Will DeAndre Hopkins Become the Highest-Paid WR in Football?

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Certain aspects of roster construction have come more easily than others for the Houston Texans on general manager Rick Smith's watch, and when someday the book is written on Smith's reign over personnel, one of the very positive chapters will be his supreme success with first-round draft choices from 2008 through, well, pretty much the present. 

Additionally, after years of butting up against the salary cap's ceiling and having little flexibility in player shopping, Smith and his staff have become far more proficient in managing cap dollars, a huge reason the Texans had money to buy a franchise quarterback and starting running back this offseason. 

These two areas intersect at what has become an annual tradition for the Texans — the contract extension of their first-round picks a year before they hit free agency. Of the last five first-round picks, four have inked deals with the team with a year remaining on their rookie deals. (The fifth, cornerback Kareem Jackson, eventually re-upped with the team after testing the free agency waters.)

The three-pronged benefit of this "buy early" approach has been 1) a bunch of team-friendly deals, 2) minimal distractions over contract extensions and 3) a high retention rate of key players.

The latest Texan first rounder to get a crack at cashing in is wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who happens to be coming off perhaps the most dominant season by a receiver in team history, which is saying something considering Andre Johnson played here for 12 seasons. Let's examine all the aspects of Hopkins's situation and see if we can forecast what exactly happens between now and Week 1 of the season, because if a deal is going to happen, it must happen by then. (The Texans don't do contracts in-season.)

How good was Hopkins's 2015 season?
Well, in the pantheon of the Texans' receiving seasons, even though Johnson had three seasons with more yards and two with more catches, I would put Hopkins's 2015 season at the top of every season in franchise history for two reasons: 1) Hopkins had 11 receiving touchdowns, a franchise record, and 2) Hopkins did it with four different starting quarterbacks, while Johnson's best seasons generally had the good version of Matt Schaub on a week-in, week-out basis. In fact, Hopkins is the first receiver to register 100-yard receiving games with four different starting quarterbacks. Targeted nearly 200 times, it's hard to imagine Hopkins having bigger numbers this coming season, only because it's nearly impossible to use him more than the Texans did in 2015. 

Where exactly is he perceived around the league?
Statistically, Hopkins finished third in the league in 2015 in targets, catches and yards, behind Julio Jones and Antonio Brown in all three categories. More subjectively, his peers rated him as the 19th-best player in the most recent NFL Top 100. Here are the four receivers ahead of him, along with their contract information (** indicates on rookie deal):

A.J. GREEN: 4 years/$60M ($32.75M guaranteed), FA after 2019 season.
** ODELL BECKHAM, JR.: 4 years/$10.41M (All guaranteed), FA after 2018 season.
JULIO JONES: 5 years/$71.26M ($47M guaranteed), FA after 2020 season.
ANTONIO BROWN: 5 years/$41.96M ($8.5M guaranteed), FA after 2017 season.

Who were the big wide receiver contracts signed before the 2015 season?
The following were the deals signed in the same lofty salary range that Hopkins will be looking for in his contract extension:

DEZ BRYANT: 5 years/$70M ($45M guaranteed), FA after 2019 season.
DEMARYIUS THOMAS: 5 years/$70M ($43.5M guaranteed), FA after 2019 season.
T.Y. HILTON: 5 years/$65M ($28M guaranteed), FA after 2020 season.

So all three deals are in the $13M-$14M-per-year range, with Thomas and Bryant getting nearly two thirds of their deals guaranteed. For what it's worth, Hopkins had a better 2015 season than all three of these guys. Subjectively, Hopkins doesn't possess the top end speed of these three, but has superior hands and body control in tight space compared to all of them. He's a different flavor of receiver, and I think it's fair to wonder if "rip the top off a defense" speed pays more than Hopkins's tool set. We'll find out. 

Which receivers have signed deals this offseason?
The three most prominent receivers to sign deals this offseason all received extensions in the same range of years, total money and guaranteed money as each other:

DOUG BALDWIN: 4 years/$46M ($24.25M guaranteed), FA after 2020 season.
KEENAN ALLEN: 4 years/$45M ($20.66M guaranteed), FA after 2020 season.
ALLEN HURNS: 4 years/$40.65M ($20M guaranteed), FA after 2020 season.

These yield an annual average ranging between $10.5M and $11.5M with around half the money guaranteed, on the aggregate. Hopkins is way above all three of these guys in the WR pecking order, so all these deals do is serve as a reminder that Hopkins is about to break into Green/Jones/Bryant/Thomas territory.

With the Texans, when do these types of extensions generally get done? 
Here are the signing dates on the last four Texans first rounders to sign extensions with a year left on their rookie deals:

Duane Brown (2008 1st rounder): 8/16/12
Brian Cushing (2009 1st rounder): 9/4/13
J.J. Watt (2011 first rounder): 9/2/14
Whitney Mercilus (2012 first rounder): 5/4/15

The bigger deals — Brown, Cushing, Watt — all got done during training camp, with Watt and Cushing getting their deals done the week before the season opener. Hopkins might do well to follow suit with these guys and do an early extension, only because it's hard to imagine his value being any higher than it is right now. That's not a knock on where I see Hopkins going as we move forward. It's more a comment on how superhuman he was in 2015.

PREDICTION: Hopkins signs a five-year, $78 million deal ($47.5 million guaranteed) during the final week of training camp. The Texans have $12 million in cap space, so year one will have a $20-$25 million signing bonus to spread a chunk of the cap hit out over all five years of the extension, and keep year one's cap hit reasonably under $12 million. 

In other words, DeAndre Hopkins will indeed become the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. Is he the best receiver in the league? Probably not, but he's certainly in the conversation. Like Andrew Luck, who is certainly not the best QB in the league but is the highest-paid, Hopkins will be a beneficiary of good play and great timing. 

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.    

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