Would pursuing DeAndre Hopkins be fool’s gold for New York Jets?
How’s that for an NFL downtime storyline to stir the pot?
Although the New York Jets haven’t lacked drama this offseason, more fodder arose with DeAndre Hopkins’ release. Earlier this offseason, I argued that acquiring Hopkins via trade was preferable to signing Odell Beckham. Now, Hopkins is a free agent, which would seemingly make pursuing him a no-brainer.
However, there is a perception among many around the league that Hopkins is past his prime. Looking at the raw statistics, it’s hard to make that case. However, a deeper dive and film study may provide a reason to at least partially support that claim.
Michael Nania and Ben Blessington discussed this in-depth on their most recent Cool Your Jets episode. The pair disagree somewhat about the advisability of pursuing Hopkins. Let’s delve into the topic further, though, bringing in the specific numbers and film.
Should the Jets pursue DeAndre Hopkins?
Hopkins served a suspension for the first six games of 2022 due to performance-enhancing drugs. He also missed the final two games of the season due to a flare-up of a previous knee injury. His rate statistics in the nine games he did play were eye-popping. His 64 receptions on 93 targets (68.8%), 717 yards, and three touchdowns prorate to a 17-game total of 121 receptions (176 targets), 1,354 yards, and six touchdowns.
On a per-game basis, Hopkins’ 7.1 receptions per game played tied for third among 73 qualified receivers (min. 58 targets). His 79.7 yards per game ranked ninth. Those do not appear to be the stats of a player on the decline.
There are several other numbers that could, on the surface, indicate a slide for Hopkins. However, it’s important to bear in mind who was throwing him the ball. Colt McCoy and Trace McSorley quarterbacked five of the nine games he played.
Hopkins’ 7.5 yards per target was in the 33rd percentile among receivers. It was his lowest mark since 2016 when his quarterbacks were Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage. His 11.2 yards per reception ranked in the 32nd percentile, tied with 2019 for the lowest of his career. Furthermore, Hopkins’ 54.7% first-down rate was in the 29th percentile, the lowest mark of his career by over 10%.
Hopkins saw a target on 25.7% of his routes run, which ranked eighth among receivers. Combined with his low yards per target and yards per reception numbers, this leads to the conclusion that Hopkins was a compiler in 2022 rather than a truly top receiver.
The argument about McCoy and McSorley throwing him the ball does carry some merit. In the four games Murray and Hopkins played together, the latter had 30 receptions on 37 targets (81%) for 385 yards and all three of his touchdowns. His 10.7 yards per target in those games contrast with the 5.9 he averaged without Murray. His first down rate with Murray still wasn’t that high at 56.7%, but it was better than the 52.9% mark without his starter.
Route tree and depth of target
Hopkins actually ran a decent number of go routes in 2022. His 25% rate ranked 30th out of 74 receivers (min. 325 routes run). He ran far fewer post routes at 7.1%, which was in the 33rd percentile, but he ran quite a few corner routes (6.3%, 71st percentile).
However, Hopkins’ 14% rate of deep targets (out of his overall target share) was in the 33rd percentile among receivers. His targeted quarterback rating of 36.2 on deep balls was the 10th-worst. In and of itself, this is not indicative of decline. Players like Garrett Wilson, Deebo Samuel, and Chris Olave were also among the bottom 15 receivers in this category.
Still, Hopkins’ 24.7% hitch rate was the third-highest among all receivers, and his 5.4% screen rate was the ninth-highest. Again, many great receivers ran high rates of one of these routes, including Samuel, Olave, Stefon Diggs, Cooper Kupp, and Devonta Smith. However, Hopkins’ 49.5% short target rate was 26th. He was targeted almost half the time in the 0-9 yard range. Only one of the other players (Diggs) was in the top half of receivers in short targets.
Hopkins did have a fairly large rate of intermediate targets at 32.3%, which ranked 22nd. He was also highly efficient in that area of the field, catching 21 balls for 336 yards (16.0 per reception, 28th) and two touchdowns. His 11.20 yards per route run in that area of the field ranked 15th, and he also went 6-for-9 (66.7%, T-6th) on contested targets. It’s not as if Hopkins ran only short routes.
Lack of YAC
Hopkins’ career YAC per reception sits at 3.5, and he was right at that number in 2022 (3.4). That ranked in the 34th percentile among receivers; the average was 4.1. Although that might not seem like a major difference, it could mean many first downs and yardage lost in a season.
On Hopkins’ 64 receptions, he missed out on a total of 44.8 YAC compared to the average. Those 45 yards would have raised his season yardage total to 762 and his yards per target from 7.7 to 8.2. That would rank in the 53rd percentile among receivers, as opposed to his actual rank of the 33rd percentile. In other words, Hopkins’ lack of YAC is directly what made him a below-average receiver in yardage efficiency.
In the past, Hopkins’ lack of YAC ability did not affect him quite as much, as he was far more efficient in his yards per reception. With his yards per reception down in 2022, though, his lack of YAC ability often kept his receptions short and relatively unimpactful in terms of moving the chains.
Here are some plays from the 2022 season that sum up how Hopkins recorded a large portion of his production. It backs up the numbers: he compiled on a high volume of targets rather than standing out.
The Cardinals fed Hopkins a lot of quick, easy catches in the underneath area, which boosted his reception and yardage totals despite the plays themselves not necessarily being impressive.
Corey Davis comparison
If the Jets did sign Hopkins, it is most likely that they would trade or release Corey Davis. Davis’ status with the team has been up in the air for much of the offseason. His $11.2 million cap hit contains just $667,000 in dead money, making him a cut candidate.
However, it is important to compare not just the numbers but also the traits the Jets want from their Z receiver. Which player is a better fit for the Jets right now?
Presumably, the Jets’ 2023 Z receiver role will be similar to Davis’ 2022 role. Although they may also play Lazard outside, his experience in the slot makes Davis the primary outside receiver behind Wilson.
In 2022, Davis ran “in” routes 17.1% of the time compared to Hopkins’ 4.8%. Overall, 45.1% of Davis’ routes were in-breakers (ranked fourth out of 82 receivers), vs. 28% of Hopkins’ (79th). That is a limitation in Hopkins’ game: he is not a great operator in the middle of the field.
Meanwhile, Davis ranked 18th with 12 receptions in the center-intermediate area. 34.5% of his targets came there, the highest rate of any receiver; only one other receiver exceeded 30%. Running dig routes is Davis’ specialty, as he has a knack for finding open space.
Hopkins ran double the rate of hitches that Davis did last season—he ran the third-most among receivers (24.7%), while Davis ran the third-fewest (12.1%). However, hitches are not Aaron Rodgers’ favorite; from 2019-21 with Nathaniel Hackett, he threw a hitch just 9.9% of the time, 6.6% below the quarterback average. While Rodgers threw 1.1% fewer in-breakers than average, as well, it’s a less dramatic discrepancy.
Both receivers ran similar rates of go routes in 2022 (Davis 26.8%, Hopkins 25.0%), which Rodgers threw 2.4% more than the average. Rodgers also threw receiver screens 2.2% more than the average quarterback. Hopkins ran screens the ninth-most, while Davis ran them eighth-least.
However, the Jets may not ask their Z receiver to run screens. Wilson and Mecole Hardman are better suited for screens since they have far more YAC ability (4.7 and 6.6 per reception, respectively) than both Hopkins (3.4) and Davis (3.6).
Hopkins’ skillset seemingly doesn’t match what the Jets ask of their Z receiver or what Rodgers throws the most.
Prior to Garrett Wilson’s arrival, the Jets had a serious man coverage problem among their receivers. Davis was a part of that, as he is far more effective against zone coverage than man. Since Wilson established himself as the No. 1 receiver, he garners more double-teams, leaving the other receivers in one-on-one matchups. The Jets will need their Z receiver to be able to win against man coverage.
Here is the comparison of Davis’ and Hopkins’ performance against man coverage in 2022 compared to 94 receivers (min. 12 man-coverage targets).
- Hopkins: 12.9% target share (last), 5-for-12 receptions (41.7%, 87th), 50 yards, 10.0 yards per reception (T-77th), one TD, 2.0 YAC per reception (86th), 1.19 yards per route run (71st), 2-for-6 (33%) contested catch rate, 81.9 targeted passer rating (67th)
- Davis: 31.0% target share (43rd), 5-for-18 receptions (27.8%, last), 63 yards, 12.6 yards per reception (T-58th), one TD, 2.8 YAC per reception (T-74th), 0.55 yards per route run (92nd), 1-for-6 (16.7%) contested catch rate, 37.0 targeted passer rating (91st)
In other words, both players performed poorly against man coverage in 2022, although Davis was especially putrid. Some of this was due to poor quarterback play. However, considering that Wilson performed phenomenally against man coverage, it does not entirely explain how poorly Davis played against man.
If the Jets are looking for a man coverage upgrade, though, Hopkins doesn’t appear to be it. It is a small sample size, which could be due to opponents’ respect for Hopkins. Still, he will not come in and light up opposing man corners at this stage of his career.
ESPN Analytics provides wide receiver metrics that measure a receiver’s ability to get open, hands, and YAC ability. I do not find the measure entirely trustworthy, but it’s still one piece of the larger picture. Here is how they ranked both players in each area and in total compared to 82 qualified receivers (min. 48 targets).
- Open: Davis 26 (T-last), Hopkins 63 (T-34th)
- Catch: Davis 57 (T-40th), Hopkins 75 (15th)
- YAC: Davis 42 (T-45th), Hopkins 37 (T-59th)
- Overall: Davis 35 (T-77th), Hopkins 65 (T-24th)
For what it’s worth, ESPN ranked Davis as one of the poorest receivers in the NFL in 2022, while Hopkins was still above average. There is something suspicious about each player’s open score, though. Davis seemed to get open more than his rating indicates, while Hopkins was never a separator.
Note: I haven’t quite figured out how to integrate Receiver Score within the analytical hierarchy. I have stopped utilizing Pro Football Focus grades in most of my Jet X analyses except for blocking. I prefer to rely only on their statistics and draw my own conclusions. However, I find them to be more accurate than Receiver Score in many areas. In fact, PFF gave Hopkins a 72.9 grade, ranked 32nd, while they gave Davis a 65.9, ranked 47th. That seems to be far more accurate than the ESPN grades. At this point, watching each play likely does yield better results than creating a model.
The Jets’ offensive system is significantly reliant on speed. Last season, all the team’s receivers who ran the 40-yard dash prior to their draft day had a time of 4.4 or below, and four of them had 4.3 speed (Wilson, Elijah Moore, Denzel Mims, and Jeff Smith). Davis was the only one who didn’t run the 40 due to ankle surgery, but he was expected to place in the 4.4s. That is consistent with the play speed he still shows heading into his age-28 season despite nagging injuries.
Hopkins, meanwhile, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds, placing in the 29th percentile back in 2013. A decade later, Hopkins seems to have lost another step or three heading into his age-31 season.
Although the Jets wanted a contested-catch receiver in the offseason, bringing in Lazard and subtracting Elijah Moore means that speed is more of a priority than it previously was. Robert Saleh sees Davis as a bigger contested-catch type, as his above-average career 51.9% contested-catch rate would indicate. However, he also has the speed to threaten teams vertically, as evidenced by his fourth-ranked 16.8 yards per reception in 2022.
Hopkins is a much more surehanded receiver than Davis. Davis tied for 57th with an 8.6% drop rate in 2022, while Hopkins tied for ninth at just 1.5%. Hopkins wasn’t quite as strong in 2021 at 4.5%, but he was still better than the league average (5.5%). Davis, as Jets fans well remember, put up an atrocious rate of 15% that year. For their careers, Hopkins’ drop rate is just 3.4% compared to Davis’ 7.5%.
A quarterback like Rodgers may shy away from a receiver who drops the ball, although it didn’t stop him from targeting Lazard (6.3% drop rate in 2022; 8.2% career). Hopkins’ strong hands are his single biggest asset as a receiver, while Davis’ hands have been one of his biggest question marks.
The other big issue that Davis has consistently confronted throughout his career is the injury bug. Over his six-year career, he has played 78 out of a possible 98 regular-season games, or 3.3 missed games per season. With the Jets, he has played just 22 out of 34 games, missing eight in 2021 and four in 2022.
Hopkins, meanwhile, has been mostly durable throughout his career. 2021 was the first time in his then-nine-year career that he missed more than one game; he had played all 16 games in six of the eight years prior. However, in 2021, Hopkins went down for the season after 10 games due to a hamstring injury followed by a torn MCL.
In 2022, Hopkins missed the first six games due to his PED suspension, although that is not a significant durability concern. More noteworthy was his absence from the final two games of the season due to a flare-up of his knee.
Overall, Hopkins has been a far more durable player. The Jets must count on the fact that Davis will likely miss at least 3-4 games this season, while Hopkins would have a stronger projection. Still, at age 31 and coming off a knee injury that flared up once more, Hopkins could still be an injury risk.
Jets fans know Davis as one of the best blocking receivers in the game. His presence on the field in 11 personnel is almost like having another tight end, giving the team an advantage. However, Lazard can still play that role if the Jets moved Davis, as he is also a strong blocker.
It is beyond the scope of this article to watch the run-blocking reps from Hopkins’ 2022 season. Furthermore, considering that PFF ranked Davis just 39th out of 85 receivers (min. 160 run-blocking snaps) with a 55.3 grade, I do not consider it to be the best comparative tool between Davis and Hopkins (although Hopkins did rank 71st with a 46.7 grade).
Rather, this section is meant to be a demonstration of what Davis is rather than what Hopkins is not. The average receiver is not known one way or another for their run-blocking, as it is not a publicly emphasized skill for the position. However, Saleh has previously complimented Davis’ run-blocking, and it is noticeable in the Jets’ running game when he is not in the lineup. The outside zone game also places added emphasis on a receiver’s run-blocking, making Davis’ proficiency all the more important.
This whole question may come down to money. The Jets were unwilling to go up to $15 million for Beckham, even with the $10.5 million savings that would come from releasing Davis. Hopkins has been an effective receiver in the NFL far more recently than Beckham was, making that particular risk less definitive. However, there are other risks mentioned above—including his less-than-ideal fit in the Jets’ offense, his age and seemingly lost speed, and his previous injury.
Furthermore, Pro Football Talk reported that Hopkins expects “a significant contract” on the open market. Considering that his previous deal paid him less than $20 million per year over the final two years of the deal, that may well be the range that Hopkins is looking for. $20 million is almost definitely out of the Jets’ price range as they fit Rodgers’ deal under the cap, even if they release both Davis and Jordan Whitehead.
The PFT article also mentioned that Hopkins is represented by a non-licensed agent named Saint Omni with whom the NFL warned teams not to negotiate. Omni was involved in the Roquan Smith and Laremy Tunsil contracts, but the Jets may not want to deal with such shadiness in contravention of league orders.
Another factor to consider is that Hopkins may seek a multi-year agreement. That is the last thing the Jets would want to do for a receiver facing aging concerns. Contested-catch receivers sometimes fall off quite precipitously, as the Jets and the NFL saw with Brandon Marshall. A one-year risk is justifiable, but a longer pact is less so.
Should they or shouldn’t they?
When I first heard that Hopkins was released, I also thought it was a no-brainer. I’m still inclined to think that it’s a possibility if only to keep Hopkins away from the Bills and Chiefs. However, I’m also higher on Davis than most, and I think having Rodgers will boost him tremendously.
Furthermore, Hopkins previously indicated that he does not want to come to the Jets. That might not mean much ordinarily, but the team is not looking to pay up for him. The money most likely will not talk coming from Joe Douglas. That is a further disincentive to whatever Hopkins’ original reasons were.
There is some evidence that Hopkins is declining despite his stats from last season. It sounds like his contract demands will exceed Beckham’s and he may also want more than one year. He isn’t specifically a fit for the team’s system, and he’s at risk for a more precipitous decline.
From my perspective, I’d like the Jets to offer him a one-year, $15 million deal, take it or leave it. If nothing else, it should set a market for the Jets’ rivals, who seemingly balked at Hopkins’ price. If he leaves it, though, there’s no reason to be too upset with what the Jets currently have in their receiver room.