Halley’s Comet passes over Earth every 75 years. It is an exceedingly rare occurrence and people all over the world marvel when they get a glimpse. They know they’re seeing something unusual; something they may not see again in their lives.
The fantasy football equivalent of Halley’s Comet occurs when a terrible quarterback teams up with a wide receiver who produces a top-5 season despite subpar QB play. This almost never happens; Josh Gordon accomplished this in 2013 and Anquan Boldin did it in 2003. Both seasons came out of nowhere; Gordon and Boldin were each picked after over 30 other receivers in their respective top-5 seasons. Keep this in mind when evaluating this year’s Halley’s Comet Candidate, DeAndre Hopkins. Target volume matters but field position and target quality remain crucial, and Hopkins is unlikely to become a once-a-decade ascending outlier receiver.
Josh Gordon’s Unique 2013 Season
Examining Josh Gordon‘s 2013 breakout season it is easier to see why his season was not nearly as surprising as expected. Gordon’s athletic profile compares to Allen Robinson who compares to Dez Bryant. While stud comps do not guarantee success, the Gordon/Bryant/Robinson archetype does possess a higher probability of achieving fantasy WR1 status.
Josh Gordon was selected as WR35 in 2013, in part because of the red flags that landed him a two game suspension that year. Gordon’s double-digit ADP allowed owners to draft and stash him without suffering significant opportunity cost, and he rewarded them in historic fashion as he broke out and tore apart the league. Even though he only played in 14 games, Gordon led the league in receiving yards with 1646 yards on 87 receptions for a stellar 18.9 yards per reception, and 10.4 yards per target. His yards per reception and yards per target are deep threat numbers, not those of a team’s No. 1 wide receiver.
The 681 pass plays the Browns ran helped Josh Gordon amass great production despite his terrible quarterback situation. Gordon saw 159 targets in only 14 games that year only putting him behind high octane passing offense receivers Pierre Garçon, Andre Johnson, A.J. Green, Antonio Brown, Brandon Marshall, and Dez Bryant. Of the rest of the top 18 targeted receivers, only three were in offenses that ranked in the bottom half of the league for pass plays. Although Gordon did great with his opportunity, much of his accomplishment was largely based on his athletic skill as his 4.0 yards after catch per target placed him alongside the league’s elite slot receivers who gain most of their yards after the catch.
For all the otherworldly greatness Josh Gordon produced, he did not elevate the Browns myriad of terrible quarterbacks. Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden had lower completion percentages in 2013 than in 2014. Only Brian Hoyer had a better completion percentage in 2013 than he did in 2014. In addition to his many other receiving skills, Gordon proved to be an excellent deep threat in 2013, which is where Hoyer excels when passing as he showed again in 2014 with a 46.5-percent on deep ball completion percentage that ranked No. 9 among NFL quarterbacks that year.
DeAndre Hopkin’s Athleticism Void
DeAndre Hopkins is a technician more than an athlete. His closest physical-athletic comparison is Hakeem Nicks, though he is not far off from Anquan Boldin. Yes, Boldin put up one of the Halley’s Comet type seasons in fantasy football, but that was his peak season. Among receivers, Anquan Boldin is the exception to the rule; his is the rare example of a less-athletic receiver thriving in an athletically-inclined game. Boldin over the past two years has produced 3.2 and 3.5 yards after the catch per target, which is more than the 3.0 and 2.0 that Hopkins has produced. Hopkins must become more productive if he plans to emerge as a top fantasy receiver and help carry the Houston passing offense.
Brian Hoyer Is Bad At Football
While DeAndre Hopkins‘ productivity increase from 2013 to 2014 suggests that his career is following an upward trajectory, his quarterback situation is a major concern that few fantasy analysts have noticed. Ryan Fitzpatrick had the best bad year for a quarterback in NFL history last season. In 2014, Fitzpatrick posted an +18.8 Production Premium (PlayerProfiler.com‘s situation-agnostic player efficiency metric), 95.3 Passer Rating, and 8.0 Yards Per Attempt (all landed in the top-10). In 12 games with Fitzpatrick at QB, DeAndre Hopkins scored an average of 16.6 fantasy points per game (WR12). Without Fitzpatrick, his average plummets to 8.05 fantasy points per game (WR67!).
No wide receiver experienced a greater quarterback downgrade this offseason than DeAndre Hopkins. Brian Hoyer‘s passer rating, which ranked 24 spots behind Fitzpatrick last season can be attributed in part to style of play and a lesser supporting cast. While Fitzpatrick attempted 29 deep balls, Hoyer threw 71 deep balls. Hoyer is more reckless and less accurate, which will negatively impact DeAndre Hopkins more than any other Texans receiver, because Hopkins tends to operate in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field — routes that misalign with Hoyer’s tendencies and strengths. Ultimately, Fitzpatrick’s 0.56 (No. 6) fantasy points per dropback vastly exceeded Hoyer’s 0.37 (No. 40) fantasy points per dropback in 2014 [Ed. note: yikes.], and Hopkins will struggle to produce WR1 numbers on any give week without Fitzpatrick under center [Ed. note: I get how insane that sounds, but it’s true.]
When Josh Gordon broke out, he had Jordan Cameron as his sidekick to help keep coverage away from him. Cameron is both a great athlete and great player, and in Gordon’s breakout year he provided all of Gordon’s necessary help. Defenses were forced to make coverage decisions that respected either Gordon’s or Cameron’s athleticism and scoring potential. In this way, both players helped each other achieve an outstanding 2013 season. Neither the Texans No. 2 WR options (Nate Washington, Cecil Shorts, Jaelen Strong), nor the Texans tight ends options (C.J. Fiedorowicz, Garrett Graham, Ryan Griffin) are capable of helping DeAndre Hopkins the way that Jordan Cameron helped Josh Gordon.
If your draft slot places you in position to draft DeAndre Hopkins at or around his 31.8 MyFantasyLeague.com money league ADP, you are better off selecting alternatives such as Brandin Cooks and/or Jordan Matthews. Both Cooks and Matthews are ascending young receivers on high pass volume offenses with friendly schedules while Hopkins has likely been banished to wide receiver purgatory playing on a low volume offense against mostly quality defenses. Cooks and Matthews also possess upper-percentile athleticism and their quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Sam Bradford respectively, are generally more accurate passers than Brian Hoyer.
If you are not comfortable with any receivers in the DeAndre Hopkins ADP range, waiting on the receiver position yields options like Allen Robinson, Brian Quick, and Devin Funchess. While all of them face flaws beyond their control (bad offense and/or bad quarterbacks), they are bigger and more athletic than Hopkins and are also available multiple rounds later making the risk associated with their low volume offenses and scattershot QB play more palatable.
While DeAndre Hopkins gets his opportunity to be the Houston Texans leading receiver this year, he should be regarded closer to Anquan Boldin than Josh Gordon. Boldin is consistently the leading receiver in a run oriented offense, and he is not athletic for an NFL receiver. Even an increase in target share may not guarantee Hopkins’ success in 2015; six of the top 18 receivers by target share failed to finish within the top 18 WR by fantasy production (including Boldin). DeAndre Hopkins has already demonstrated that he does not perform well when he is paired with an incompetent quarterback. Regardless of what he has shown when playing with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer will likely doom Hopkins in 2015. Brandin Cooks and Jordan Matthews have higher fantasy ceilings, and more athletic No.1 receiver such as Devin Funchess, Allen Robinson, or Brian Quick are available many rounds later.