Getting rid of DeAndre Hopkins was a football decision

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.

This is going to be the last post we write about DeAndre Hopkins on this website. He’s gone. We all know he’s gone. We all have strong feelings about the trade. The only reason I want to talk about DeAndre Hopkins today is that I have to combat a particular strain of argument that I’ve seen pop up lately. I am not shaming the below Tweets or Tweeters, just pointing out that this is a slant I see a lot and that has become prevalent amongst Texans Twitter as they try to grapple with the aftermath of the trade.

I know this is going to feel overly semantical to some of you. I know this post is going to have people upset with me. But I need to combat this talking point that has risen out of DeAndre Hopkins finally getting a big extension last week.

The Texans absolutely could have paid DeAndre Hopkins. The objections to paying him come from a place of abstract theory where the team has decided not to re-do deals with three years left on the contract. Or from a place where the team doesn’t want to tie up all its money in three players long term, which is one that was offered very early in the process by O’Brien.

Now, the numbers that have come in about DeAndre Hopkins’ deal are enormous. He basically got a two-year extension with a bunch of guaranteed money to make him happy, receiving more guaranteed money on the contract than anyone but Julio Jones. His cap hits remain reasonable for 2020 and 2021, and then spike to tough decision territory:

Source: OverTheCap via Joel Corry

If I may, let’s look at the players that the Texans have under contract that matter besides Deshaun Watson and Laremy Tunsil for 2020, 2021, and 2022:

From 2022 on, assuming the cap bounces back from COVID, Deshaun Watson and Laremy Tunsil are going to combine to take up about $61 million of the Texans cap that OTC currently projects at $227 million, or 26%. However, there is really nobody else on the roster who couldn’t be cut at that point — most of the guaranteed money on these other contracts is out at this point. Whitney Mercilus cuts with $11.5 million in cap savings at an advanced age, Nick Martin for $8 million, Brandin Cooks for the full $13 million, Benardrick McKinney for $9.5 million, Randall Cobb for $8.25 million. Even Zach Cunningham, should he age poorly, saves $5.7 million. Along the way, J.J. Watt’s deal runs out, Will Fuller’s deal runs out, David Johnson’s deal runs out.

Had there been no COVID-19 pandemic, there would really have been little in the way of the Texans keeping Hopkins via extension. Even with that temporary short fall, the pain to remedy the fix could have been as easy as “don’t sign Whitney Mercilus.” Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy that Mercilus got paid because I like him the person. But he’s not a star edge rusher, and he was valued like one because he has the personality traits the Texans covet.

So there’s all this kerfluffle about cap hits but the difference between what the Texans are signed on to with Cooks and Cobb and what the Texans would be signed up to with Hopkins is so minimal that you could fill it up with just the cap hit of Brandon Dunn.

Now, there are obviously other factors in play. Hopkins is pretty much uncuttable in 2022 outside of a post-June 1 cut for any real savings, while Cooks and Cobb are not. The Saints have proven again and again that manipulating the salary cap around to keep who you want at a fair price is really not hard: the question is just who do you want?

Listen, the Texans devote a large amount of salary cap space to players who aren’t really all that great. I’ve grown up enough to not see players as numbers on a screen. I enjoy pulling for Darren Fells. He seems like a good guy and I love anyone who enjoys a good bath. But the Texans found him as a veteran free agent who came in to camp for $1.5 million. He did not play beyond that contract in any way besides his playing time. He blew the most blocks in the NFL among tight ends and he is, at best, an adequate receiver who scored a lot of touchdowns on option looks. From a pure salary cap perspective, the money that was spent on him is pointless to me — Jordan Akins catches better, and falling in love with Fells cost the team Jordan Thomas. A.J. McCarron seems to be a favorite of O’Brien and Watson. Awesome! Sign him up as a coach, because as a player, he is not taking you anywhere and on merit probably wouldn’t crack the top 30 backups in the NFL. Coaching staff money won’t count against the cap. You can fit $7.5 million in cap space between these two players, which is enough to massively upgrade a position.

I’m not going to cherry pick up and down the roster because this is not really news — most rosters in the NFL spend a little more than they need to on the fringes for guys that they like. But most NFL teams do not trade a top-five receiver for pennies on the dollar — including for a running back with an exorbitant contract who was essentially a rehab project . Teams in such a situation would generally cut at the fringes rather than let the star go if they liked him. The Steelers ran into a real issue with franchising Bud Dupree this offseason and it cost them a few guys they liked: Javon Hargrave, B.J. Finney, and Anthony Chickillo. But they … like Bud Dupree more.

What we saw from the Texans post-O’Brien takeover was a massive swing of rewards to his tough, smart, and dependable guys. I’m not going to eviscerate Mercilus in this post, I’m not going to sling poo at Nick Martin for getting a contract. Good for those guys. But if you think either of them had as much to do with the Texans winning as Hopkins did over the past two years, you’re living in a fantasy world. Those contracts are the little building blocks that lead to things like “well gee, I dunno if we can keep this top receiver happy.” Those are football decisions. Now, obviously, I hope the football decisions turn out to be good ones! Early returns aren’t great, but there’s a lot of season left. But … I can’t stand by and let this poverty talk take over the timeline. They absolutely could have paid Hopkins.

So, okay, quick Q&A with the imaginary guy in my head I always think reads and complains about my posts:

Q: But Rivers, what if they didn’t want to pay three signing bonuses that big in the span of three months?

A: As I said, don’t sign Martin and Mercilus and it’s right there. Football decision.

Q: Rivers, you don’t know the real relationship between Hopkins and O’Brien! There was no way they were ever reconciling!

A: I think that speaks pretty poorly about the person who is paid to manage personalities and egos!

OK, for real, I understand that Hopkins didn’t practice enough for O’Brien’s good graces. I can understand that Hopkins is not a perfect, flawless angel. I get it. But at the same time, properly valuing what Hopkins brings to the table is priority No. 1 when you are the general manager. I don’t think there’s any way you can exit a view of the 2018-2019 seasons with an objective eye and not note that Hopkins was one of the four best players on the team. A guy like that is someone who gets preferential treatment in today’s NFL. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. If Deshaun Watson wanted to stop practicing on Wednesdays, I bet he’d get his way too.

Q: Why do you hate Bill O’Brien!!!!

A: Not a question, but I don’t hate Bill O’Brien. I hate his decisions. I don’t think his valuation of character over talent is going to end well for the Houston Texans, who I want to succeed.

Q: OK Rivers, but surely having 40% of your cap tied up in three players isn’t ideal!

A: I agree. Show me who else they should have spent the Hopkins money on from a talent standpoint. We’re not living in an ideal fantasy land. Everybody with a new quarterback contract is playing this game. The Chiefs are going to have roughly $100 million tied up between Frank Clark, Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones, and Patrick Mahomes in 2022. The Titans are going to have $78.2 million between Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, and Kevin Byard. Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews will hit for over $102 million. No matter who you pair with Watson’s contract, the number is going to look obscene compared to where things were 10 years ago. But that’s hardly a Texans-only phenomenon and it hasn’t kept those teams from keeping their other stars.

Q: But they have to save money for extensions, don’t they?

A: Like I said, the only guys I think are must-keeps in the core at this point are Watson and Tunsil. Frankly, a lot of the players that you would think about extending or keeping are so old that there’s no way you can project they’ll be good in two years. The few young guys who I think are promising enough to really warrant an extension still have a lot of career left to reach the point where they’re extended. Justin Reid is probably the closest, but franchising Reid in 2022 is not going to leave much of a cap hold and safeties aren’t generally expensive. Maybe you think about extending Tytus Howard or Max Scharping, but I don’t think either of them have played so well at this point that it should be in the game plan in pen. This also ignores the fact that there’s still a lot of money to shift around.

Q: But what about free agency?

A: O’Brien’s two best priority free-agent signings are Bradley Roby and Tyrann Mathieu, one-year prove-it deals. Everyone else he has been involved in signing to a real free-agent deal has underwhelmed at best. Zach Fulton, Aaron Colvin, Jeff Allen, Vince Wilfork, Rahim Moore, Brock Osweiler, These are not the kind of guys and contract values good teams get hung up on making sure you can create in the future.

I hope this has left you better prepared to deal with this talking point. It is, to me, not something worth spending time on. The Texans moved on from DeAndre Hopkins because they didn’t want to keep him. Hopefully that plays out better than it did in Week 1. Don’t let the money become the talking point it has been, because it never mattered.

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