DeAndre Hopkins' game evolves thanks to Texans' supporting cast

HOUSTON -- If you ask Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins who his favorite NFL receiver is right now, it might not be who you think.

The reason for his choice is not because of a similar skill set or any familiar background. It’s because he makes plays and, in turn, his team wins.

It’s Julian Edelman.

The New England Patriots wide receiver, who is in his 10th year in the NFL, has won three Super Bowls and “always has a knack for getting the extra 4 or 5 yards,” Hopkins said. “He’s one of my favorite receivers in the NFL because of that. Because he keeps the chains moving.”

It’s not that Hopkins hasn’t always had his focus on winning; that’s always been the goal. “You’re either a champion or you're not a champion,” Hopkins said. “So anything else is really disappointing to me personally because I love winning.”

But he hasn’t always believed he could depend on others during his first seven seasons. He's had plenty of quarterbacks throwing the ball his way and hasn’t always had much help, becoming the focal point of opposing defenses.

“I don’t have to carry as much of a load as I used to, and I think that’s a good thing,” Hopkins said. “We can depend on other players. ... Obviously, it makes the team better.”

That load Hopkins used to carry? It comes from playing with nine different starting quarterbacks in his first four seasons before the Texans drafted Deshaun Watson.

Despite playing with a long list of quarterbacks, Hopkins has hit several milestones this season. On Sunday against the Ravens, Hopkins became the 74th receiver in NFL history with 600 career receptions. At 27, he’s the second youngest to hit that mark, trailing only Larry Fitzgerald. In Week 8, Hopkins became the third-youngest player, behind Randy Moss and Fitzgerald, to reach 8,000 receiving yards.

This season, Hopkins has 75 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns. His reception total ranks second in the NFL, but he’s averaging the fewest yards per catch of his career.

But through Week 11, Hopkins is tied with Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans with 47 catches that have earned a first down. Only New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas has more (58). In the Texans’ loss to the Ravens on Sunday, five of Hopkins' seven catches moved the chains.

“[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.

Hopkins is physical against man-to-man coverage, which is usually what teams see on third down. He also “knows the offense cold,” according to Texans coach Bill O’Brien, so the team can move him around at the line of scrimmage.

“He's not always going to be in one spot. He can line up in a lot of different spots, so I think that helps when you're trying to locate him and double him and things like that,” O’Brien said. “Eventually, you're going to find him, but I think him knowing the offense and understanding what we're trying to do as well as he does helps him a lot.”

Another receiver Hopkins hugely respects and values the opinion of is former All-Pro and current NFL Network analyst Steve Smith. The pair have grown close, and while they had different builds and styles in their careers, there is a mutual respect.

“He's a wide receivers coach’s dream and a defensive coordinator or secondary coach’s worst nightmare,” Smith said.

Smith said one of the reasons Hopkins has had more success making first downs this season is that “he can go down there and do his work and not [have to focus] on catching a zillion balls because that’s the only way they can win.

“Coach O’Brien and the staff have methodically, year by year, added more pieces to relieve the performance pressure on DeAndre Hopkins, which allows him to play better, too,” Smith said. “But sometimes you’re going to have some streaks where he’s not getting the production that we’re accustomed to seeing.

“But he also has the ability to make plays that don’t come on the stat sheet. ... That is a factor that Bill O'Brien has that luxury in his back pocket to say, ‘Well, we know they're going to have two or three guys covering D-Hop, so that gives us an opportunity to run this trick play or run an isolation play with one of our tight ends or one of our other wide receivers or one of our running backs or give an opportunity for Deshaun to do his magic.’”

Hopkins has been facing double- and even triple-teams his whole career, but the Texans are now equipped to take advantage of the extra attention. Houston ranks seventh in the NFL in yards per game. The Texans are running the ball the best they have in recent years, averaging 140.7 rushing yards, which is fifth in the NFL. Running back Carlos Hyde is on pace for the best season of his career, with 769 yards and four touchdowns on 158 carries. Houston has solid Nos. 2 and 3 receivers behind Hopkins when they're healthy: 2016 first-round pick Will Fuller and recent addition Kenny Stills, who is averaging 15.2 yards per catch this season.

In Week 5, when the Texans scored 53 points against the Atlanta Falcons, Hopkins had seven catches for 88 yards. But Fuller had the best game of his career, catching 14 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns. Fuller credited Hopkins with taking away defenders.

“Obviously, I’ve caught a lot of balls over the years for that to happen,” Hopkins said. “It just hasn’t happened overnight for a player to get that much attention. Anything that helps this offense win, I’m all for it.”

It’s not just Fuller and Stills who are making plays. Tight end Darren Fells, who signed with Houston this offseason, has topped his career high in catches and touchdowns and has two games this season when he has caught two touchdowns.

And Hopkins is on pace to catch 120 passes, which would be a career high.

“I have multiple friends on other teams who after a game, they’ll tell me the game plan ... part of the game plan is to stop you,” Hopkins said. “It’s a respect factor.”