He may not be the most irreplaceable player on the Houston Texans (that would be Deshaun Watson), and he might not be the biggest icon in franchise franchise history (that would be J.J. Watt), but wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is the team's best pure football player.
This is something I've felt since the very beginning of the 2018 season, it's something I've said numerous times on my afternoon show on SportsRadio 610 and on Texans' pregame and postgame programming, and now it's an assessment that is backed up by Pro Football Focus, which tracks advanced stats and season-long player evaluations.
This past week, PFF put out their top 101 players for the 2018 season, a ranking based largely in their hybrid statistical/subjective player scoring system, and Hopkins was not only the highest-rated Houston Texan, but he was rated the second best player overall in the entire league, and the top-rated offensive player in the game. (Aaron Donald of the Rams was No. 1, in case you're wondering.)
The top 101 takes into account both regular season and postseason performance, and is not a measure of VALUE (otherwise, the top 15 players might be quarterbacks), but instead a measure of who is the best at HIS JOB, which is the basis of my original opinion on Hopkins' stature among his Texan teammates. The Texans placed six players in the top 101. Here they are, along with the PFF comments, as well as a comment on each from me:
2. DEANDRE HOPKINS, HOUSTON TEXANS
What PFF says:
"It clearly didn’t matter where he lined up, where he was targeted or whether he had to fight for the ball or not, Hopkins was in a class of his own this season, and it all led to the NFL’s highest overall (92.0) and receiving grade (92.2) at the position. His 115 catchable targets without a drop not only set the PFF record, but it also crushed the previous record of 60 held by Randall Cobb that he set back in 2016."
What SP says: Not much more to say here that I didn't already say in the open to this post — Hopkins is the best football player on this team, the best receiver in the game, and the best receiver in the history of this franchise. Also, he is a likely All-Decade performer with one more great season. He is worth every penny of the extension he signed before the 2017 season, having been named first team All-Pro in both seasons since signing.
19. J.J. WATT, HOUSTON TEXANS
What PFF says:
"Watt was back to his utterly dominant self this year. He was once again named a PFF All-Pro, and his 78 pressures were the second-most among edge defenders. Watt ended the 2018 regular season with at least three quarterback pressures in 14 straight games, which is the longest active streak by four games."
What SP says: Like Hopkins, Watt was named first team All Pro, and is about as close to being "all the way back" as one could expect, given the severity of his injuries suffered in 2016 and 2017. How Watt ages into his 30s will be one of the real keys as to just how open the Texans' window is for postseason success the next three years (Barring an extension or rework, Watt's contract is up after 2021).
46. JADEVEON CLOWNEY, HOUSTON TEXANS
What PFF says:
"Jadeveon Clowney had by far the best season of his career in 2018. The former first overall pick tied for the seventh-best overall grade (89.5) among edge defenders. He recorded 28 run stops on 283 run-defense snaps, tying for the tenth-best run-stop percentage (9.9%) at the position."
What SP says: This ranking matches up fairly closely with how Clowney is viewed around the league — a surefire Pro Bowler, but not necessarily an All-Pro. He is a unique weapon, as used by Romeo Crennel, but just a cut below the most fearsome defensive players in the league. For what it's worth, his peers ranked him 32nd in the NFL Top 100, coming into the season.
77. DESHAUN WATSON, HOUSTON TEXANS
What PFF says:
"Deshaun Watson came into this season surrounded by uncertainty due to his season-ending ACL injury last year, but he played a full 16 games this season and finished with the 12th-best grade (82.6) out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks. Watson made the best of one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines en route to a playoff berth, and that can’t be overstated. He led the NFL in total pressured dropbacks (281) and passer rating under pressure (88.2)."
What SP says: This ranking, in my opinion, doesn't properly reflect Watson's performance in tight game situations. He engineered five fourth quarter comebacks in 2018, and it would have been six, if the defense could have stopped Nick Foles in Week 16. There are nine quarterbacks ranked ahead of Watson on this list. Better offensive line play will result in a higher ranking in 2019.
85. KAREEM JACKSON, HOUSTON TEXANS
What PFF says:
"Alternating between safety and corner, Jackson had a career revival this past season. Jackson recorded an overall grade of 79.5 behind 10 pass breakups and no receiving touchdowns allowed, and he will be one of the more sought-after veterans if he hits the free agent market."
What SP says: Kareem Jackson's best season as a pro is recognized with an appropriate rating in the PFF Top 101. Jackson's play tailed off at the end of the season, but for most of the year, he was among the top five PFF-rated secondary players in the league.
94. BERNARDRICK MCKINNEY, HOUSTON TEXANS
What PFF says:
"The fourth-year linebacker made an impact in all areas of the Texans’ defense this season. McKinney’s 81.3 overall grade ranked ninth at the position, while his 89.2 run defense grade listed at third-best, behind only All-Pro’s Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner. He recorded 32 total run stops this season with only four missed tackles."
What SP says: Prior to the 2018 season, the Texans made McKinney one of the highest paid inside linebackers in football, and McKinney justified the Texans' contractual faith in him with his best season as a pro. He showed improvement in pass coverage (his Achilles heel), and made his first Pro Bowl.
Among the other players in the PFF Top 101, this one easily hurts the most:
78. DUANE BROWN, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
What PFF says:
"The addition of Brown at left tackle has made the world of difference for a Seattle offensive line that finished the season ranked 17th in pass-blocking efficiency after finishing 29th in 2017. Brown allowed just 21 quarterback pressures from his 501 pass-blocking snaps on the year and surrendered just six combined sacks and hits."
Not working things out with Brown before shipping him to Seattle might be the Texans' biggest organizational misfire of the last decade (not named Brock Osweiler), especially when you consider that the left tackle protecting (and I use that word VERY loosely) Deshaun Watson, Julien Davenport, led all offensive tackles in penalties (16), pressures allowed (67), and QB hits allowed (14). He was second in sacks allowed (12) and hurries allowed (41).
Here is the breakdown on number of players placed in the rankings, by team:
8 players: LA Rams
7 players: Chicago, Kansas City
6 players: Houston, New England, New Orleans
5 players: Dallas, LA Chargers
4 players: Cleveland, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Seattle
3 players: Buffalo, Minnesota, New York Giants
2 players: Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, Cincinnati, Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Tennessee
1 players: Arizona, Detroit, Jacksonville, New York Jets, Tampa Bay, Washington
0 players: Miami, Oakland
A few observations on this breakdown:
1. The Chiefs and the Saints weren't the 1-seeds in their respective conferences just because they have really good players — it's because their really good players are truly GREAT players. Of the Chiefs' seven players in the PFF Top 101, six were in the top 37, and of the Saints' six players in the rankings, four are in the top 31. Also, their quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees — are the third and fourth-rated players, respectively, overall in the entire league. That matters.
2. As far as the top rated player on each of the 32 teams, here are some intriguing spots where teams had their first player appear in the rankings:
BALTIMORE: top player not until 97th (CB Marlon Humphrey)
CLEVELAND: top player not until 55th (DE Myles Garrett)
DALLAS: top player not until 51st (DE DeMarcus Lawrence)
GREEN BAY: top player not until 39th (T David Bakhtiari)
PITTSBURGH: top player not until 57th (DT Cameron Heyward)
TENNESSEE: top player not until 45th (S Kevin Byard)
My biggest takeaway on the above list is that John Harbaugh is worth every penny of whatever the Ravens are paying him in his new contract extension.
3. Juju Smith-Schuster is the 65th rated player in the league. Antonio Brown didn't crack the top 101. In case you need another reason for Brown to have a red ass about his 2018 season.
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4. Chicago has three of the top 14 players in the league, and all seven of their players appearing in the PFF Top 101 are on the defensive side of the ball.
5. In case you're wondering, the player the Browns selected with the pick they acquired in the Deshaun Watson trade — CB Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft — was rated 89th. The quarterback they ultimately settled upon after trading picks that turned into Watson (12th overall in 2017) and Carson Wentz (2nd overall in 2016) in the previous two drafts, Baker Mayfield, was rated 75th overall, ahead of both Watson (77th) and Wentz (unranked). As it turned out, passing on Wentz and Watson wasn't the unmitigated disaster everyone made it out to be.
6. Betting advice — get in on the UNDER for the Dolphins' 2019 season win total as soon as it comes out. This will be a 3-13 team, at best, mark my words.