If anyone can explain what the hell the Texans are doing, please speak up now. After the NFL’s free agency negotiating window opened on Monday afternoon, it took Houston about an hour to make one of the most inexplicable, baffling, and condemnable moves of the modern era. For reasons that remain unclear, the Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins (yep, that one) and a fourth-round pick to the Cardinals for David Johnson, a second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick. Take a second to let that sink in. No, really, take your time. I know it’s a lot to process. Everyone good? OK, let’s discuss.
As John Mulaney would say, we don’t have time to unpack all of this—but here are a few fun facts about the trade. The Texans will pay every penny of Johnson’s albatross $11.2 million deal this year—a figure that’s only about $1.3 million less than Hopkins would have counted against the cap this season. So, to review, Houston received a second-round pick and the NFL’s third-most-expensive running back—who was benched last year for a guy the Dolphins didn’t want—for the best receiver in the world. Sounds about right.
Before completely Nuking this deal, I want to explore some potential galaxy-brain explanations for why Bill O’Brien deemed this a good idea. In the aftermath of the trade, the Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson reported that there was “friction” between Hopkins and O’Brien for much of last season—a sentiment that’s since been confirmed by multiple outlets. Despite all that “friction,” Hopkins still finished the year with 104 catches for 1,165 yards and was voted first-team All-Pro. A guy this talented should be forgiven for anything short of a full-scale Moxon-Kilmer rebellion.
Some speculated that dealing Hopkins was the only way Houston could recoup some of the considerable draft capital that O’Brien has traded away during his short reign—which is nonsensical on about five different levels. Trading an All-Pro receiver to make up for the picks you lost in other ill-advised deals solves one problem by creating another. It’s counterproductive to trade Hopkins for a pick that has a minuscule chance to produce a player like Hopkins. Even if the Texans had managed to secure a first-round pick in the deal, it wouldn’t have been worth it. Instead, they got an absurdly expensive running back and a second-round pick. And it happened on the same day that San Francisco received a first-rounder from the Colts for DeForest Buckner—who also got a market-setting new contract in the process.
Another explanation for the deal, put forth by legendary Chronicle writer John McClain, is that Hopkins wanted a new contract and Houston had no intention of renegotiating with three years left on his current deal. Since other star receivers, such as Michael Thomas and Julio Jones, cashed in deals worth more than $20 million a year last summer, the new CBA will likely bring in a wave of available cap space in the coming years, and no guaranteed money remains on Hopkins’s deal, it seems pretty reasonable that he’d ask for a new contract. Yet rather than ponying up for—and let me emphasize this again—the game’s best receiver, the Texans decided to hand extensions to guys like Nick Martin, Bradley Roby, and Whitney Mercilus before trading Hopkins away for pennies on the dollar. Nothing about this deal jives with the win-now moves that O’Brien has made in the past year. Each decision seems to come on a whim, completely untethered from the choices that have preceded it, and totally unrelated to the choices that will follow it. And that speaks to the root of the problem in Houston right now.
When news broke last summer that—after firing general manager Brian Gaine—Houston planned to go without a GM and would empower O’Brien to control the roster, I responded with a healthy amount of skepticism. A team that had Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt, and—at that point—Jadeveon Clowney should have been doing everything possible to maximize its roster and compete for a Super Bowl. Entrusting franchise-changing decisions to a head coach with no personnel experience while other front offices worked around the clock to find every possible advantage seemed … less than ideal. Both Texans fans and some football folks I trust told me I was overreacting—that with cap specialist Chris Olsen doling out the money and several other staffers in place to check O’Brien’s power, Houston’s front office would operate with a by-committee approach. To recap, here are some of the trades that committee had made before Monday’s doozy: Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle for a third-round pick (and picking up $7 million of his salary as part of the deal); two first-round picks and a second-round pick to Miami for Laremy Tunsil (who still needs a massive contract) and Kenny Stills; a fourth-rounder (which eventually turned into a third-rounder) to Cleveland in exchange for Duke Johnson; and a third-round pick for Raiders first-round flameout Gareon Conley. To go along with those deals, Houston also agreed to extensions with Martin, Mercilus, Roby, and tight end Darren Fells.
For the most part, that collection of moves—wild as it may seem—makes sense. So does Houston’s firing of Olsen back in January. The moment the Texans decided to operate with a ghost GM, it was clear that O’Brien had always been running the show. With a head coach in charge, people should have expected a flurry of new deals for players O’Brien likes and aggressive trades that disregarded value or prudent team-building strategies. Collectively, those moves might not have been smart, but at least they shared the same motivation. O’Brien clearly wanted to shape the Texans’ roster in his image and get this team ready to win right now. That was the message he sent from the moment he took control. And that attitude is what makes the Hopkins deal so damn weird.
If the hostility between Hopkins and his head coach had reached a critical level, then banishing him to the desert does qualify as another O’Brien-centric move. But the deal works in total contrast to Houston’s previous timeline. Whenever Will Fuller was injured (which he often is), the Hopkins-Watson connection formed the basis of the Texans’ entire offense. When the scheme broke down (which it often did), that duo was forced to conjure one magical play after another to sustain drives and manufacture points.
It’s difficult to fully illustrate just how valuable Hopkins was to Houston’s offense. Watson is a top-five quarterback and perpetual MVP candidate in the right situation, but the Texans are starting to drift dangerously close to Russell Wilson territory. Asking Watson to be Superman without the proper scheme and personnel to elevate him borders on football malpractice. To make matters worse, dealing Hopkins essentially means that Houston is punting the final cheap year of Watson’s rookie deal. Watson will carry a $4.4 million cap hit this season, and a gargantuan extension is on the horizon. No matter what type of receiving help the Texans add this offseason, their passing offense is almost sure to fall off without Hopkins. And starting next year, Watson’s price tag will take a significant jump. Houston’s window to build around one of the league’s best young quarterbacks during his bargain years is now closed.
The Texans won’t be bad this season. Watson is too talented for that to happen. Fuller and Stills should still form a solid receiving tandem if they can stay healthy. Houston should stay afloat in the AFC. But that was never the goal. Coming off a playoff appearance, Houston was supposed to use its ocean of cap space to make a few shrewd additions to a depleted defense and ride its high-powered passing game to the postseason once again. Instead, the Texans will enter the 2020 season looking like more of a middling team than at any point in Watson’s career. O’Brien’s previous moves may have been reckless and shortsighted, but nearly all of them made the Texans better as the franchise tried to exploit its championship window. There’s no such rationalization for the Hopkins trade. Houston is worse off now than it was on Monday morning, with barely anything to show for it. If O’Brien and the Texans had a plan, that plan doesn’t really matter anymore.