The NFL Offseason Starts with a Bang: Breaking Down the Deandre Hopkins Trade
March 16 marked the beginning of the preliminary stages of NFL free agency. At this point, teams are allowed to contact Unrestricted Free Agents to negotiate contracts before the new league season begins on March 18. Many around the NFL hoped that the beginning of the league year would be delayed in response to the growing concern with COVID-19. I also wouldn’t have minded a slight delay in the start of what would become one of the busiest days in NFL offseason history that I can remember as I spent the whole day traveling home, missing the frenzy of the action. Especially with the anticipated long-term drought in sports, any exciting sports news is much appreciated. The day brought many league-altering high-profile moves that will undoubtedly impact how we view the future of teams through both a performance and a business lens.
Easily the most significant move of the day was the Houston Texans’ decision to ship arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL and a 2020 fourth-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick. At the current moment, I'm not too fond of this move for the Texans. I am not so angry at the idea of trading Hopkins, but rather at the player they traded for. Despite my resentment for David Johnson after drafting him with my first-round pick in fantasy this past season, my dislike for this trade is more based on Houston’s current set of running backs. The Texans have Duke Johnson already and are presumably moving on from free agent Carlos Hyde. Duke Johnson is only one year into a three year-$15.6 million while David Johnson is set to receive $11.1 million this year. I think it’s safe to assume that if you are willing to give up Hopkins, you intend to resign your key player in return, even if only to save face, only adding more years of David Johnson to the payroll. Also, both players serve very similar roles for the Texans as they are both great receiving backs and somewhat limited in the run game, evidenced by the Texans and Cardinals’ preference for Carlos Hyde and Kenyan Drake, respectively, in the run game.
The Texans will now have two of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL. For the upcoming 2020 season, the Texans will have the fourth-highest running back payroll in the league. In the modern evolution of the NFL, the league is focused on passing, and the narrative that running backs don’t matter as much as the used to be is a common one. How much truth is in this narrative? Looking back at the 2019 season, out of the top ten teams that spent the most money on running backs, only two teams (Patriots and 49ers) made the playoffs. The Patriots appear this high mainly due to the sheer number of running backs on the roster. They had 5, whereas many teams only have 3, causing their cap hit to be higher. Additionally, out of the top 10 highest-paid running backs in 2019, nobody contributed to a playoff team (Lamar Miller and Jerick McKinnon spent the year on Injured Reserve and did not play for their playoff teams). It seems clear that substantial investment in running backs is not contributing to team success, so it will be interesting to see how David Johnson, the third highest-paid running back in the NFL for 2020, will benefit the Texans.
Hopkins will be entering the final year of his contract and will surely demand a contract that will reset the market for wide receivers next year, definitely influencing the Texans’ decision to move on. I see an increased role for Texans’ receiver Will Fuller this season, probably leading to a spike in production and increased salary demands in free agency next year. The Cardinals won this trade, in my opinion. The Cardinals gave up their back-up running back and a second-round pick for the best wide receiver in the league for their second-year quarterback Kyler Murray to throw to. The Texans are receiving a player very similar to a player they already have, potential future salary dilemmas with both Will Fuller and David Johnson entering free agency next year, and an admittedly very valuable second-round pick.
The impact on the Texans’ fanbase of discarding a world-class player that has been there throughout the Houston rebuild during the past decade cannot be understated. Hopkins has thrived despite the subpar quarterback play during his tenure with the NFL. It’s incredible to think that in 7 seasons, Hopkins has made 4 Pro Bowls, 3 First-team All-Pro Teams, and a Second-team All-Pro Team under the quarterback play of Ryan Mallett, Brock Osweiler, TJ Yates, Brian Hoyer, and Tom Savage. I’m glad for Hopkins’ sanity that the Texans gave him Deshaun Watson as a competent quarterback in 2017. With the future of sports in doubt for the near future due to COVID-19, I think the shortage of sports stories will only hurt the Houston Texans as I can already hear the ESPN regulars ripping into Head Coach and General Manager Bill O’Brien to fill airtime. It is only a matter of time before the negative fan reaction becomes overwhelming.
Although the 2020 NFL Draft looks to have a very deep wide receiver class, the Texans better hope to be able to fill Hopkins’ shoes. Bill O'Brien traded one of the best players in Texans history in his prime for a second-round pick. I think this was a fantastic move for Arizona as Kyler Murray will benefit, and they have no problem paying Hopkins his true worth as their quarterback will still be on his rookie contract. As for the Texans, good luck, and I hope it was worth it.