Can DeAndre Hopkins be Mr. Right Again?

May 30th 2023

Mike Tanier

Some fans want to see DeAndre Hopkins playing for the New York Jets in 2023 now that he has been released by the Arizona Cardinals. Others want to see Nuk playing for the Buffalo Bills. Or the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks or pretty much any other team besides the Cardinals.

Me? I just look forward to seeing Hopkins on the right side of the field again.

Former Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury had lots of play-calling and game-planning quirks. One of them involved lining Hopkins up almost exclusively on the left side of the field and only targeting him on passes to the left side:

  • In 2020, Hopkins led the Cardinals in targets marked “left” (outside the numbers, essentially), going 64-of-88 for 791 yards and five touchdowns on such passes. But Hopkins was targeted just eight (8!) times on passes marked right, going 5-of-8 for 74 yards.

  • In 2021, Kingsbury "adjusted," sort of. Hopkins led the Cardinals with 27 targets to the left, going 15-of-27 for 233 yards and two touchdowns on those throws. He was 7-of-9 for 145 yards and one touchdown on passes to the right.

  • In 2022, Hopkins once again led the Cardinals in targets to the left, going 29-of-45 for 337 yards and zero touchdowns. He was just 9-of-13 for 123 yards and one touchdown to the right. A.J. Green, Marquise Brown and Ronald Moore were all targeted more often than Nuk on the right side in 2022. Greg Dortch was targeted 12 times to Nuk’s 13.

What about over the middle of the field, you ask? Hopkins was targeted over the middle just 10 times in 2020 and three times each in 2021 and 2022. Aging speedster A.J. Green, never thought of as an “over the middle” guy, was also only targeted three times each in 2021 and 2022 on passes labeled “middle.” Christian Kirk and tight end Zach Ertz were Kingsbury’s middle-of-the-field targets; when Kirk left in 2022, he was replaced by “not throwing over the middle as much.”

(Sports Info Solutions also has “left middle” and “Right middle” categories for passes between the hashmarks and the numbers. They don’t illuminate this topic much: Hopkins caught quite a few passes in the left middle but not many in the right middle in each of the last three years).

DeAndre Hopkins Versus Other WR1s

None of that Kingsbury was doing with Hopkins was normal. Justin Jefferson, for example, led the Minnesota Vikings in targets to the left (58) and right (45). Stefon Diggs led the Bills in passes to the left (34) and right (39). Each gave way to tight ends and slot receivers over the middle, but Jefferson was targeted 10 times over the middle, Diggs eight.

Even accounting for Hopkins’ missed playing time, his usage pattern was, well, ridiculous and a little dumb. It’s a fairly standard NFL practice to move Pro Bowl-caliber receivers all around the formation in search of favorable matchups; if there are other examples of a Hopkins-level superstar getting targeted three-to-eleven times more often on one side of the field than the other since 1977 or so, I have not found them.

The left-right splits are also not a Hopkins thing. Back in 2019, Nuk led the Texans in targets to the left (21-of-26, 295, 2), right (16-of-27, 120, 0) and middle (22-of-29, 313, 2). Hopkins was never some one-dimensional boundary guy until Kingsbury stuck him on the left side of the field and left him there.

Expectations for DeAndre Hopkins

Hopkins had a Pro Bowl caliber 2020 campaign for the Cardinals, followed by two injury-and-suspension riddled seasons. It’s fair to ask what he has left on the eve of his 31st birthday (June 6). Hopkins peaked in 2017-18, so a little caution is advisable before projecting another 100-catch season for him or penciling his next team in as Super Bowl favorites (assuming they are not already).

But Hopkins was also uniquely misused for the last three years by a shockingly overmatched head coach. Opposing defenses knew he would spend most games working the left sideline, never venturing across the hashmarks, and could scheme accordingly to stop him. Sane-and-rational usage, coupled with some good luck with injuries and quarterbacks (Nuk’s production went down the pipes when Kyler Murray was hurt) should be all it takes to return Hopkins to 1,000-yard form, even if he’s some team’s nominal WR2.

Let’s wrap with one last statistical split. Sports Info Solutions tracks throws to receivers who went into motion before the snap. Pre-snap motion is a great way to isolate a go-to guy like Hopkins against a nickel defender or safety, or at least force the defense to reveal man coverage.

Tyreek Hill was targeted after motion 33 times in 2022, Davante Adams 32 times, Stefon Diggs 29 times, Cooper Kupp 28. Not every scheme uses lots of presnap motion, but the teams that don’t use it much excel at other things; Kingsbury’s Cardinals didn’t really excel at anything.

Hopkins was targeted after motion just nine times in 2022, nine times in 2020 and just once in 2021.

But of course, “going in motion” might mean “leaving the left side of the field.” And Kingsbury was having absolutely none of that!