Early on in free agency, news broke that the Houston Texans had traded star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick to the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for a 2020 first, a fourth in 2021, and running back David Johnson. The trade was quickly and universally panned. The criticism only grew louder when, later that same day, the Minnesota Vikings traded Stephon Diggs, their own star receiver, for a bundle of picks, including a 2020 first-rounder. That night, Houston signed Randall Cobb, a solid, but unspectacular player, presumably in an attempt to help replace Hopkins.
The move only led to further criticism of the Texans head coach and general manager, Bill O’Brien, who has overseen numerous questionable personnel decisions in the last several years, including trading multiple first-round picks for Laremy Tunsil and the mishandling of Jadeveon Clowney’s contract negotiations. Right now, I’d like to take some time to address the differences between the two receivers and how much of Hopkins’ production Cobb can replace.
Comparing Cobb and Hopkins’ statistics
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Hopkins had better statistics than Cobb last season. In 2019, he had 1,165 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers represent a slight decrease from the prior two seasons, but his production was hurt by the addition of Kenny Stills, causing the passing targets to be spread out among more players.
Cobb’s statistics look much worse by comparison, which can largely be explained by the fact that he was not the number one target in Dallas last season. That said, 828 yards and three touchdowns are more than respectable numbers for a third-string wide receiver. Still, even when you take into account the various mitigating factors at play for both receivers, the raw statistics skew heavily in Hopkins’ favor, something that has been true throughout the two players’ respective careers. In his seven seasons in the NFL, Hopkins has broken the thousand-yard threshold five times, a feat that Cobb has matched only once.
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Examining areas in which Cobb outperformed Hopkins
Despite producing fewer raw statistics, Cobb was better than Hopkins in some respects. For example, PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), which measures how responsible a player was for their statistics, rates both players similarly, with Cobb actually grading slightly higher. In 2019, Cobb’s OSM grade of 35.42 ranked 17th in the NFL among qualifying receivers. Hopkins grade wasn’t much lower, at 34.3, although that one-point decrease dropped him to 30th overall. It’s important to remember here that the OSM is not a measure of how talented a player is. Cobb’s higher grade indicates merely that he had more influence over his statistics than Hopkins did, not that he is the better receiver overall, or that he can replace Hopkins’ unique skill set.
Looking at the individual statistics that make up the OSM, Hopkins was only better than Cobb in one area: his catch percentage. Last season, Hopkins caught 69.33% of his targets, compared to Cobb’s 66.27%. Those are both reasonable percentages for a wide receiver, but that three percent can make a big difference over the course of a season. However, Cobb outperformed Hopkins on every other advanced metric involved in calculating the OSM. Most notably, he was significantly better after the catch than Hopkins was. That might come as something of a surprise to fans. After all, one of Hopkins’ most memorable plays in recent years was his incredible effort against the Cowboys in 2018 when he evaded multiple tackles and set the Texans up to kick the game-winning field goal in overtime. However, despite flashy plays like that one, Hopkins has never been particularly effective after catching the ball.
In 2019, he only averaged 3.9 yards after the catch. That number is not particularly impressive, and it is actually worse than it appears. According to the NFL’s advanced metrics, Hopkins’ average was actually 0.5 yards lower than it should have been. In fact, across the four years for which the NFL has been recording those statistics, Hopkins’ highest differential between his actual yards after the catch average, and his expected yards after the catch average, was +0.6. In short, he gets about what you would expect him to after catching the ball, but usually not anything more than that.
Meanwhile, Cobb averaged 6.2 yards after the catch in 2019, 0.6 yards more than expected. Those are far from the best statistics in the NFL, but they are still significantly higher than what Hopkins accomplished. When you combine that gap with the other, more minor advantages for Cobb in other aspects of the OSM, it results in his grade being slightly higher than Hopkins, indicating that he was more able to take advantage of his circumstances than Hopkins was.
Houston still has a solid group of wide receivers
Cobb’s statistics clearly show that, even as he nears 30, he can still contribute a great deal to your offense. In a vacuum, I think he would be a good signing. However, what Cobb can’t do is replace Hopkins’ physicality and jump-ball ability. He is primarily a slot receiver, and the other receivers currently on the Texans roster are made from a similar mold. They have a lot of speed and quickness at the position, but without Hopkins, they don’t have a player that can be relied upon to make contested catches in challenging circumstances.
Even so, I think that Cobb’s addition gives the Texans an excellent receiving core. Assuming nothing else changes, the Texans depth chart next season will look something like this: Will Fuller V, Randall Cobb, Kenny Stills, and Keke Coutee. If they can stay healthy, something that has been a problem for both Fuller and Coutee in the past, that would arguably be the deepest group in the NFL. Houston could even add another wide receiver in the draft, which is full of talented prospects at the position, allowing them to take further steps towards filling the gap created by Hopkins’ departure.
Cobb might be enough to keep O’Brien around
Thanks to O’Brien’s numerous ill-advised trades, drafting a rookie wide receiver probably won’t be feasible. Houston barely has enough resources to fill their more pressing needs, let alone spend picks on positions of strength. Still, for WR to be a strength at all for the Texans after losing their best player at the position is somewhat remarkable. Would they be better with Hopkins on the roster? Yes. Was the trade an absolute disaster that should probably get O’Brien fired? Again, yes. But Houston’s offense can still be a dominant force. Deshaun Watson is one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, and he still has more than enough weapons to be successful. Whether he’ll survive another season behind Houston’s offensive line is a different question, but not one that I will discuss here.
Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to imagine this scenario turning into a nightmare for Watson, one where his own success actually works against him. His best target was traded away for peanuts, and the man who orchestrated the deal gets to keep his job because Watson and the rest of his offense are talented enough to win games despite their coach’s incompetence. For Watson’s sake, I hope that doesn’t happen, but considering what O’Brien has survived already, I can’t say that I’m optimistic. Because even if Cobb can’t fully replace Hopkins, he might be just good enough that Watson and the offense end up bailing O’Brien out of yet another catastrophic mistake.