily basis when they were teammates early in Hopkins' career, but Hopkins also studied film of Antonio Brown, whom he considers the best toe-tapping receiver, watching for tendencies or techniques to pick up.
Then Hopkins would practice it over and over.
He did it in college, too. Scott would run a drill for his receivers -- including current Green Bay Packers receiver Sammy Watkins -- that worked on dragging the toe of the foot closest to where the quarterback was throwing from and then reaching the opposite leg as far outside as they could while keeping the foot in the air.
"Some people's bodies are built for that, some are not," Scott said. "And I think overall athletic ability, concentration, focus, all those things come into play."
WHEN HOPKINS TRIED to think of his best toe-tapping catches, he took a moment to think.
There was the one against the Titans last season. There was one in Mexico City a few weeks ago against the San Francisco 49ers, which was particularly difficult because it was a back-shoulder catch. Then Hopkins started thinking about all of those plays he made in Houston.
"So many, man," Hopkins said.
Once a pupil, he's the sensei now. He still works on it, though, both in drills and in practice.
"It's a lot of different drills that you can do," Hopkins said. "I mean, shoot, I might make a video one day and sell it, now that you bring that up."
For years, Hopkins has used practices as a test kitchen.
And according to Yates, if you think his game highlight reel is good, the practice reels would melt social media.
"On a sometimes daily, definitely a weekly occurrence, you would just shake your head and be like, 'What in the F was that?'" Yates said. "He would do unfathomable stuff that other guys won't even try to attempt."
The more Yates thought about it, he couldn't remember a time when Hopkins didn't succeed at whatever wild attempt at a catch or play he tried.
"It happened so much, you just became almost numb to it," he said.