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Not a reach to call Nuk one of the best players in the NFL

Not a reach to call Nuk one of the best players in the NFL

Last year, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones were the best wide receivers in the NFL. But DeAndre Hopkins was was in a small group of receivers after those two vying for the title of third best wideout. And when it comes to relying on one player, well, Hopkins really stands out among the pack.

Last year, Jones had 40.7% of all Falcons receiving yards, highest rate in the league. That was followed by Brown at 38.0%, and then Hopkins at 37.3%. After him, Brandon Marshall was at 36.0%, and Odell Beckham was a distant fifth at 32.2%. And at just 23 years old, Hopkins obviously has a very bright future ahead of him.

Since 1970, there have been 132 player seasons where a player had at least 35.0% of his team’s receiving yards. But as you’d suspect, it’s rarely done by a player as young as Hopkins. The bar graph below shows how many players at each age have hit that mark since the Merger:

hopkins age

The 22-year-old? That was Josh Gordon, whose career obviously took a very negative turn after his breakout year in 2013. Hopkins was the 11th player who was 23 years old. The first 10?

  • Calvin Johnson in 2008 had 40.3% of the Lions receiving yards.
  • Brandon Marshall in ’07 had 35.2% of the Broncos receiving yards.
  • Anquan Boldin, as a rookie in 2003 had 42.2% of the Cardinals receiving yards.
  • Two years earlier, David Boston had 43.7% of Arizona’s receiving yards.
  • In 2000, Randy Moss had 35.8% of the Vikings receiving yards.
  • In 1995, Isaac Bruce had 43.3% of the Rams receiving yards.

With the exception of Boston, whose career faded arguably due to non-football reasons, that’s a pretty excellent set of comparisons if you are a DeAndre Hopkins fan.  There were four players who met the threshold in the ’70s, ((There were none between ’79 and ’94) and that set of comparables is a little less exciting.

  • Jets wideout Wesley Walker was a big play threat who led the NFL in both receiving yards (1,169) and yards per catch (24.4!) in 1978, his second year in the league.  Walker was a very good player for a long time, but his career would be a disappointing outcome for Hopkins.
  • Drew Pearson was an All-Pro at age 23 in 1974, and he was an All-Pro against in ’76 and ’77.  Pearson is commonly cited as one of the best receivers not in the HOF, and was a legitimately excellent player.
  • Randy Vataha was a star wide receiver at Stanford with Jim Plunkett, and while Plunkett was drafted by the Patriots with the first overall pick in ’71, Vataha was a 17th round pick of the Rams.  He was cut in the preaseason, and resurfaced with Plunkett in New England.  As a 23-year-old rookie, he was legitimately excellent, catching 51 passes for 872 yards and 9 touchdowns.  But Vataha never matched any of those totals ever again.
  • The 49ers Gene Washington was a very good player, and was truly dominant in ’70 as a 23-year-old. He did make earn another All-Pro nod in ’72, but again, I think it would be slightly disappointing to Houston fans if that’s how his career turned out. Washington made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons, but those were the only Pro Bowl honors of his career.

Regular readers know that I have been high on Hopkins for awhile.  And while not intentional, the cut-offs used today are a bit misleading.  You may recall that two years ago, in 2014, Hopkins led the NFL in percentage of team receiving yards.  He finished the year with 34.97% of all Texans receiving yards, so he would join Gordon as the only 22-year-olds on the list if we lowered our threshold fro 35.00% to 34.97%.

Even more remarkable: through 14 games that year, Hopkins was at 38.6% of Houston’s receiving yards.  Case Keenum started the final two games of the year, and depressed Hopkins’ numbers, but we now have back-to-back years of Hopkins basically carrying the Texans aerial attack (and Andre Johnson was still hogging targets in ’14).  And he did it at ages 22 and 23.  He’s played with some really bad quarterbacks, which is why I like to look at percentage of team receiving yards in addition to just raw metrics.  The ceiling is insanely high for Hopkins, and the Texans would be wise to lock him up for as long as they can, as soon as they can.

  • Josh Sanford

    I completely agree with you that Hopkins’s ceiling is high. Great hands, good routes, fast and strong–there’s no reason that he doesn’t succeed. However, I would bet against his ability to maintain his ‘percentage of team receiving yards’ for this reason: the Texans think that Osweiler is an NFL QB, and they probably want/plan/expect him to throw the ball to different places on the field. With the clowns that Osweiler is replacing–I assume the team was satisfied with them just throwing it to the best guy on the team most plays.

    • Thanks, Josh. For what it’s worth, Nuk is “only” getting 10 targets a game. Over the last 2 years, he has 29% of Texans targets, 29% of Texans receptions, 33% of Texans TDs, and 36% of Texans yards. Better QB play probably will drive up everyone’s numbers, but it’s far from certain that it will hurt Nuk — after all, look at Brown/Jones. Of course, some RTTM should be factored in, too, which would hurt Nuk’s ratio.

  • Clint

    Who was the 34 year old player on the graph?

    • It has to be Galloway, right? About 1300 yards for the Simms/Griese Bucs.

      • Galloway had 40.5% of their receiving yards that year, so it would appear to be him.
        The 35-year-olds appear to be Jimmy Smith with Jacksonville in 2004 (35.4%) and . . . Joey Galloway with Tampa Bay in 2006 (35.3%).

        • I don’t have the time to do it myself, but I’d like to look at the relationship between QB skill and the distribution of receiving among his teammates. You’d think, initially, that a WR with a really high % of his team’s yardage just had a QB who wasn’t very good. Of course, Jones and Brown have Ryan and Roethlisberger, QBs who I think are good and great. Right now I’m basing everything I say off of anecdotal evidence, which is definitely the way to go.

  • He certainly passes the eyeball test… by which I mean, he looks nice off the field — very fashionable.

  • Richie

    Hopkins has a much lower catch percentage (about 58%) than Brown (70%) and Jones (67%). I wonder if a better QB (if Osweiler is that) will help him in that regard.