FOXBORO -- DeAndre Hopkins is annually one of the NFL's top receivers. Has been for several years now. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2015 and was a Second Team All-Pro selection that year. He's been a First Team All-Pro and Pro Bowler each of the last two seasons.
It's been more of the same from Houston's No. 1 wideout in 2019. Only New Orleans' Michael Thomas has more targets (122) and receptions (104) than Hopkins (111, 81). Only six receivers have more touchdowns than Hopkins (six). Only three receivers with at least eight games under their belts have better Pro Football Focus grades than Hopkins.
As Bill Belichick explained on Wednesday, Hopkins is about as sound a player as you'll find at that position.
"I think he defines the NFL receiver," Belichick said. "If you open 'NFL receiver' in the dictionary, just put his picture next to it. Gets open and catches the ball. Doesn't matter what the route is, doesn't matter what the coverage is, where the ball is thrown, or what the situation is."
Hopkins, more so than any other Texans weapon, is responsible for quarterback Deshaun Watson having been in the MVP conversation for much of this season. Houston's young quarterback is third in completion percentage (69 percent), eighth in yards per attempt (8.0), sixth in rating (103.4) and he has a 20-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. As he's leaned on his go-to receiver, he's excelled.
"As good as there is," Belichick said of Hopkins. "He's got tremendous ball skills. He's long. Great judgement. Great timing to be able to go up and get the ball. Makes some extended catches that -- I don't know how many guys other than him could make them. He's got good hands. Good timing. Strong hands. He creates separation with his quickness, his physical size, his length.
"He's really never covered because there's always some place you can put the ball and he can catch it. He has the hands to catch it. Very hard guy to stop . . . He's clearly one of the top guys in the league. He gets a lot of coverage and still has an enormous amount of production."
While Belichick's praise for Hopkins is noteworthy, that Hopkins falls into the category of "really never covered" is especially interesting. That's typically reserved for the best (and biggest) targets the Patriots face.
Ahead of their matchup with Calvin Johnson and the Lions back in 2014, Belichick was similarly complimentary.
"He's a really hard guy to defend because of his size and his catching radius," Belichick said at the time. "He's always open, even when he's covered. There's always a place to put the ball where he can catch it."
That description would seem to render one of Belichick's pillars of quality receiver play moot. For years, he's boiled down a wideout's job to a pair of responsibilities: 1) get open; 2) catch the football.
But in the instances where you're "never covered," like Hopkins -- or if you're "always open, even when [you're] covered," like Johnson -- it seems as though Belichick's two pillars are sometimes reduced to one.
Catch the football.
Hopkins is a potential Hall of Famer. Johnson is a lock. They are rare talents. But the conversation around the importance of separation at that position is a fascinating one because it relates back to the player the Patriots selected in the first round in the spring.
N'Keal Harry is only two games into his pro career and he just caught his first touchdown pass on Sunday. Pease don't mistake his inclusion in this discussion as a comparison to Hopkins or Johnson or any other physically-imposing target the Patriots have faced who've garnered Belichickian praise.
But when it comes to having the ability to be "open," even when you're covered, that seems to be one of the primary reasons the Patriots drafted Harry when they did.
Harry's game is not about separation. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, there are plenty of receivers who are quicker than Harry and can uncover more quickly than him. The Patriots have had success with those smaller, shiftier types for two decades going back to Troy Brown (who's now coaching Harry as a Patriots assistant).
But at the time of the draft, it sounded as though the Patriots invested a premium pick in Harry in part because he was a contested-catch marvel at Arizona State.
Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio explained at the time that coverage is so good in this day and age that players simply have to be equipped to make those types of plays because the "get open" pillar of playing the position is getting harder and harder to achieve.
"I would say that one of the things he does well is he plays the ball in the air," Caserio said after selecting Harry. "I'd say the coverage in this league is tight, regardless of the type of player or receiver that you are. The coverage is tight. You're going to have to make some plays in some tight quarters. Receivers have to do it. Tight ends have to do it. I mean, James White, I know he plays running back, but he's involved in the passing game, [he has to do it].
"The windows are smaller, the catches are going to be more contested. If a player has the ability to do that, that's maybe one of his strengths. It was one of Rob [Gronkowski]'s strengths. He can make contested catches. Everybody has something that they do well . . . They have to maximize the attributes that they have."
While Harry's contested-catch ability was on display against the Cowboys -- he connected on a tight back-shoulder throw with Tom Brady to notch his first score as a pro -- making a living as someone who purely relies on contested catches is difficult.
When I asked Belichick about receivers who are "always open" because of their size and contested-catch prowess, he said it would make life pretty difficult on quarterbacks if they had to test tight windows down after down.
Someone like Hopkins, for instance, is as good as he is partly because he has the ability to make contested catches. But he can also get open and create real separation with other attributes like quickness, physicality and instincts.
"If the quarterback has got to thread the needle every time he throws him the ball, it's hard to do that," Belichick said. "This isn't baseball. There's a pass-rush. There are a lot of good quarterbacks that make a lot of good throws, but if you make it hard enough on them they're not gonna hit all of them. Even the best ones."
Odds are, even though Harry wasn't a big-time separator at the college level, the Patriots feel as though he can create separation in ways that would be different than the way in which Julian Edelman or Deion Branch or Troy Brown would.
A subtle push-off here, a box-out on a comeback route there . . .
Those are ways Gronkowski used to create separation for Brady in the past. Harry has the ability to get physical at the tops of routes as well. We saw that in training camp and in his brief preseason appearance in August. He used a slight extension of the arms to go up and get his back-shoulder score against the Cowboys. Later in the same game, he ran a deep comeback route and separated from his defender by throwing on the brakes quickly about 20 yards down the field and working back to the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots probably wouldn't have taken Harry at pick No. 32 if they felt he would not be able to get open at the NFL level. It may not necessarily be one of his greatest strengths at the moment, but as Belichick noted, asking a quarterback -- even one as accurate as Brady -- to "thread the needle" time and again, would be asking a lot. When Brady does thread the needle in Harry's direction, though, his size and contested-catch skill makes him a threat.
Harry flashed that skill on Sunday. Even if he never approaches the level of someone like Hopkins, if he can be relied upon to use that skill regularly, if he can learn to use his strengths to get open occasionally, he's not a bad bet to make good on the first-round pick the Patriots used to select him.
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