With the sports world at a collective standstill because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all eyes have turned to NFL free agency, which has continued operations as scheduled without player physical exams. With this increased scrutiny on the NFL, it is not exactly the best time to bungle a blockbuster trade, as seen in the case of Houston Texans Head Coach and General Manager Bill O’Brien.
On March 16, the Texans traded star receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals. In return, the Texans received running back David Johnson along with a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick. Almost immediately, fans and analysts alike criticized Houston for parting ways with debatably the best receiver in the NFL. Trading away Hopkins is another mistake in the series of missteps under the direction of O’Brien.
Hopkins is a three-time All-Pro selection who has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in five of his seven seasons as a Texan. A franchise should never willingly part with a generational talent like Hopkins, but that seems to be exactly what Houston did. Besides a second-round pick, all the Texans got for Hopkins was Johnson, a 28-year-old running back with a history of knee injuries. Last season, the Cardinals benched a healthy Johnson in favor of an unspectacular running back in Kenyan Drake, who ranked 19th among running backs in the league with an average of 58.36 rushing yards per game.
It is not as if the market for wide receivers is weak either. The same day the Hopkins trade became official, the Minnesota Vikings dealt receiver Stefon Diggs and a seventh-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for the 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft, 2020 fifth-round and sixth-round picks, and a 2021 fourth-round pick. Just by looking at statistics, there is not a convincing argument that Diggs is worth more than Hopkins. Hopkins has made five Pro Bowls; Diggs has none to his name. Even still, the Vikings made off with a better return than did the Texans, headlined by a valuable first-round pick this April in a league in which first-round picks are rarely traded in exchange for active players.
Perhaps more comparable to Hopkins is Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Last off-season, the New York Giants traded Beckham to the Browns in a deal that sent the Browns’ first-round pick as well as a second third-round pick and safety Jabrill Peppers, a first-round pick in 2017, to the Giants. At the time of the trade, Beckham had been selected to three Pro Bowls and recorded four 1,000-yard seasons in his first five years in the professional league. When dealing Hopkins, the Texans should have demanded a package resembling or exceeding that which the Giants received for Beckham last off-season.
The stunning Hopkins trade is one of the Texans’ first major moves since O’Brien was named the team’s full-time general manager Jan. 28. In the days following the trade, reports surfaced regarding the circumstances surrounding Hopkins’ exit from Houston, where he has played his whole career. On March 18, former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin told ESPN that Hopkins had confided in him about a rift that had developed between him and O’Brien, though Hopkins later reaffirmed his respect for O’Brien. According to Irvin, O’Brien compared Hopkins to Aaron Hernandez, a former tight end for the New York Patriots who was tried and convicted for first-degree murder in 2015 before taking his own life in 2017. Irvin also claimed that O’Brien criticized Hopkins for having children with multiple women. While confirmation of the validity of these ugly rumors would certainly warrant O’Brien’s dismissal, he should be on the hot seat regardless.
Although O’Brien has had success as a head coach, the Texans have never been able to take the next step as a franchise. During his six-year tenure, Houston has finished above .500 all but once. During that same period, however, the Texans have just two postseason wins, both on a Wild Card Weekend. Those two victories came against the Oakland Raiders in 2017 and the Buffalo Bills this season, who are not exactly the cream of the crop in the AFC, as evidenced by their three combined postseason appearances in the past six years.
While simply making the playoffs would be cause for celebration for some franchises, the Texans should not settle. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is among the best young quarterbacks in a league flourishing with young talent in its most important position. Fortunately for the Texans, Watson still has one year remaining on his 2017 rookie contract, under which he is owed less than $4 million this year. For comparison, 33 NFL quarterbacks make at least $5 million in average salary and 21 make $20 million or more. The Texans would be wise to take advantage of this narrow window before they are forced to pay a hefty sum to keep Watson in a Houston uniform.
Watson was drafted in 2017, just two picks after the Kansas City Chiefs selected Patrick Mahomes. While both quarterbacks have ascended the ranks of the NFL’s best, it is Mahomes’ Chiefs that have had greater team success. Since being named the starter in 2018, the Chiefs have had back-to-back 12-4 seasons, ultimately taking home the Lombardi Trophy in February.
I honestly don’t think Mahomes is any more talented than Watson is — Mahomes has simply been put in a situation that is more conducive to success. The Chiefs’ front office has capitalized on Mahomes’ rookie contract, using the extra salary cap room to surround Mahomes with talent on both sides of the football. Under the direction of a future Hall of Fame coach in Andy Reid, the Chiefs won their first Super Bowl in 50 years while the Texans remain empty-handed in their efforts.
With Hopkins, Watson and several key pieces on defense, including three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and until last year Jadeveon Clowney, the Texans should have been looking to make the jump to a championship-caliber team. Instead, as a result of the Hopkins trade, the franchise appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Coming off two straight 10-win seasons, I see no chance for this year’s team to live up to expectations. By season’s end, I’d be surprised and disappointed if O’Brien is still calling the shots for the Houston Texans.