The NFL has dominated the headlines with some stunning player movement amid a sports landscape that’s desperate to focus on something a little more normal.
The league’s offseason has proceeded as originally scheduled, and the draft currently remains set to take place (though now virtually) April 23-25. Some teams already have a completely different look and immediate high expectations after a blockbuster trade and more than $2 billion was spent in free agency.
Over the next three weeks leading up to the draft, Stats Perform is using proprietary data to break down some of the biggest moves that have taken place. This week, we’re looking at wideouts in new places:
Arizona acquires DeAndre Hopkins, a 2020 second-round draft pick from Houston for David Johnson, a 2020 second-round selection, a 2021 fourth-round pick; Rams send Brandin Cooks, a 2022 fourth-round pick to Houston for a 2020 second-round selection
The Arizona Cardinals struggled to find a consistent receiver to play opposite Christian Kirk in 2019. Larry Fitzgerald will be entering his 17th season, and will likely play meaningful snaps in the slot. But adding another outside option for second-year quarterback Kyler Murray should open up Kliff Kingsbury’s modified air raid offense.
Hopkins is an excellent fit for the Cardinals offense. The priority is getting the ball out of the QB’s hand quickly, and few are better at getting open off the line of scrimmage than Hopkins.
Stats Perform tracked nine games of Hopkins’ routes in 2019, including all of the playoff games, covering 142 measurable matchups. In our proprietary Open Percentage (Open%), which takes routes where 1-on-1 coverage can be measured (excluding screens, clearout routes, or other plays where the route doesn’t have enough time to develop) to calculate how often a player beats coverage, Hopkins graded out 16.5 percentage points over the average receiver – one of the best differentials in the league.
Additionally, he was double-teamed 16.2% of the time, freeing up more 1-on-1s for the other receivers on the Houston Texans. Let’s look at the plays from Houston’s Week 4 matchup against the Carolina Panthers below:
1 – Hopkins beats physical press coverage from James Bradberry, who just got a hefty contract from the Giants.
2 – Here, he uses a hard step to beat Bradberry again.
3 – Hopkins again beating press from Bradberry.
4 – He uses a head fake to get safety Tre Boston to bite, leaving the middle of the field open for a big gain that Deshaun Watson just misses.
5 – Hopkins beats Bradberry’s press coverage yet again.
How Hopkins’ production will impact the Cardinals’ offensive character is still up in the air. The Texans dedicated themselves to a good balance of run and pass last season, running the ball by design 36.6% of the time, which is right around league average. The Cardinals, however, went through a few phases of offense. They started pass-heavy, then committed deeply to the run, and finished the year a little more balanced. Overall, they called running plays 35.1% of the time.
Hopkins should help the offense develop, but it could lead to some growing pains for his personal production. He gets a downgrade at QB, specifically on downfield throws. Murray (66.9) and Deshaun Watson (68.4) aren’t too far off in Stats Perform’s Expected Completion Percentage, which relies on accuracy of throws.
However, Watson’s average pass traveled 1.5 yards further downfield than Murray’s did in 2019. Hopkins isn’t known as a yards-after-catch guy, averaging just 3.3 YAC last season, so a reduction in downfield throws may reduce his yardage production. We currently project Hopkins for a 24.2% target share for the year, down significantly from 31.2% in Houston.
The Texans signed Randall Cobb and traded for Brandin Cooks, giving them a receiving corps consisting of Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Cobb and Cooks. Fuller likely takes over as Watson’s top option, while Cooks, Cobb, and Stills have a variety of skill sets making them good complementary pieces.
Cobb will likely have the most established role of the three in the slot, while Cooks and Stills will compete for snaps opposite Fuller. All three of Fuller (24.0%), Stills (26.8%), and Cooks (28.6%) ran a lot of deep routes last year, and this will truly open up the offense for Watson. With so many field-stretchers, Watson should have ample opportunities to scramble, or dump the ball off to playmaking running backs David Johnson and Duke Johnson.
Cooks has seen his stock drop recently, in part due to repeated concussions, but also because the Rams offense struggled as a whole last season. Again, Cooks relies on deep throws to tally up yards, and the quarterback needs to have enough time in the pocket for those downfield throws to develop. The Rams offensive line lost two starters heading into 2019, and then two more as the season progressed. By the latter half of the year, the Rams were in the bottom half of the league in pass protection for the first time since 2016. Cooks isn’t a No. 1 option, but his statistical decline was not solely due to a personal loss of ability.
He got open 34.5% of the time, slightly above league average, and should remain a threat as a field-stretcher.
Buffalo gets Stefon Diggs from Minnesota for multiple draft picks
Diggs leaves Kirk Cousins, one of the NFL’s most accurate quarterbacks, to join Josh Allen, one of the league’s most erratic, albeit much improved over 2018.
Diggs’ fit on the team will be an interesting story. He ran short routes 35%, intermediate routes 43%, and deep routes 22% of the time. That’s not dissimilar to the route distribution of John Brown (27.0/48.5/24.5%), who will play opposite Diggs. It will give the Buffalo Bills lots of options on route combinations to have two dynamic receivers on the field at the same time, and that could generate some matchup issues for opponents.
Diggs’ arrival likely helps Cole Beasley, Dawson Knox, and Devin Singletary the most, as defenses will have to play with a little more of a deep cushion. This should open up more underneath routes for Beasley, Knox, and Singletary, who run short routes 54.0%, 46.5%, and 91.0% of the time, respectively.
Let’s take a look at how Diggs has been able to get open:
Diggs’ production will be tied immensely to Allen’s development. Diggs had some problems with the run-heavy game plan in Minnesota, but his new team is just as dedicated to the run, with a more mobile quarterback. The Bills are not unlike the Seattle Seahawks in how they call their games. If they can rely on the run they will, but there’s a huge difference in quarterback quality between the teams.
If Allen doesn’t improve, Diggs will likely have a lot of boom games to pair with a lot of bust games. He gets open at about a league-average clip, but does good work after the catch, averaging almost 4.5 YAC per reception. It’s also a potent group of skill players to begin with, so we see Diggs’ target share dropping from his 23.8% rate in 2019 to 19.3% in 2020.
It’s a great addition for the Bills, but may not elevate Diggs to statistical star status.
New Orleans signs Emmanuel Sanders to a two-year deal
Sanders isn’t the slipperiest of receivers. He got himself open at an almost exactly league average rate in 2019, but that’s more than can be said about any New Orleans Saints wide receiver not named Michael Thomas.
Thomas saw double-teams about 15% of the time last season, and the Saints are hoping Sanders requires the opposing defense to play a little more evenly in 2020.
Jets ink Breshad Perriman to a one-year, $8 million contract; Carolina signs Robby Anderson for two years, $20 million
The New York Jets lost Anderson to free agency, and picked up the former first-rounder Perriman as a replacement – and it’s only a small downgrade.
Neither player is a technician and both rely on deep passing to be effective. Sure, Perriman had some nice games once Mike Evans and Chris Godwin got hurt, but someone had to catch Jameis Winston’s gunslinger passes. Perriman had an Open% of 20.2, well below league average for a wide receiver.
He’s not a game-changer, and the Jets will still have to address improving the wide receiver position in a historically strong draft for WRs, but Perriman is a suitable filler of the hole left by Anderson’s departure.
Anderson joins the Panthers after spending his first four seasons with the Jets. He’s a deep route guy, running them almost 30% of the time, and he probably comes in as Teddy Bridgewater’s third option behind Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore.
He’ll play outside when the Panthers go with three receivers, which will allow new head coach Matt Rhule to move D.J. Moore around, and maybe stretch the field enough to open up more underneath lanes for Christian McCaffrey.