How DeAndre Hopkins is improving his YAC with the Arizona Cardinals

Oct 2, 2020, 10:50 AM | Updated: 1:39 pm

DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Arizona Cardinals runs with the ball against the Washington Football Tea...

DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Arizona Cardinals runs with the ball against the Washington Football Team at State Farm Stadium on September 20, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

DeAndre Hopkins built a reputation with the Houston Texans as a physical, wiry receiver who leaned on his big mitts and route-running to make up for any lack of speed or height.

Part of that package was his streetball style after the catch, where his shake in tight quarters got him loose for extra yardage. His Arizona Cardinals head coach and quarterback believe that’s always been part of Hopkins’ game.

Hopkins, however, thought he had room to get even better. And so far, he’s making the case that was true.

He leads the NFL in receptions (32) and receiving yards (356) through Week 3 while averaging 5.3 yards after the catch, according to NextGenStats.

“My offseason training I would really say is the main part of that,” Hopkins said. “The way I train, my balance and how I prepare, I’m able to make those cuts on one leg, when defenders are running full speed, and able to stop on a dime.

“Yards after catch is something I wanted to get better at going into this season. Something that I seen was low, but (Cardinals coach) Kliff (Kingsbury) put me in position to be able to do those things, make plays with the ball and put me one-on-one. It’s not just me but the blocking.”

While it’s been only three games with the Cardinals, Hopkins is already being used very differently under Kingsbury compared to how he was utilized with Houston and coach Bill O’Brien. Maybe the only similarity so far is that his new team is just as reliant on Hopkins as his old one.

Here’s what that looks like visually. The charts below compare Hopkins’ performance in his final game with Houston, a divisional round playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and his game for the Cardinals last week against the Detroit Lions (you can see the similar visual differences between all his charts in Arizona and Houston here).

(Graphics via NextGenStats)

There’s a lot more green indicating yards after the catch this year with Arizona.

Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray is targeting Hopkins when the receiver is an average of 6.7 yards downfield, which is 3.3 yards fewer than he was targeted last year with the Texans. And last year was a career low for targeted air yards since NextGenStats has tracked the metric dating back to 2016.

Many of Hopkins’ plays are starting behind the line of scrimmage, a feature of the Air Raid offense in the college game that isn’t so translatable to the NFL.

Hopkins’ unique skillset makes it possible.

“He may not be the fastest guy on the field,” Kingsbury said. “He has a unique way of, in open space, making people miss. He runs with power to finish things and finish downhill. It’s definitely an added, nice dimension to our offense, but he’s been doing that his entire career.”

Hopkins is making due with that because opposing defenders this year are giving him an average of a 7.4-yard cushion at the snap, according to NextGenStats.

Part of that is about defenses sitting back and letting Murray, who is still learning in his second season, hit underneath routes. It’s probably also about not letting Hopkins beat cornerbacks deep.

Under those conditions, Hopkins is thriving.

Thus far, the new scenery has made him the NFL’s most prolific receiver in terms of total yardage, yards per route run (2.68 is tied with Panthers WR Robby Anderson) and PFF grade (Hopkins’ 89.4 grade is 3.1 points better than the current runner-up, the Falcons’ Calvin Ridley).

Hopkins’ 167 yards after the catch this year ranks fourth in the NFL, behind two running backs and Washington receiver Terry McLaurin.

While Hopkins thinks he’s improved with a focus on YAC this offseason, his quarterback thought he already had that juice.

“When you watch his highlights before he got here, a guy that everybody obviously says, ‘Oh, he’s not a 4.3 guy,’ this, that and whatever. He catches the ball, he makes stuff happen,” Murray said. “He catches contested catches, he separates. If there isn’t really that much separation, he can catch any ball thrown to him.

“It’s hard to stop a guy like that. To his credit, he’s very slippery after the catch.”

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