Jaws hit the floor all across the NFL world Monday afternoon as the Houston Texans agreed to ship one of the game’s best wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for running back David Johnson and a second-round pick.
Bill O’Brien was at it again.
Just eight months after giving Pro Bowl pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks for the astonishingly low price of a third rounder, the Texans’ coach/general manager apparently was fleeced again while parting with another franchise cornerstone.
This was supposed to be the offseason where the Texans took the next step.
In January, star quarterback Deshaun Watson carried his team to its first playoff victory since the 2016 season.
An epic collapse to Kansas City in the divisional round ended the Texans’ season. But optimism remained.
Team brass just needed to spend the offseason fixing a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL last season, and continue upgrading an offensive line that surrendered a ghastly 49 sacks in 2019, and from there, the Texans should have had a chance to take steps forward in 2020.
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But instead, O’Brien has placed his team at risk of serious regression by parting with Hopkins while getting so little in return. O’Brien also has intensified the scrutiny that he has faced over last season’s troubling personnel decisions and his head-scratching coaching calls that played a large role in his team blowing a 24-0 lead before falling 51-31 to the Chiefs in the season-ending defeat.
Instead of making moves to ensure the long-term success of his franchise, O’Brien just might have put his own future in Houston in doubt.
When healthy, Johnson is a good back. He earned both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 2016 after rushing for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 4.2 yards per carry. But consistent durability has been a problem for the 6-1, 224-pound Northern Iowa product.
That’s part of why a swap of Johnson for Hopkins makes so little sense. So, too, is the fact that Johnson carries a $11.16 salary cap hit for 2020, an exorbitant figure for a running back. (The Texans need every spare penny to strengthen the roster and also sign Watson to a long-term deal).
But more than anything, the confusion over the decision stems from what the Texans are parting with while simultaneously trying to strengthen their standing in the AFC.
Wide receivers like Hopkins don’t just come along every day. Hopkins has four Pro Bowl selections and three All-Pro selections to his name. The 6-1, 212-pound Clemson product has five 1,000-plus-yard campaigns in seven seasons. His 632 career catches are tied with Antonio Brown for second-most in NFL history through seven seasons — just behind Marvin Harrison’s 665. Hopkins’ 104 receptions in 2019 ranked third in the NFL and more than doubled Houston’s second-leading receiver’s catch total. And for his entire career, Hopkins has played in all but two games.
You don’t just give receivers like that away.
Ask the New York Giants, who got a first- and a third-round pick from the Cleveland Browns for Odell Beckham Jr. last year. Or ask the Minnesota Vikings, who hours after the Houston-Arizona deal, got first-, fifth-, sixth- and 2021 fourth-round selections from the Buffalo Bills for Stefon Diggs.
So what was O’Brien thinking? Why would he give away such a valuable commodity?
This move seems to be rooted in emotion.
The Houston Chronicle reported that Hopkins, who was set to make $12.5 million this season, wanted to redo his contract so he could be paid like one of the top receivers in the game, and that O’Brien didn’t want to oblige. Multiple reports indicated that there was friction between O’Brien and Hopkins throughout last season.
But even so, this is still a tough move to justify.
When you have a player of Hopkins’ caliber and you’re trying to build a contender, you don’t just cast him off. You sit him down, talk it out and try to find a solution that benefits both parties.
That’s where a general manager could have stepped in.
It’s good to have checks and balances to ensure that decisions are made with the best interest of the franchise in mind. But no one demands such accountability of O’Brien. And for whatever reason, such a need wasn’t evident to Houston ownership, who only further empowered O’Brien this offseason by officially giving him the GM title.
It’s hard to understand how he earned that vote of confidence. Not only did he botch the Clowney trade, but O’Brien also forked forking over a king’s ransom to the Miami Dolphins (two first-round picks, cornerback Johnson Bademosi and offensive tackle Julie’n Davenport) for Laremy Tunsil without signing the left tackle to a long-term deal.
But this may be his worst move yet because the repercussions will extend further than those of his other decisions.
O’Brien may have rid himself of the headache of having to fend off Hopkins’ contract extension requests, and he may have eliminated a conflicting relationship. But he has now made life harder for his quarterback, who already has battled injuries and spends too much time running for his life while trying to find open targets downfield. And if O’Brien can’t produce a legitimate replacement, he could risk frustrating Watson to the point where the quarterback loses his desire to remain with the Texans long-term.
NFL free agency is just ramping up, and the draft is still more than a month away. But it’s clear that Hopkins’ replacement isn’t on this roster.
If O’Brien thinks Will Fuller and Kenny Stills (both solid receivers) can combine to compensate for Hopkins’ absence, he should think again. Fuller hasn’t played a full healthy season his entire career. Stills hasn’t played a full season in three years. And neither has a 1,000-yard campaign on his resume. The signing of slot receiver Randall Cobb will help, but much more is needed.
So the pressure is on. But it’s hard to say if O’Brien actually has a plan. And even if he does, based on his track record, it’s hard to feel any kind of optimism that he can execute it effectively.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.