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DeAndre Hopkins Is the Big-Play Receiver Kyler Murray Needed

The Cardinals fleeced the Texans in a trade to acquire the veteran wide receiver in the offseason. He didn’t disappoint in his debut, with a career-high 14 catches in a win over the 49ers.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The most pass-happy offense in the league added arguably the best wide receiver in football this offseason. Why didn’t we make a bigger deal out of that? It’s such an obvious, perfect marriage—imagine not taking DeAndre Hopkins in the first round of your fantasy drafts.

In his first game in a Cardinals uniform, Hopkins fulfilled all of the promise Arizona saw in him when they acquired him from the Texans and then some. Playing against the reigning NFC champion 49ers on Sunday, Hopkins almost casually set a career high, with 14 receptions as part of his gaudy stat line. He finished with 151 yards and nearly had a touchdown too, but was ruled just short of the goal line:

This play is indicative of how Hopkins will thrive in Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid–styled scheme. As Chris B. Brown pointed out, this is a classic “mesh” concept, something that quarterback Kyler Murray ran regularly in college. With two receivers running crossing routes past each other over the middle of the field—in this case, Hopkins and tight end Dan Arnold—it’s easy for defenders playing man coverage to rub against each other, creating an opening on offense. Against zone coverage, these crossing receivers can find holes in the defense. In this case, the 49ers just had a major miscommunication on defense and forgot to cover Hopkins, which is something I don’t recommend doing.

Hopkins ended the day with more than 50 percent of Arizona’s intended air yards, showing how the Cardinals offense relied on their new playmaker in Week 1. He had 16 targets on the day—notching an impressive 87.5 percent catch rate—while no other player on the team had more than five, justifying the two-year, $54.5 million extension the Cardinals awarded him on September 8. Murray finished the game with 230 passing yards, meaning Hopkins accounted for nearly two-thirds of the team’s performance through the air. In short, Hopkins picked the 49ers apart. Last season, Murray showed flashes of his potential but all too often couldn’t string together consistent play—having a reliable wideout like Hopkins to lean on should help with that.

Week 1 performances don’t always become seasonlong trends—and Hopkins likely won’t average 151 yards per week—but it’s worth emphasizing that he did this against one of the best defenses in football. The 49ers were no. 2 in defensive DVOA in 2019, and were also no. 2 in pass defense DVOA. Their stifling unit is led by a stacked defensive line with last season’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, and their secondary is anchored by perennial Pro Bowler Richard Sherman. That defense led this squad to a 13-3 regular-season record and a Super Bowl appearance—but the Cardinals and Hopkins had the upper hand on Sunday, winning 24-20 in Santa Clara.

The trade that netted Arizona Hopkins was always a steal for the Cardinals. But you’d have been forgiven for thinking he couldn’t be this good this quickly. Perhaps you figured Kingsbury and Murray had plans to spread the ball around, utilizing three- and four-wide receivers on many plays, rather than force-feeding one. Or that Hopkins could be a bit like Odell Beckham Jr. in Cleveland, who arrived with great hype to the Browns but had his worst year as a pro in 2019 as he adjusted to a new team. And with an offseason program affected by coronavirus, expectations for all players on new teams were held in check.

But none of that applied to Hopkins on Sunday. One of the league’s most extraordinarily talented pass catchers joined a team that wants to throw the ball all over the yard. There really shouldn’t have been much to overthink.