The NFL is a passing league. You know this. I know this. Just about everyone in the league knows this.
Because it’s a passing league, quarterbacks are the most important players on the field. And just about every quarterback has that one pass-catcher he trusts more than anybody else — the guy he wants to go to in key spots, with the game on the line. With that in mind, we’re going to use this space over the next several weeks to dig into some of the league’s best passing-game combinations and what makes them tick.
We began last by exploring the Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, which is defined by how each player has raised the other’s game since they came together. Below, we’ll delve into Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, whose partnership is defined by degree of difficulty.
We have to start with Hopkins, because the degree of difficulty he faced before hooking up with Watson is where this story really begins. Before Watson took over the starting job, Hopkins played with the following quarterbacks, listed in order of the number of passes they threw in his direction: Brock Osweiler, Brian Hoyer, Tom Savage, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Case Keenum, Matt Schaub, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden. Yes, that list is exactly as horrifying as it looks.
Combined, that group of players completed 1,367 of 2,314 passes thrown during the pre-Watson portion of Hopkins’ career, for 15,097 yards, 83 touchdowns, and 63 interceptions. That’s a 59.1 percent completion rate, an average of 6.52 yards per attempt, and a 79.1 passer rating. And that’s during a four-season span where the league average completion percentage was 62.5, the league average yards per attempt was 6.75, and the league average passer rating was 86.8.
This was a group of quarterbacks who were considerably below-average across the board. And yet, during that four-year span, Hopkins ranked 12th in the NFL in receptions (317), fourth in receiving yards (4,487), and 20th in receiving touchdowns (23). Among the 31 players with at least 250 receptions during that time, his 14.15 yards per reception average ranked eighth-best. And this was all before he played with the only good quarterback with whom he has played in his career. It’s no wonder that since Watson took over, Hopkins ranks second in receptions (286), third in receiving yards (3,695), and first in receiving touchdowns (28).
Since arriving in Houston, Watson, too, has been given a high degree of difficulty. During his three years in the league, he has been saddled with an organization that seemingly has not cared all that much about making sure he is well-protected — fielding offensive lines that were among the league’s worst in each of those seasons, and employing a coach who cares not for adjusting his play-calling to counteract that weakness.
Watson was the single most pressured quarterback in the NFL during his rookie season, according to Pro Football Focus. (Lest you think that blame all belongs on his shoulders for holding the ball too long, Tom Savage ranked second, with a nearly identical pressure rate.) His sophomore season was an improvement, as he was merely the second-most pressured passer in the league. The only guy ahead of him was Jimmy Garoppolo, though, and he tore his ACL in the third game of the season. This year, Watson ranks seventh in pressure rate, though a couple of the players ahead of him (Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen) have not played full seasons.
Despite all that pressure, Watson has blossomed into a full-blown star — and this season, an MVP candidate. He’s completed 67.4 percent of his career passes at an average of 8.1 yards per attempt, throwing 63 touchdowns against just 23 interceptions and accumulating a 103.1 passer rating along the way. Among the 36 players who have thrown at least 500 passes since Watson entered the league, his completion rate ranks fourth, his yards per attempt average second, his touchdown rate third, and his passer rating fourth.
And all of that is before we g