In a year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, there was another event that had a ripple effect throughout the NFL. On March 22, the Houston Texans traded All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick.
The transaction left many scratching their heads in an attempt to understand a) why the Texans would trade arguably their best offensive playmaker and b) why the return seemed so low for one of the best receivers in the league.
The trade seemed to set a tone for Houston’s 2020 campaign, which began 0-4 and resulted in the dismissal of head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien in October. Hopkins has been thriving in Arizona, ranking third in the NFL with 77 catches and fourth with 967 receiving yards for the 6-5 Cardinals, highlighted by his game-winning TD against Buffalo on November 15.
“I think that it all started with the trade then it seems like it was a trickle-down effect with everything that’s happened,” former Texans star receiver Andre Johnson said.
While the Texans have gone 4-3 under interim head coach Romeo Crennel, including a 41-25 Thanksgiving thumping of the Detroit Lions, resulting in the firing of Lions head coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn, Houston (4-7) has yet to find consistency on and off the field. The Texans rank 16th in total offense at 361.2 yards per game and 30th in total defense at 409.5 yards per game.
The organization released veteran receiver Kenny Stills on November 27 then saw defacto No. 1 receiver Will Fuller and top defensive back Bradley Roby suspended for six games for violating the NFL drug policy.
The organization’s struggles have been magnified this season by the pandemic, which limited the NFL offseason and eliminated the preseason entirely. While quarterback Deshaun Watson, who signed a four-year, $160 million extension in September, lost his top receiver—and subsequently two more weapons as the season’s progressed—it’s taken time to build chemistry with Randall Cobb, who signed a three-year, $27 million contract on April 1, and Brandin Cooks, who arrived via trade with the Los Angeles Rams on April 10.
Fuller, who took over the No. 1 spot after Hopkins was traded, had a career-high 879 yards and eight touchdowns before being lost for the remainder of the season and the first game of 2021. Before his suspension, reports say he was due for a big pay day, potentially between $14 million to $16 million per season. While the Texans are still interested in re-signing Fuller and Watson emphasized it’s “very important” Fuller returns, it might be at a discount or via the franchise tag.
Cooks has 52 receptions for 739 yards and three TDs through 11 games, already surpassing his stats (42-583-2) in 14 games last season with the Rams. Cobb has 38 catches for 441 yards and three scores, but is expected to miss at least two more games with a toe injury.
“You have a lot of new guys on the team and you didn’t have an offseason or preseason, so guys had to kind of learn things on the fly,” said Johnson, who had 13,597 yards and 64 touchdowns in 12 seasons with the Texans. “Even when you look at the receiving situation, you trade DeAndre then you bring in Randall and Brandin who had nothing with Deshaun. They weren’t able to really do anything with him, so the first day you’re able to do anything with him is in practice. You have to try to learn things on the fly. I know how that is and not being on the same page with a quarterback, it’s a lot of work that goes into that.
“I think that’s when you watched them play in the beginning of the season guys were kind of all over the place. At some points they looked confused and weren’t on the same page, but the past few weeks it seems like they got something going.”
How the losses of Fuller, Roby and Stills will impact the team is still to be determined. Houston will have to lean on Cooks and Keke Coutee (6-38-1) while they await Cobb’s return this season, and potentially Fuller’s in 2021.
Just as the receiving corps is up in the air, so is the front office. With O’Brien fired in October, the Texans have voids at general manager and head coach. Jack Easterby, the organization’s executive vice-president of football operations who is currently serving as assistant GM, has never expressed an interest or desire to retain the vacant GM position, according to reports, while Texans chairman/CEO Cal McNair reiterated that Easterby “will not be our general manager … But he will have a significant role in helping shape our future here within the Texans.”
On the coaching side, the 73-year-old Crennel is not being considered as a candidate to remain in the position.
“I don’t really have a particular person in mind, but I do feel like whoever it is, they need to be a great leader,” said Johnson, who is partnering with Crown Royal to promote responsible drinking on game days. “That’s my biggest thing. I know (Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator) Eric Bieniemy’s name comes up a lot; he’s probably the hot guy right now when it comes to head coaching jobs around the NFL.
“I think you have to get a GM in place first, see what his game plan is and how he wants to build this team then get the coach so they’re on the same page and they build it together. It’s a process and the organization will put the right people in place, I believe, and go from there.”