On Monday, the Houston Texans traded away DeAndre Hopkins, the 27-year-old wide receiver who, since entering the league in 2013, has established himself as perhaps the game’s best player at his position. In exchange, the Texans received Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, along with a second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Given Hopkins’s prodigious talent, it was surprising to watch the Texans trade him away. The fact that the team didn’t even receive a first-round draft pick in exchange, and instead included a running back on an untenable contract, only made the move more shocking. Star players do get traded all the time—yesterday, the first day of free agency, saw not only Hopkins swapped for Johnson and the second rounder, but also trades involving stars like Calais Campbell and Stefon Diggs—but it’s rare to see a player as essential to his franchise as Hopkins shipped off for so little compensation. When it does happen, it’s usually because of extenuating circumstances, like a Jadeveon Clowney-esque holdout.
And it’s even harder to take that from a team like the Texans, who haven’t exactly established a deep pedigree of superstars as part of a winning tradition in the nearly two decades they’ve been a team. Making the short list to be one of the greatest Dallas Cowboys of all time is extremely difficult—it’s hard to compete with the likes of Roger Staubach, Emmitt Smith, Bob Lilly, and Randy White. But the Texans don’t have that kind of history. In seven seasons, Hopkins was already one of the greatest players the Texans had ever seen, a likely future Hall of Famer who has years of greatness ahead.
The list of the greatest all-time Houston Texans is short. J. J. Watt and Andre Johnson take the top two spots, but things get dicey not long after that. Is Hopkins the third-greatest Texan of all time, or does that honor go to Arian Foster? (For what it’s worth, a 2019 list from USA Today’s Texans blog put Hopkins at number four—before he had yet another 1,100-plus-yard season.) How far down the list do you go before you end up with someone like middling journeyman quarterback Matt Schaub in the conversation? (USA Today made it only to number seven before describing the onetime starter as “a bad taste the Texans wanted to get rid of.”)
That makes Hopkins’s loss especially tough to process. They didn’t just trade away one of the team’s best players—they lost a piece of the legacy that fans are looking to connect with the team in the future. If DeAndre Hopkins can be sent to Arizona for just a running back and a second-round draft pick, how can they be confident that any of the players they want to make an investment in will be around for much longer? Under varying circumstances, the Texans have shipped out Duane Brown, Jadeveon Clowney, and DeAndre Hopkins to other teams for a few piles of beans—if you’re a Texans fan, a part of you has to be hoping that J. J. Watt just retires before the team sends him to the Seahawks for a 2022 seventh-round draft pick and that Deshaun Watson doesn’t end up traded to the Dolphins to free up some cap space.
Of course, all of this would be different if Hopkins had been utilized to his full potential in Houston. While he’s still only 27 years old, most wide receivers don’t tend to get better heading into their eighth season and beyond—and if the compensation had been better, there’d be an argument that says that the Texans are just being smart, playing the sort of moneyball-style roster construction that worked so well for the Astros* by dropping a star while his value is high but before his production starts to slip. It’s hard to have confidence in that decision, though, since Hopkins spent most of his seven seasons catching passes from Schaub, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, T. J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. It’s tough to say they got the best years out of the guy when he’s only now about to enter his third season of catching passes from a player with Watson’s talent.
This week, Texans fans watched one of their all-time best players get traded away for a running back that the Arizona Cardinals would have cut (had his contract allowed it). What’s more, Houston has yet to advance beyond the divisional round of the playoffs, and they just lost one of the most crucial parts of their offense. There are organizations that have earned the trust of their fans even as they let go of sentimental favorites, but the Texans aren’t one of them. Until they do, moves like the one the team made on Monday are likely to result in a lot more skepticism than confidence moving forward.
* Uh, at least until, well, you know.