Part of the business of writing about football is learning to accept being wrong. You can look at statistics, you can watch football 50 hours a week, and yet you can still think that Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is going to flop during his sophomore season. In that way, predictions are sort of like a fumble you know is coming. Knowing how a ball tends to come out and why is different than predicting which way an oblong spheroid is going to bounce.
DeAndre Hopkins belongs on my personal blooper reel. I have doubted him since the Texans drafted him. In many ways, this has been a symptom of flawed process. It's hard to watch football and not come away awed by the physical marvels of the game; the Dez Bryants of the world who can post up on a good cornerback in the end zone and make them look foolish; the combination of speed and size that makes a player not only empirically amazing, but also pleasing to the eye.
Hopkins is listed at 6-foot-1, 214 pounds. He's got speed, but he's no faster than a mediocre NFL receiver like Ted Ginn. Hopkins doesn't win on genetics or athleticism—he wins because he knows the game. He gets great releases. He knows how to find holes in zone coverage. His catching radius extends the entire length of his body. And, most importantly, he wins contested catches in the air, when none of those physical attributes matter as much as desire.
Sunday, Hopkins had probably his worst day of the season: five catches for 36 yards. With five games left, Hopkins needs just 135 yards away from making this Tweet from about a month ago true:
But Hopkins is stuck in the weirdest spot for all NFL stars: attention purgatory. Houston isn't a traditional contender, nor do they play in a sexy division. (Unless you count Jacksonville's dehydrated urine color rush uniforms as sexy.) Houston's whole passing offense has been disastrous—the only reason they finish well in traditional statistics is that they have played quickly and trailed a lot. The Texans were third in the NFL in situation-neutral plays per second coming into Week 12.
And, perhaps more importantly, Hopkins isn't even the biggest star on his own team. Not only is J.J. Watt now involved in roughly half of the world's commercials, his unit's turnaround has also sparked the Texans back to mediocrity. In his last five games, Watt has 9.5 sacks. Even on pure narrative, Hopkins is running behind Watt.
But, as you can see from that Moss stat, Hopkins' emergence is unprecedented. Two weeks ago, Hopkins torched Darrelle Revis, one of the most highly-regarded corners in the NFL, deep—twice. His efficiency stats have suffered this season. He was only 24th in receiving DVOA coming into Week 12. But he's had to soak up more targets than any NFL player because the rest of his offense is flotsam and worse. As a result, Hopkins has been targeted 143 times. Julio Jones has been targeted 141 times. Nobody else in the NFL is over 120.
This also explains a below-average catch rate. Given the complete context of the Houston offense, what Hopkins is doing is unspeakably phenomenal. From an on-field perspective, there's not much else he can do to draw attention to himself. He even makes the same kind of highlight reel catches that put Odell Beckham on the map. But he doesn't get the same sort of talk.
It's time to recognize this: Hopkins isn't just a great receiver, although he is that. He's one of the best young receivers in NFL history, and he's become one despite being placed, time and time again, in situations that aren't conducive to that kind of quantum leap.
This isn't like watching Randy Moss physically dominate the entire NFL in one of the best passing offenses of the modern era. This is a lanky receiver who can catch practically every ball and does, while everything around him burns to the ground.