No get­ting the drop on him

A case can be made that All-Pro wide re­ceiver Hop­kins has the best hands in the NFL

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SPORTS SUNDAY - By Aaron Wil­son STAFF WRITER aaron.wil­[email protected] twit­ter.com/aaron­wilson_nfl

DeAn­dre Hop­kins spread his fin­ger­tips and palms to cre­ate an invit­ing tar­get Mon­day night for Tex­ans quar­ter­back De­shaun Wat­son as the Tex­ans’ star wide re­ceiver dis­played text­book pass­catch­ing form while adeptly nav­i­gat­ing the side­line.

As the Tex­ans’ star wide re­ceiver main­tained his bal­ance and body con­trol to re­main in­bounds, his eyes stayed fix­ated on the ap­proach­ing spi­ral from Wat­son.

It was an in­cred­i­ble por­trait of con­cen­tra­tion, fun­da­men­tals and a knack for how to gather in a foot­ball from Hop­kins. He never stopped star­ing at the in­com­ing pass to ex­e­cute an­other trade­mark ac­ro­batic re­cep­tion.

Hop­kins has trans­formed catch­ing a foot­ball into an art form, achiev­ing a gold stan­dard few NFL wide re­ceivers reach.

The All-Pro se­lec­tion has made a con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment that he has the best hands in the NFL.

Seventy-three times Hop­kins has recorded a catch this sea­son, pil­ing up 1,024 yards and eight touch­downs. And Hop­kins has yet to drop a pass out of his teamhigh 102 tar­gets head­ing into a Sun­day game against the Cleve­land Browns, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus, the an­a­lyt­ics­based foot­ball site.

Keys to his suc­cess

Hop­kins’ team­mates and coaches mar­vel over the stel­lar man­ner in which the for­mer firstround draft pick from Clem­son catches a foot­ball and how he con­sis­tently does that bet­ter than any­one else in the league.

And they won­der aloud in con­ver­sa­tions with the 26-year-old South Carolina na­tive: What makes Hop­kins the most ef­fec­tive pass-catcher in the NFL?

“We were work­ing out and I asked him that same ques­tion,” Tex­ans vet­eran safety Tyrann Math­ieu said. “I said, ‘Did some­one teach you how to catch or is it just your mind­set that you don’t want to drop the ball?’ He said, ‘In my mind, I just don’t want to drop the ball.’

“I think that’s what re­ally sep­a­rates him, makes him spe­cial. It doesn’t have to be a pretty ball. It doesn’t have to be a per­fect ball. It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter who’s throw­ing the ball. I think in his mind he just wants to catch it.”

Whether it was Hop­kins’ as­tound­ing be­tween-the-legs, leap­ing grab against the Mi­ami Dol­phins that ul­ti­mately didn’t count due to off­set­ting penal­ties or his left-handed side­line catch be­hind Jack­sonville Jaguars Pro Bowl cor­ner­back Jalen Ram­sey or a mul­ti­tude of other high­light-wor­thy re­cep­tions, the two-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion makes the truly dif­fi­cult look down­right easy. It isn’t that sim­ple, of course. But Hop­kins just makes it ap­pear that way through his skill and de­ter­mi­na­tion to catch ev­ery pass in his vicin­ity.

“Oh yeah that’s got to be the mind­set, es­pe­cially if you want to be the best in this game at my po­si­tion,” Hop­kins said. “You have to feel like even if it’s some­times the quar­ter­back’s fault, it’s your fault. You’ve got to take that men­tal­ity and just kind of take con­trol of what you can con­trol. I can’t throw the ball to my­self, but if my hands can touch it, I’m go­ing to catch it.”

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Hop­kins has huge hands, mea­sured at 10 inches at the 2013 NFL scout­ing com­bine, and long arms at 33 3⁄8 inches.

In his sixth NFL sea­son, Hop­kins has al­ready caught 486 ca­reer passes for 6,889 yards and 44 touch­downs. He has the most re­ceiv­ing yards and touch­downs in fran­chise his­tory through a player’s first six NFL sea­sons.

Only seven other play­ers have caught at least as many passes or had as many yards and touch­down catches in their first six NFL sea­sons as Hop­kins. It’s a dis­tin­guished fra­ter­nity that in­cludes Ster­ling Sharpe, Marvin Har­ri­son, Randy Moss, Torry Holt, Larry Fitzger­ald, Calvin John­son and A.J. Green.

At a mus­cu­lar 6-1, 215 pounds, Hop­kins has the req­ui­site strength, route-run­ning abil­ity, ver­ti­cal leap and tough­ness to hold an edge over the most ath­letic de­fen­sive backs in the NFL.

Hop­kins has a huge catch ra­dius. Any pass thrown near him, even an er­rant throw, has a chance for a com­ple­tion.

“For sure, just throw it his way, he is prob­a­bly go­ing to come down with it,” said Wat­son, who has given Hop­kins a re­li­able quar­ter­back to work in tan­dem with af­ter years of the wide re­ceiver en­dur­ing a carousel of quar­ter­backs. “I try to be as per­fect as I can, but for him, he just says, just get it in his area, he’s go­ing to come down with it. That’s what I try to do, just throw it in his catchra­dius, and ma­jor­ity of the time he’s go­ing to take it down. It helps me out big-time.”

High­light reel catches

Through­out the sea­son, Hop­kins has re­peat­edly re­in­forced how ad­vanced his level of ex­per­tise has be­come. Hop­kins fills up high­light films with his pen­chant for cir­cus catches, be­com­ing a fix­ture on YouTube.

The way that Hop­kins man­ages to tap his cleats in-bounds to avoid in­com­ple­tions rul­ing is more proof of his well-prac­ticed tech­niques.

“That just came over time,” Hop­kins said. “That comes with prac­tice and comes with feel and hav­ing guys in front of me do it like [re­tired for­mer Tex­ans Pro Bowl wide re­ceiver] An­dre ( John­son).He was one of the best to do it that I’ve seen on the prac­tice field ev­ery day. (Pitts­burgh wide re­ceiver) An­to­nio Brown and the other guys around the league, that af­fected me.”

How did Hop­kins get so good at that as­pect of the game? He sim­ply did it over and over again un­til it be­came a strength of his reper­toire.

“Prac­tice, prac­tice it,” Hop­kins said. “You don’t go out there 100 times and just do bal­le­rina dances, but the chances you get you make sure you get two feet in bounds.”

Hop­kins can am­bidex­trously se­cure ac­cu­rate and in­ac­cu­rate throws with ei­ther hand. He has a way of find­ing just enough sep­a­ra­tion for a pass­ing win­dow. Even if he’s not re­ally open, he’ll make the con­tested catch and pull down a throw by out­muscling a de­fender.

“He makes it look a lot eas­ier than ev­ery­body else,” Tex­ans Pro Bowl out­side line­backer Jade­veon Clowney said. “I don’t see him drop too many. That’s what makes him dif­fer­ent. He doesn’t drop too many balls.

“Other guys see a lot of drops, but he doesn’t drop a lot of balls. He’s al­ways in bounds, finds a way to keep his feet in bounds. No mat­ter where you throw it to him, he’s mak­ing the hard catches look easy. He’s a great re­ceiver. I’m glad he’s on my team.”

Signed to a five-year, $81 mil­lion con­tract that in­cludes $49 mil­lion guar­an­teed, Hop­kins de­liv­ers a ton of game-chang­ing plays.

That in­cluded an epic 49-yard catch-and-run in over­time ear­lier this sea­son against the Dal­las Cow­boys where Hop­kins kept spin­ning out of tackle at­tempts to po­si­tion the of­fense for the gamewin­ning field goal.

Grow­ing up in South Carolina, Hop­kins was known more for his prow­ess as a de­fen­sive back than his work as a wide re­ceiver. He in­ter­cepted 28 passes and scored five touch­downs on de­fense at D.W. Daniel High School in Cen­tral, S.C., catch­ing 57 passes for 1,266 yards and 18 touch­downs for a state cham­pion foot­ball team. He ex­celled in bas­ket­ball, too. At Clem­son, Hop­kins con­cen­trated on play­ing wide re­ceiver and caught 82 passes for 1,405 yards and a school-record 18 touch­downs as a ju­nior be­fore declar­ing early for the NFL draft and be­ing picked in the first round by the Tex­ans.

“Grow­ing up, I played out­side,” Hop­kins said. “I don’t re­ally know what I did grow­ing up, just had fun. I played de­fense grow­ing up, so I was never re­ally a re­ceiver, to be hon­est with you, un­til I got to Clem­son.”

Hop­kins be­lieves that catch­ing a foot­ball the way he does blends a mind­set of de­ter­mi­na­tion and the emer­gence of a de­vel­oped skill. He de­clined to re­veal any trade se­crets, in­clud­ing which spe­cial drills he uses to hone his craft.

“I can’t give away my ex­er­cises, what I do, but it’s just play­ing foot­ball,” Hop­kins said. “It’s just go­ing out there and just hav­ing that in­stinct that wher­ever the ball is, you’re go­ing to catch it.”

Brett Coomer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Tex­ans wide re­ceiver DeAn­dre Hop­kins has yet to drop a pass this sea­son out of his team-high 102 tar­gets. Hop­kins has 73 re­cep­tions for 1,024 yards and eight touch­downs this year.

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