How Cardinals will adapt to life (and an offense) without DeAndre Hopkins

NFL

PHOENIX — Life without DeAndre Hopkins is here for the Arizona Cardinals.

It’s been almost two weeks since they released the three-time first-team All-Pro wide receiver, and during that time, the Cardinals have shifted their focus to moving forward with who’s left in their receivers room. That wasn’t always the case, according to coach Jonathan Gannon. Arizona spent the offseason up until May 26 operating under the premise that Hopkins would be a part of this year’s team. But “all the factors that were in play” led to Arizona’s decision to let Hopkins go, Gannon added.

“We just felt that it was the best thing for the team to play with who we have,” he said.

It’s been about a month and a half since Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort declared during the NFL draft that “DeAndre is a Cardinal and we’re moving forward.”

While much will change for the Cardinals offensively, the recent status quo won’t change much at all. Hopkins hasn’t been around this offseason, training on his own at various places around the country and in Canada, so Arizona has been installing a new offense under new offensive coordinator Drew Petzing without him there.

Even though the Cardinals now have clarity on Hopkins’ situation, they’re still searching for answers to a number of questions that have now arisen, namely: What’s the offense going to look like without Hopkins on the field?

For starters, the scheme in 2023 will be new and different compared to what Hopkins played in under former Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury. However, his impact wasn’t always in the X’s and O’s.

Not having Hopkins will require Arizona to fill a sizable void that can be measured in numerous ways.

First, the obvious: At 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, Hopkins was a physical force on the field. He wasn’t necessarily the fastest receiver, but the way he uses his body from positioning to control to leverage — especially on the sidelines — allowed Hopkins to get open on a regular basis (he had 32 receptions when he was considered open or wide open last season in nine games, according to NFL Next Gen Stats). His understanding of the game, from whether to sit down in a route or finish it through or where the holes will be based on a linebacker’s drop, added another dimension to Hopkins’ game. Then there were his XXXL-sized hands that helped him catch, well, a lot. No receiver has caught more passes than Hopkins has (853) since he came into the league in 2013.

Arizona will be losing all of that in a singular player and will essentially have to replace Hopkins with two returning receivers: Marquise Brown and Rondale Moore.

Each has his own strengths, which combined could make up for Hopkins — but neither has his size. Brown, listed at 5-9, is more of a vertical stretch receiver who has the speed to separate from defensive backs — something Hopkins doesn’t do regularly — but Brown has not worked a lot in heavily trafficked areas or in the middle of the field. Moore, who is listed at 5-7, could be used as more than just a motion-movement type of player who runs fly sweeps, screens and jet sweeps. He could be more of a receiver running defined routes that could lead to improving on his 41 receptions from last season.

Both might end up with distinct roles: Brown could take the top off defenses while Moore is schemed to open things up in space.

One unknown after losing Hopkins is who will be the Cardinals’ boundary X receiver, which was Hopkins’ role last season. It could end up being Brown — who lined up out wide on 67% of his routes last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats — more often than not, but he doesn’t have the traditional size of a boundary X receiver.

When it comes to that post-up-style receiver, Arizona might end up looking at rookie third-rounder Michael Wilson, who’s 6-2, or tight ends Zach Ertz (6-5) and Trey McBride (6-3). McBride, going into his second season, has a background in flexing out of the formation and lining up out wide from his time at Colorado State.

The Cardinals could also turn to the likes of Greg Dortch, who’s 5-7, and new additions such as Zach Pascal (6-2) and Auden Tate (6-5).

Gannon has been “very pleased” with his room sans Hopkins so far.

“I think Drew Terrell (Arizona’s passing game coordinator and receivers coach) and Whip (pass game specialist Spencer Whipple) are doing an excellent job with those guys,” Gannon said. “[What] we talk about with our guys is if you carve out a role for yourself, we’ll use you in that role, and I like how they’re working.”

Regardless of who’s on the field, the loss of Hopkins’ presence will be felt.

He accounted for 21.3% of all receiving yards in the past three years, despite missing the first six games of last season while he was suspended for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He had 717 yards and three touchdowns last season in nine games, which led the team and was 8 more yards than Brown’s total, and Brown played three more games.

Last season, Arizona scored just .29 points more per game with Hopkins on the field compared to when he wasn’t, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. With Hopkins on the field, the Cardinals’ yards per rush were up .10, their passing yards per game were up 68.3, their rushing yards per game were up 26.8 and their touchdowns per attempt were up .60%.

However, Arizona’s quarterbacks averaged .28 more net yards per attempt without Hopkins, and the quarterbacks’ QBR was higher by 2.7 points without him on the field.

Not having the option of Hopkins, especially in crucial situations or on critical downs — eight of Hopkins’ 10 catches last season on third down resulted in first downs — means Petzing will likely have to scheme more to create specific matchups. It could be similar to how the Los Angeles Rams utilize Cooper Kupp with movement, stacks, bunches and quick releases to the flat.

As a response to not having to face Hopkins anymore, defenses might be apt to enact game plans that include significantly more two-deep coverage or more man-to-man. Teams with corners who can run with Brown might stack the box and try to take away Arizona’s run game.

“With the guys that we have on the team right now, they present some challenges to the defense with their skill sets,” Gannon said. “… So I think just making sure we evaluate that with the guys that we have out there … putting the guys in positions to make plays for us and use their skill sets accordingly, I think we’ll be OK.”

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