The Texans Shouldn't Wait to Pay DeAndre Hopkins

Hopkins wants a new deal, and Houston wants to wait. They shouldn't wait long.

DeAndre Hopkins’ training camp holdout didn’t last long -- he joined the Houston Texans just one day after camp opened -- but it was made to serve a point.

The absence was in regards to contract negotiations, which the receiver wants to start now, though he wasn't trying to send a message to his team.

The team chose not to negotiate with Hopkins.

There’s an easy case to be made for both sides.

Hopkins, as one of the best receivers in the league over the past three seasons, believes he’s underpaid and would like to be compensated accordingly. He’s set to count for just a $2.4 million cap hit on the Texans’ cap for the 2016 season on the fourth year of his rookie deal, which ranks 56th among all NFL wide receivers and 17th among all players on the Texans. He also just saw the team give a combined $51 million guaranteed to Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller during the offseason.

Then there’s the front office side of things. The Texans have made a stance that they won’t start negotiating second contracts until a player completes his fourth season. This would be a fine stance if exceptions weren’t recently made for J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. Still, especially now with Hopkins in camp, there’s no rush for Houston to shell out a lot of extra cash before they need to.

Hopkins counts for just that $2.4 million on the cap this season, and his cap hit would only go up to $7.9 million next year on the fifth-year option. Should Hopkins and the Texans not reach a long-term deal by then, Houston could place the franchise tag on the receiver, which would probably cost them somewhere around $16 million for the 2018 season.

Combine those together, and the Texans could have one the league’s top receivers for the next three years and a total of about $26 million. That’s not a bad deal, but it’s also not a likely scenario.

Eventually, Hopkins and the Texans are going to agree to a new deal. When exactly that will happen is the question that will loom around the team. There’s an argument sooner rather later could be beneficial for both sides.

One-Man Band

The most obvious case for Hopkins to get paid revolves around how good he’s been and how little help he’s received from those around him. Last season, Hopkins was the third most targeted receiver in the league behind Julio Jones and Antonio Brown while he saw passes from a combination of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden.

He was one of the best receivers in the league by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Hopkins had the fourth-highest Reception NEP in the league among all receivers. He was even fairly efficient on a per-play basis. There were 32 wide receivers who saw at least 100 targets in 2015, and Hopkins ranked 12th in Reception NEP per target. All of this was done in a passing offense that ranked 27th as a unit in Adjusted NEP per play.

Hopkins’ dominance in the offense has been the case since the receiver came into the league in 2013. Targets have only been an official stat in the NFL since 1992, but since that time, Hopkins is the third-most targeted receiver in the first three years of his career at 410, behind only A.J. Green (457) and Anquan Boldin (440).

Established Precedent

As mentioned up top, the Texans are sticking to their credo of not negotiating new deals until after a player’s fourth season, despite what they’ve done recently with Watt and Mercilus. But there’s also been some precedent to move quickly with deals in the receiver market. Just this offseason Keenan Allen received a four-year, $45 million deal from the San Diego Chargers after three seasons in the league, and the Jacksonville Jaguars gave Allen Hurns four years and $40.7 million after just two years in the league.

Perhaps the best match for Hopkins comes from what the division rival Indianapolis Colts did with T.Y. Hilton after his first three professional seasons. Hilton, who turned into the team’s number-one receiver, signed a five-year, $65 million extension in August of last season before he started his fourth year in the NFL. Now it’s probably not the best idea to mimic any financial decisions made by the Indianapolis front office, but there are some interesting factors in play here.

As Hilton’s contract stands now, his $13 million average annual salary is the sixth-most among all wide receivers. He also received the fifth-most total guaranteed money, but among the top 10 receivers in guarantees, only Jeremy Maclin had a smaller percentage of his contract guaranteed (40.91 percent) than Hilton (43.08 percent).

Statistically, Hopkins has the case to be paid at least the same as Hilton -- and probably more. There are some differences, of course. Hilton was a third-round pick in 2012 and thus did not have a fifth-year option in his contract.

That means, even though Hilton was only three years into his career, he was only a year away from free agency. Hopkins, as a first-round pick, does have that club option in his contract, which makes him two years away from potential free agency and gives a little more leverage to the Texans.

But for the sake of comparison, let’s look at how these two stack up through the first three years of their careers.

Here’s Hilton from 2012 to 2014.

Year Receptions Reception NEP Targets Reception NEP/Target
2012 82 108.36 131 0.83
2013 83 89.17 139 0.64
2014 50 82.46 90 0.92
Total 215 279.99 360 0.78

And Hopkins from 2013 to 2015.

Year Receptions Reception NEP Targets Reception NEP/Target
2013 111 143.89 192 0.75
2014 76 96.06 127 0.76
2015 52 58.05 91 0.64
Total 239 298.00 410 0.73

Hopkins has the edge over Hilton in all categories except Reception NEP per target. That shouldn’t be too surprising, though, because Hilton had Andrew Luck at quarterback for those seasons, and Hopkins has dealt with a rotating cast of bad to terrible quarterbacks through his first three seasons. Efficiency is a tough task under those circumstances.

Beating the Rush

With the contracts given out this offseason, not only to Hurns and Allen, but also Doug Baldwin, there’s a clear impact on what the continuously rising cap is doing to receivers’ salaries. Hopkins is one of the next in line to command a new deal, but within the next year or two, that list also includes the likes of Odell Beckham, Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins, among others.

These are going to be the players setting the new market for number-one receivers, and the numbers in these contracts are likely to bump down those of Hurns, Allen, and Baldwin to look like a second- or third-tier on the pay scale. Antonio Brown could also be considered for this list, but he’ll be looking for his third NFL contract and might be in a league of his own.

There was a similar backlog last offseason when there were four top receivers who were looking for new deals -- Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and A.J. Green. All four eventually set deals that topped the market for wide receivers -- they rank first through fourth in guaranteed money -- but the four teams involved were scared to be the one to set the price standard.

With a franchise tag deadline looming for Bryant and Thomas, the Cowboys and Broncos were first to strike with identical five-year, $70 million deals in July. Jones was next with a new contract in late August, and Green signed his new deal in mid-September.

With each deal, the average salary grew. Here’s when each player signed and for how much.

Player Date Signed Total Deal Guaranteed Average Annual
Demaryius Thomas 7/15/15 5-year/$70M $43.5M $14M
Dez Bryant 7/15/15 5-year/$70M $45M $14M
Julio Jones 8/29/15 5-year/$71.3M $47M $14.25M
A.J. Green 9/11/15 4-year/$60M $32.75M $15M

Green received the highest average salary, but also took one fewer year, less total guaranteed, and a smaller percentage guaranteed. But he’ll also have the first chance of getting a third contact, something he’ll do at the age of 30.

Even when those contracts were given out last offseason, the cap had yet to rise at the rate it did this year. There should be no surprise when this next crop of wide receivers is clearing the financial marks set by these four in 2015, and the money is more likely to increase with every contract handed out.

Add in the front offices of the Giants and Jaguars into the mix -- two teams not shy about handing out massive contracts -- and there’s some big money at play.

The Texans might want to save some money now and allow Hopkins to stay on his rookie deal, but getting a new contract done before other wide receiver deals flood the market might be the best bet to save themselves some money in the future.