Is DeAndre Hopkins the Best Wide Receiver in Football?

Hopkins’ incredible start calls for a reassessment of where he stands among the NFL’s elite.

DeAndre Hopkins is in the midst of a transcendent season, on pace for 139 catches for 1,936 yards and 13 touchdowns, despite catching passes from a pair of career backups. Through six games, Hopkins has hauled in at least 8 catches for 98 receiving yards in every contest except a Week 2 5-catch, 53-yards showing in Carolina against shutdown cornerback Josh Norman.

Hopkins’ 71.44 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) -- which measures how well a player performs compared to expectation level -- is first among wide receivers by a vast margin. Julio Jones is second with 58.02 Reception NEP, and the next 16 wide receivers fall between 40 and 54 Reception NEP. His 190.51 projected Reception NEP is roughly 22 points higher than the next highest total in the past 15 years.

His early-season success has been astounding, but not completely unforeseeable. In 2014, Hopkins had a breakout year despite playing second fiddle to a declining Andre Johnson, receiving 127 targets to Johnson’s 147. Hopkins still managed to amass 76 receptions for 1,210 yards and 6 touchdowns, and his 96.06 Reception NEP ranked 16th among wide receivers.

But even following Johnson’s departure for Indianapolis, concerns about shaky quarterback play and increased defensive attention kept Hopkins’ average draft position (ADP) suppressed throughout the summer. Despite finishing 2014 with the 15th most fantasy points among wide receivers, his ADP never rose above WR14 in the lead-up to the 2015 season.

Entering Week 7, it’s clear that Hopkins will easily outperform expectations in 2015. But just how undervalued was he?

Efficiency Concerns

Despite his prodigious numbers, Hopkins has not been overly efficient. His 90 targets are 15 more than any other wide receiver, and his 240 projected targets would be the most ever recorded (Demaryius Thomas led the league with 184 last season). Among wide receivers with at least 25 targets, his 0.80 Reception NEP per target ranks 10th and his 58.4 percent catch rate ranks just 44th.

His share of the Texans’ team targets (32.4 percent) is very high, but not unsustainable, considering Johnson garnered 30.3 percent in 2014. The pace of the Texans’ offense, however, surely is -- their 76 offensive plays per game is by far the most in the league.

Clearer Skies Ahead

But a closer look at Hopkins’ quarterback duo lends optimism to his outlook in the Texans’ 10 remaining games. Ryan Mallett -- whose atrocious -0.08 Passing NEP per drop back is better than only Nick Foles and Michael Vick among quarterbacks with at least 75 attempts -- has been Hopkins’ quarterback in parts of five games this season. 

On Monday, Brian Hoyer finally received coach Bill O’Brien’s vote of confidence as the team’s starting quarterback going forward. Hoyer has been significantly better, ranking eighth among qualifying quarterbacks with 0.25 Passing NEP per drop back.

Not surprisingly, the changing of the guard has shifted Hopkins into a higher gear. In the four games in which Hoyer has played, Hopkins is averaging 9.75 receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown -- a staggering 156-2,288-16 season-long pace -- compared with an average of just 6.5 receptions for 77.5 yards and 0.5 touchdowns in the two games in which Hoyer didn’t attempt a pass. Even in the four games Hoyer has played, he ceded a combined 50 pass attempts to Mallett, surely deflating Hopkins’ stat line to some extent.

With Hoyer now entrenched at quarterback, Hopkins’ efficiency should begin to improve. If his volume remains even somewhat steady, Hopkins may end up composing a truly historic season. Regardless, Hopkins has clearly muscled his way to the front of the NFL’s elite class of wide receivers. Still just 23 years old, it might not be long before he’s in a class by himself.