DeAndre Slotkins: Will Cardinals keep opponents guessing with WR Hopkins?

Oct 24, 2022, 11:05 AM

Arizona Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, at State Farm Stadium as his team ...

Arizona Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, at State Farm Stadium as his team played against the New Orleans Saints. (Arizona Sports Photo/Jeremy Schnell)

(Arizona Sports Photo/Jeremy Schnell)

It’s one game into the DeAndre Hopkins-is-available portion of the Arizona Cardinals’ schedule and definitely too early to make grand declarations.

Still, what a 42-34 win against the New Orleans Saints on Thursday did was confirm the general expectation.

Hopkins playing for the Cardinals makes their offense palatable, perhaps even good.

But how he debuted in the middle of the season will do more than make teams gameplan for him like they did in 2020 and 2021. At least, that’s what Arizona hopes.

If the Cardinals do it right, they could force opponents to rethink how their offense implements Hopkins and the other new pieces at receiver.

For those needing a refresher, this chart from Sharp Football Analysis is how head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s scheme used Hopkins during the receiver’s first season on the team, when he and a still-learning Kyler Murray were getting in a groove.

Maybe that was about simplifying the game for Murray, giving him an fairly easy handling of what a defense would do on Hopkins’ half of the field. Then all the quarterback had to read was coverage on the other side.

But now, Murray is being paid like a star. He’s caught up and has a decent archive of defensive coverages in terms of experience.

Against New Orleans in Hopkins’ 2022 debut, it wasn’t the usual, predictable lining up on the left outside space for Hopkins. He was all over the place.

Hopkins did the following:

— Played 27 snaps in the slot, 17 more in a single game than he’s ever recorded (PFF’s Mike Renner).

— That 46% of slot routes in his 2022 debut compares to the 12% or less in every one of 26 regular season games in 2020-21 (NBC’s Mike Florio).

— Caught passes from four different alignments (left outside, left slot, right slot, right outside). Hopkins didn’t even record a target in the right slot in 560 regular season snaps last season (NextGenStats).

This is what that looked like visually:

Never one to give too much away, Kingsbury after the win against the Saints did not commit long-term to Hopkins moving around.

“It’ll be gameplan to gameplan,” the coach told reporters Friday. “Like I said, we’re going to see how we can utilize Robbie (Anderson), as well as these other pieces we have, and go from there. We just got to keep being creative in ways that we use all these weapons we have … and making sure we’re doing things they do well.”

That’s the other factor in all this. Against New Orleans, veteran A.J. Green for the first time this year didn’t play, indicating Hopkins will feature alongside trade acquisition Robbie Anderson, second-year pro Rondale Moore in a bigger role and reliable and rising jitterbug Greg Dortch.

According to PFF’s Nathan Jahnke, the Cardinals used Moore on the outside when he and Hopkins were playing with Dortch.

Moore moving outside at times and Dortch being productive adds another layer to how Hopkins is utilized if Anderson is a take-the-top-off deep threat on the opposite side.

And eventually, the Cardinals hope to reinstate injured Hollywood Brown into the room.

Which is all to say, Kingsbury has the pieces to get more creative than he has been — a big piece to the criticism that’s followed the head coach into this 3-4 start.

In the first game with Hopkins, the play-caller indicated he’ll operate with such creativity. It’s now about finding out if that holds up in the mid- and back-portion of the Cardinals’ schedule as defensive coordinators try to catch up.

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