Launching the Nuk: Top 10 Destinations for DeAndre Hopkins

May 30th 2023

Bryan Knowles

The Arizona Cardinals, firmly in the middle of the ‘burn everything down’ phase of rebuilding, cut DeAndre Hopkins on Friday. They didn’t even bother making him a June 1st cut, eating the entire $22.6 million cap hit in 2023. With Kyler Murray’s health in question and the team floundering as is, Arizona is salting the earth and preparing to try to rebuild starting in 2024. Cardinals football fever: catch it!

Arizona couldn’t even get a conditional draft pick for Hopkins because his contract was untenable at this point. After the trade from the Texans, the Cardinals gave him an extension that was heavily backloaded, hitting nearly $30 million in cap hit this year and $25 million in 2024. Even a team trading for him would have seen $19.5 and $14.9 cap hits in his final two years, which is a lot for a 31-year-old receiver who hasn’t played a full season or had even 800 yards since 2020.

Injuries to his hamstring and MCL, as well a six-game PED suspension limited how much time Hopkins actually saw on the field, and last year’s implosion of the Cardinals’ offense as a whole destroyed his advanced stats. Hopkins managed a top-10 finish in receiving DVOA in 2021, but fell to a career-low -11.2% and 11 DYAR last season. No qualified Cardinal had positive receiving DVOA last year, as the Kliff Kingsbury era ended up ending with a whimper, but in an ideal world, you would have liked to see Hopkins overcome his circumstances and perform better than that.

That being said, Hopkins played better than his advanced stats would indicate last season. PFF had him ranked 33rd among qualified receivers, and ESPN’s analytics department still listed him as the 15th best receiver in terms of actually making the catch with a catch score of 75 – Hopkins still has some of the strongest hands in the league and has only four drops in the past three seasons combined. To put that in context, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs and Tyreek Hill each had seven drops last season. If Hopkins overall numbers are down, it’s because he can’t catch throws that don’t reach him. A full 15% of his targets were deemed uncatchable by Sports Info Solutions last season. Arizona’s offense sunk all boats.

Hopkins’ days as a first-team All-Pro may be behind him, but he’s still a clear WR1, and anyone and everyone with a pulse is at least kicking the tires now that they don’t have to spend nearly $20 million on him this season. A free agent of Hopkins’ caliber available in May is big news, and so the rumors are spinning wild as to just where he’ll end up.

What does Hopkins want? Well, money, obviously. Hopkins would like a massive contract, and with the way receiver contracts have skyrocketed upwards since Christian Kirk’s $72 million deal in 2022 he’s likely to get one…eventually. He may not get quite the same APY he got in his extension in Arizona, but a team with the cap room to do it likely would give him a top-10 all-time contract for a wideout; think $22 million a year or more. But “cap room to do it” becomes a little tricky in June, when teams have already committed their free agency dollars elsewhere. It’s quite possible that Hopkins will end up signing a one-year deal somewhere, chase a ring, and then try to break the bank next offseason.

Aside from that, Hopkins has emphasized the importance of stable management, which is more than understandable after spending his career with Houston and Arizona to this point. He also wants an all-world quarterback and an outstanding defense, because who doesn’t?

We also need to take into account which teams would want Hopkins. To pay him the sort of money he’s looking for, either on a long-term deal or a short-term rental, you have to be expecting to contend this season (so, sorry, Tampa Bay). You’d also like Hopkins to be a significant improvement to your receiving corps and bump you to a new level – Hopkins is more valuable to a team like the Titans, who legitimately have someone named “Racey McMath” pushing for playing time, than he would be for a Bengals team that already boats Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.

With those criteria in mind, let’s rank the best destinations for Hopkins in 2023.

10. Los Angeles Chargers

Hopkins listed Justin Herbert as one of the five quarterbacks he’d most want to play with a week ago, so there’s clearly some interest there. And if Hopkins was a free agent before the 2023 draft, the Chargers would be significantly higher on this list. Even now, it’s still somewhat enticing – Keenan Allen working out of the slot while Hopkins and Mike Williams bully shorter cornerbacks on the outside? I think Kellen Moore and company could make that work just fine.

But Los Angeles just used a first-round pick on TCU receiver Quentin Johnston, and they’d really like to get him into the lineup quickly to start developing that freak athleticism. Hopkins would send Johnson to a WR4 spot on the bench, and that’s not an ideal use of resources. They’re also not really in a great financial position to add Hopkins on any sort of significant deal; they’re in the second-worst financial situation already for 2024 at $61 million over the projected cap, and they’ve already had to restructure major deals left and right this offseason to keep things running smoothly – making room for Hopkins would put them in a terrible position in the future.

Add in the fact that even with Hopkins, the Chargers would be a distant second favorites to win their own division, and the fit just might not be there. But with Hopkins having Herbert in his top five, it can’t be discounted entirely.

9. Minnesota Vikings

With Aaron Rodgers out of Green Bay, the NFC North is wide open. Now, imagine any of the other three teams attempting to handle Hopkins and Justin Jefferson at the same time. That would instantly become arguably the best receiver duo in the league. And yes, like the Chargers, the Vikings also already used a first-round pick on a wide receiver (USC’s Jordan Addison), but they could send K.J. Osborn to a depth role. Jefferson’s speed, Hopkins’ power and Addison’s route running would give Kirk Cousins not only three talented receivers, but three receivers with different, complimentary skill sets.

Of course, if the Vikings wanted to keep a veteran receiver to go alongside Jefferson, they could have just kept Adam Thielen. Thielen had declined a little in the past few years as he entered his 30s, but would still have been a clear WR2. Minnesota just didn’t want to spend that kind of money on a receiver of that age, not with extensions for Jefferson, Christian Darrisaw, T.J. Hockenson and the like coming up. Hopkins is a better player, and that changes the calculations, but the Vikings are not exactly rolling in cap space. And is a player like Hopkins worth the investment as a second receiver next to Jefferson, when they could instead use that money to bolster a position of greater need?

Also, while the Vikings won their division last year, remember, they were actually quite bad – 27th in DVOA at -13.6%. They’re not going to be as fortunate in one-score games as they were a year ago, so going to them with the thought they’d be a contender may not be the best plan from Hopkins’ perspective.

8. San Francisco 49ers

Hopkins’ list of quarterbacks he’d like to play with is loaded with some of the most talented players at the position. That, in and of itself, probably removes the 49ers from contention – not a lot of love for Brock Purdy or Trey Lance in the conversation at the moment. Hopkins wants himself an established NFL star at quarterback, and whatever you want to say about Purdy’s hot finish or Lance’s still untapped potential, that ain’t them.

Of course, what San Francisco does have to offer is arguably the greatest offensive mind in the game today. Defending Kyle Shanahan’s offense is already a nightmare, with Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Christian McCaffery lining up all over the field. Can you imagine what he’d do with a tool like Hopkins to bully people? It’s enough to make the mouth water. Julio Jones had his best seasons in Shanahan’s offense in 2015 and 2016, averaging 109.3 yards per game and being named first-team All-Pro twice. For all their weapons, the 49ers don’t really have a player like Hopkins; a big-bodied receiver who can just bully people for the ball. And, of course, if Hopkins wants an easy path to a potential championship, sticking in the NFC makes a lot of sense, as San Francisco and Philadelphia seem likely to control the conference once again in 2023. Heck, you even get to bully the Cardinals twice a year in reaction to them imploding around you. What’s not to love?

Then again, Hopkins doesn’t exactly need a great scheme to play well. And San Francisco doesn’t have oodles of cap space to work with, considering the major deals they’ve handed out to the likes of McCaffrey, Kittle and Fred Warner, with Nick Bosa and Brandon Aiyuk extensions coming down the line. Still, this would be a fun one to imagine.

7. New York Jets

Hey, does Aaron Rodgers still have that wishlist lying around?

We know that Rodgers’ not-really-a-wishlist-just-you-know-it-would-be-nice selection of players included Odell Beckham, and he got New York to bring in Allen Lazard this offseason, so he’s out there shopping. The Jets were reportedly the runners-up in the Beckham sweepstakes, so why not pivot to Hopkins now that he’s available? No need to worry about the long-term financial ramifications, either; the Jets are now all about maximizing the window in Rodgers’ final seasons, so by all means, go all-in. Get you nucleus of Hopkins, Garrett Wilson, Allen Lazard and Mecole Hardman, and go MVP hunting.

Then again, do the Jets really need another receiver? After the Wilson/Lazard/Hardman trio, you go down to Corey Davis, Denzel Mims and Randall Cobb – and they just added Lazard, Hardman and Cobb. As fun as it is to meme Rodgers into bringing everyone he’s ever heard of into town, at a certain point, the Jets have a workable roster at the position; a roster they’re counting on Rodgers to boost. Honestly, the best argument for the Jets trying to grab Hopkins would be to make sure none of their rivals grab him. Plus, you’ve got to convince Hopkins that Rodgers’ down year in 2022 was a product of injury and circumstance rather than age. That’s not the hardest sell in the world, but Hopkins did leave Rodgers off of his quarterbacks to play with list, and made noise about wanting a quarterback who “brings everybody on board with him”, which may not describe Rodgers’ last couple offseasons. It’s not a terrible fit by any means, but there are better.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars

Speaking of getting revenge on old teams, would Hopkins mind having the Houston Texans on his schedule twice a year? I thought not. And with the Colts rebuilding and the Titans imploding, a trip to Duval may not be out of the question. Working with a proven Super Bowl winning coach in Doug Pederson and an up-and-coming top passer like Trevor Lawrence are almost gravy on the idea of showing the team that traded you for peanuts that they were wrong!

Jacksonville also does have some significant need at the position, at least in theory. They traded for Calvin Ridley during last year’s crazy trade deadline, but there are question marks on him after missing a full year due to suspension (and performing poorly on the leadup to said suspension, though from all accounts his mental health is in a much better place that it was 18 months ago). Zay Jones is, at best, an adequate WR3, and the depth behind them and Christian Kirk is abysmal. Hopkins allows everyone else to take on an easier role.

The problem? Jacksonville might not agree with me on that evaluation of their receiver room. With 13 receivers on the roster, they might well like their odds of hammering out a solid depth chart with players already under contract, believing in Jamal Agnew more than is likely healthy. In addition, they’re already spending gobs of money at the receiver position after they reset the market with Kirk’s deal last offseason. Do they want to pin even more money on a 30-year-old when they could instead address problems at pass rusher, or find room for extensions for Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Josh Allen, and so forth? I think it’s worth the pull – you’re in position to take control of the AFC South for the foreseeable future, so do what you can to maximize your chances now – but I’m not sure Jacksonville’s management is on board with me.

5. Baltimore Ravens

Before the Ravens signed Odell Beckham, they would have been higher on this list. Adding Beckham to their receiver room gives Lamar Jackson the best pass catching group he’s ever had in the NFL. And the fact that adding a 30-year-old who sat out all of last season recovering from an ACL tear, and was averaging a career-low in yards per reception last time he was healthy constitutes a major upgrade tells you how bad Jackson’s receiver corps have been.

Last season, the Ravens wide receivers were last in the NFL in targets and receiving yards, and near the bottom in receptions and touchdowns. They had only one touchdown reception from a wide receiver in the last 14 games of the year – that sounds like it should be a Baltimore Colts stat, not a Baltimore Ravens stat playing 21st-century football. Baltimore is relying on Beckham (coming off of an injury), Rashad Bateman (coming off of an injury) and first-round pick Zay Flowers to lead their receiving staff. Baltimore’s never had problems with injured players, right? I’m sure that will work perfectly.

That being said, Baltimore was poking around a trade for Hopkins earlier in the offseason, and instead went with Beckham, Flowers and Nelson Agholor as their upgrades. They’ve also just had to push a bunch of money into future years after signing Jackson to that massive extension. The fact that they no longer have to take on Hopkins’ massive contract means it’s worth reexamining him, but the fact that Baltimore has already made other plans at the position may bump their odds.

4. New Orleans Saints

Someone tie Mickey Loomis down before he can make moves again! Already $61.7 million over the cap for 2024, the Saints remain, as always, on the edge of financial collapse. They’ve been keeping all their juggling balls in the air for about four offseasons now, restructuring and pushing more and more money into the future. Analysts keep saying eventually everything will break, and they certainly have seen quality players leave because of lack of financial room, but they have yet to have the complete implosion many have predicted.

So the heck with it, spin the wheel one more time! At the moment, the Saints’ second receiver is projected to be Michael Thomas, who remains vaporware at the moment after playing just 10 games over the last three seasons due to injury. Behind him is Rashid Shaheed, who was forced into action late last season due to injuries and was very good (44.1% DVOA), but we’re talking about a UDFA with fewer than 300 career snaps – not exactly something guaranteed to repeat itself. If they can find a way to make salary cap magic happen, Hopkins would be a significant boon to a team that has a lot to gain from even a slight improvement.

The 2023 NFC South looks to be one of the weakest divisions in recent memory. The Saints, with Derek Carr at quarterback, have arguably the best position of any of the four teams at quarterback; it’s other spots on the roster that are dragging them down. Adding even one more offensive weapon might be enough to vault New Orleans over the rest of the pack, clinch that division title, and get into the postseason tournament. And from there, it’s anyone’s race.

3. Buffalo Bills

Honestly, the best reason the Bills have for trying to sign DeAndre Hopkins is that it means no one else will sign DeAndre Hopkins.

The Bills are tired of playing the bridesmaid, falling to the Chiefs and Bengals in the last three postseasons. They were reportedly one of the teams kicking the tires on a trade for Hopkins before he was released, only to be chased off by the financial ramifications. And while they have no need for a WR1 with Stefon Diggs in town, a top three of Diggs, Hopkins and Gabe Davis threatens any secondary in the AFC. Entering the offseason, the Bills did not have a larger need than receiver – Diggs got about 30% of Buffalo’s targets, receptions and receiving yards, as none of the receivers around him really stepped up. Davis and Khalil Shakir are fine in limited action, but Diggs needed a running mate just to add some variety to Buffalo’s offensive strategy.

Much like he would in the theoretical Minnesota deal, Hopkins would become arguably the most overqualified second receiver in football in Buffalo. And unlike with the Vikings, Hopkins would be working with an All-Pro-caliber quarterback in Josh Allen – the passer Hopkins listed first and foremost in his top five a week ago. It’s a fit that’s almost too good to be true. If Hopkins was available in April, Buffalo would be second on this list with a strong case for first.

Since then, however, Buffalo went ahead and drafted tight end Dalton Kincaid, who they see as filling that third pass-catcher role as they run more two-tight end sets. Signing Hopkins now pulls against what they’ve been setting up this offseason, and while you absolutely do that if Hopkins wants to come, it’s enough to at least throw a hitch into the opportunity. Buffalo’s also currently over the salary cap and would have to do some fairly gnarly restructures to make room for Hopkins. Again, it’s not a problem to do it if Buffalo wants to; going all-in makes sense when you’re competing for Super Bowl titles. It’s just not the cleanest possible move to bring him in, no matter how much it makes sense on paper.

2. Detroit Lions

This is my favorite landing spot for Hopkins, for sure. The Lions receiving corps is thin after Amon-Ra St. Brown, and he’s a slot guy. The idea, of course, is for last year’s first-round pick Jameson Williams to take on a significant role, but he missed most of 2022 with injury and is suspended for six weeks this season due to gambling. That’s a problem. The aging Marvin Jones returns, stepping back into a WR2 role while Williams is out, with Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond picking up more of the slack as well. There’s a clear spot for Hopkins to fit in here; he becomes their top outside receiver immediately and removes so much pressure on the aging Jones and the unproven Williams to succeed immediately.

And then there’s the financial aspect. The Lions can simply outbid any other contender. Only the Bears, Panthers and Cardinals have more cap space in 2023 than the Lions do, and none of them are competing for titles this season. If you include possible cap room from restructures, you can throw the Browns, Broncos, Colts, Raiders and Titans into the mix, but the Lions have a strong argument for being in the best situation that group of teams as well. Detroit is a team on the rise, Dan Campbell has his men pointed in the right direction, and they can back up the Brinks truck to Hopkins right now, rather than waiting a year. What’s not to love?

Well, it may be the quarterback. While Jared Goff has bounced back significantly in Detroit, he’s still several rungs below the level of passer Hopkins says he wants to play with. Especially if Detroit is offering a long term deal, Hopkins has to weigh the experience of playing with Goff over the potential of playing with a superstar. Will that weigh him down? It does enough to keep the Lions out of my top slot.

1. Kansas City Chiefs

If you want a Super Bowl, going to last year’s champs makes sense. If you want to have a quarterback who you can work magic with, working with Patrick Mahomes makes sense. If you want an offensive genius to scheme you up, working with Andy Reid makes sense.

The Chiefs’ top wide receiver right now is probably Marquez Valdes-Scantling, with Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore rounding out their top three. No Chiefs receiver caught more than four touchdown passes a year ago. They lost JuJu Smith-Schuster, who really isn’t WR1 caliber anyway. They get by despite the loss of Tyreek Hill due to Mahomes being fantastic and the offense being very well designed, but a player of Hopkins’ caliber makes everything easier. The need is there, the fit is there, what’s not to love?

The one even potential hold up here is the financial situation, with the Chiefs over the cap at the moment, but even that’s not a huge deal. Mahomes’ contract is about as team-friendly a deal as a $450 million contract could possibly be; a simple restructure there could open up nearly $24 million in 2023 which would be more than enough to fit Hopkins under the cap. And that’s far from Kansas City’s only possible move to open up space; they actually have the 10th-most potential space after restructures in the league. The only real contenders who could open up more space are the Lions and 49ers, and the Mahomes factor should be more than enough to push the Chiefs over the top if they really want Hopkins. Maybe the finances would make it just a one-year deal for Hopkins, but even that might work to his benefit – go, get a ring, play well, and then break the bank next offseason.

Either way, Kansas City is the destination to beat in this race.