On Friday afternoon, the Houston Texans announced that general manager Rick Smith had signed a four-year extension that would keep him in charge of personnel for the Texans through the 2020 season. The news was announced by the team via a press release that paints Smith's roster-building chops as a key ingredient in the glue that holds the organization together:
“We are thrilled to announce a four-year contract extension for Rick Smith,” said Founder, Chairman and CEO Robert C. McNair. “I believe it is critical to have stability within an organization and Rick is an important part of our team. He knows what our objectives are and is well-respected within our organization and throughout the league. This extension helps us build toward our goal of long-term success in the NFL.”
Whether you agree with McNair's assessment of Smith or not is really irrelevant, as it pertains to Smith's longevity. (This has been firmly established after the debacles of 2010 and 2013, when Smith could've easily been cut loose but survived.) Whether Smith has indeed improved at his job over time is up for a more lively debate, and probably should be the subject of its own post.
What is undeniable is that the optics of Smith's getting a four-year extension (surviving multiple football lives on his way to an overall record of 79-81 as a GM) just 24 hours before DeAndre Hopkins decided to hold out for one day looking for a contract extension of his own are likely to quietly ruffle some feathers in the court of Texans fan public opinion for Smith, especially when you consider Hopkins is one of just two Texans from Smith's nine-man 2013 draft class to take a snap with the team in 2015, a mere two years after being drafted, and the only thing keeping that draft class from being an outright disaster.
Kids, we call that irony.
DeAndre Hopkins just finished his third season in the NFL, a masterpiece in which he finished third in the NFL in catches (111) and receiving yards (1,521), and became the first receiver in team history to finish with double-digit touchdown catches (11). He's entering the fourth year of his rookie contract (a non-guaranteed $1,000,000 salary for 2016) and the team has exercised its option for his fifth year in 2017 at a salary of $7.915 million.
And therein lies Hopkins's issue — there were more than 70 wide receivers who made more in salary than Hopkins last season, while he put together one of the three or four best seasons at the position, and inarguably did so under the harshest of conditions, with four different starting quarterbacks, the best of whom was Brian Hoyer.
In short, Hopkins wants to get paid.
Unfortunately, holding out is Hopkins's only recourse, and, seeing that it won't be cheap (a $40,000 fine for every day of camp he misses, and a $445,000 reporting bonus if he hadn't reported by the fifth day of training camp), he decided that discretion is the better part of valor, and announced Sunday he would be returning to camp.
For their part, the Texans were not happy with the stance of their soon-to-be fourth-year wide receiver, as Smith had the following to say in a published statement on Saturday afternoon:
“We are disappointed DeAndre has elected not to report to training camp with the rest of his teammates. He has expressed his position regarding his contract status, and we have been clear with both he and his representatives of ours. Our focus is on the 2016 season and all of our collective efforts and attention with be centered on that endeavor.”
...and after practice on Sunday:
Rick Smith on D.Hopkins:"His actions r counterintuitive 2any of the productive energy necessary 4anything 2get done pic.twitter.com/JP0Dds5pJi— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) July 31, 2016
Now, public statements don't always align with what's actually going on behind the scenes, but taken at face value, it would appear that talks between the team and Hopkins range somewhere between nonexistent and ice cold. If indeed the Texans are taking a "not now" stance with Hopkins, after his third season, it would run contrary to what's occurred with their first two first-round picks who've played under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement — J.J. Watt (2011 first rounder) and Whitney Mercilus (2012).
Now, Mercilus's case is probably not an apples-to-apples comparison with Hopkins's as he took what would now be considered a bargain deal (five years, $27 million) just before the team needed to decide on his fifth-year option. Mercilus was also not nearly the player Hopkins is after three years.
Watt's is a much closer comparative situation to Hopkins's, as he agreed to a six-year, $100 million extension just days before the start of his fourth season, with, at the time, one Defensive Player of the Year award under his belt. (He's since won two more, making his deal a relative bargain as well, crazy as that sounds.) The team reportedly did the early deal as an exception with Watt, who had established himself as the most dominant defensive force in the league by that time.
That said, Hopkins was pretty damn dominant as a wide receiver last season, with no discernible complementary threat of a running game or secondary receiver, not to mention the aforementioned revolving door of gloom at quarterback in 2015. Taking the hard-line stance with Hopkins on a contract extension, on the heels of possibly the greatest season a receiver has had in team history, would seem to draw a line at "just for J.J. and no one else," which is the team's right, but clearly doesn't play well with Hopkins.
In seeking an extension, Hopkins is undoubtedly looking to get into the pay range of A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, all of whom make around $14 million to $15 million annually, with Jones having the highest guaranteed money sum at $47 million.
When you see how the Watt contract, which at the time made him the highest-paid defensive player in football, has evolved into a relative bargain in just two seasons, it's hard to believe the Texans wouldn't want to get something locked in with Hopkins, whose primary "superhero powers" (strength in traffic, hands, physicality) are traits that tend to age well over time. Hell, he just turned 24 in June! This is probably who he will be for the foreseeable future, and that's a great thing if you have him locked in.
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Along those same lines, Hopkins just put up a season that, statistically, will be difficult to replicate if the Texans achieve the balance on offense that they're seeking, with RB Lamar Miller now in the fold and the signing of QB Brock Osweiler to go with drafting speedsters Will Fuller and Braxton Miller at wide receiver. In other words, Hopkins's value may never be higher than it is right now.
With both sides seemingly able to benefit from an early deal, it's hard to believe that there are no discussions going on at the moment. Whatever the case, Bill O'Brien will have his top wide receiver back in camp on Monday.
For now, at least, DeAndre Hopkins is back.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.