NFL 25 at 25 is FanRag Sports’ rankings of the top 25 players in the NFL age 25 and younger, as voted on by 15 members of the FRS staff.
No. 13: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Fewer than 80 catches, less than 1,000 yards and a mere four touchdowns don’t make up quite the season that should land a young receiver on a list like this. Amari Cooper and Jarvis Landry already came up, ranked 15th and 23rd, respectively. Cooper had 200 more yards than Hopkins in 2016 on 19 fewer targets. Landry had 16 more catches and 182 more yards on 20 fewer targets. The two receivers left to come on our 2017 25 at 25 rankings combined for 197 catches, 2,688 yards and 22 touchdowns this past season. Yet Hopkins is absolutely deserving of his place here, and could probably blame Brock Osweiler for not being closer to the top spot.
Hopkins was taken 27th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. There were 11 players drafted ahead of him that are no longer with the teams that originally selected them, and that doesn’t include E.J. Manuel. He was the second receiver drafted that year after Tavon Austin was scooped up by the Rams 19 spots earlier. The Rams employ one of the worst groups of receivers in the league seemingly on a perennial basis. Austin is the poster boy for that status (and to make matters worse, the Rams decided to add the title of “terrible contract” to “top-10 bust” when they extended him).
As we’ve seen in other selections for the 25 at 25 guys, hindsight is indeed 20/20. Even at the time, Hopkins wasn’t a sure thing in any way. He looked dominant his final year at Clemson, catching 18 touchdowns, but didn’t run well at the NFL Combine. And although he showed great ability to go up and get the ball didn’t quite measure up as big as he looks on film.
Austin may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but there weren’t too many people crowing for Hopkins as a top-10 pick. Even after his rookie year, he seemed like he would just be like any other nondescript second receiver. Andre Johnson was still close to the peak of his powers, and many would have guessed Hopkins was just another in a long list of names who failed to take advantage of the opportunity to play across from one of the most dominant receivers in the NFL.
That perception flipped quickly. He only scored twice as a rookie, but plays like the one above showed how valuable he could be to a quarterback. Despite not possessing game-breaking speed, he always seemed to be able to create space for himself, and required such little space to make contested catches.
He established himself as a force in Year 2, catching 76 passes for over 1,200 yards and six touchdowns. That same year, Johnson followed up his 109-catch, 1,400-plus-yard season with his worst healthy season as a pro to that point. That would prove to be his final season in Houston, despite being the greatest player in franchise history. Hopkins was good enough that the organization and fan base were able to move on from a local legend without looking back.
In that next year, the great people of Houston were rewarded. Hopkins thrived as the unquestioned top option on the offense, catching 111 passes on an absurd 192 targets, more than 31.0 percent of the total passes attempted by the team. The wording “by the team” is key there, because Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden each had significant time under center. He went over 1,500 yards and scored 11 times despite that. Johnson’s further drop off with the Colts was only further validation that Hopkins was leading a new era of NFL receivers.
Not only did Hopkins establish himself as one of the elite players in the league, he became the face of what is probably now Wide Receiver University as the first in the current line of Clemson wideouts who are among the most highly-touted young pass catchers in the league (apologies to Jacoby Ford and Chansi Stuckey). Hopkins stands a head above the rest still, with Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and 2017 first-round pick Mike Williams below him. Deon Cain is looking to be the next first-round pick to add to the list.
The Brock Osweiler experiment was a failure. The Texans made the playoffs, but the offense was punchless and Hopkins wasn’t able to come close to the dominance he showed the previous two seasons. Last offseason, the staff at FanRag Sports ranked Hopkins seventh on this same list. The lackluster season widened the gap between him and a more recognizable name like Odell Beckham Jr., who was only three spots higher a year ago. Hopkins is a competent quarterback away from being back in that discussion. Beckham does some incredible things, but so does Hopkins and he does that without nearly the talent throwing to him.
He is already 25 years old and this is his final year of eligibility for this list. I can only imagine how much higher he would have been if he had played with a better quarterback. Hopefully, Deshaun Watson can bring him back to the player he was in 2015. Even if he is stuck with replacement-level quarterbacks, he has put up All-Pro seasons before and has the potential to do it again.
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