Phil Perry

Hopkins would give Mac Jones, Bill O'Brien exactly what they need

What the Patriots' offense lacks, DeAndre Hopkins would provide, writes Phil Perry.

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FOXBORO -- The Patriots may be on the verge of, for the first time, giving quarterback Mac Jones some top-end receiving talent.

According to NFL Media, DeAndre Hopkins will pay Bill Belichick a visit in Foxboro next week. The free-agent receiver also had a visit to Tennessee scheduled. He was released by the Cardinals last month.

New England has been devoid of star power at the receiver position for years. It frustrated Tom Brady in 2019 and led to drastic overpayments for Antonio Brown and Mohamed Sanu. In 2020, Julian Edelman appeared to be playing on one leg during stretches of his final season and was still the team's most reliable pass-catcher. Opposing coaches have explained that a lack of game-plan-altering talent in the passing game has made the Patriots easier to defend recently.

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The Patriots seemed to agree going into this offseason. I was told they viewed receiver as one of their top needs headed into the draft. But a weak rookie pool at the position helped force them to wait until the sixth round to add a pair of wideouts in LSU's Kayshon Boutte and Liberty's Demario Douglas.

When I asked Bill Belichick about his receiver depth earlier this week, what he didn't say in his answer was telling. 

"We're teaching the guys that we have out there," he said. "Everybody's learning. There's a lot of instruction, a lot of learning. We'll see how it goes."

Belichick, of course, is skilled in the art of not answering questions. The fact that he chose not to answer that one showed, at the very least, an unwillingness to tout whatever depth did exist on his roster at one of the game's most important offensive positions. 

There is pro-caliber depth, to be sure, at the top of the receiving depth chart at One Patriot Place. DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton, Kendrick Bourne and JuJu Smith-Schuster are all capable NFL players. 

But, at this stage, none are obvious game-changing threats and three have legitimate injury concerns. Parker and Smith-Schuster have been banged up over the course of their veteran careers, and the 182-pound Thornton missed a month of his rookie season after absorbing his first professional tackle last summer during preseason play.

Beyond that foursome, there are questions. Boutte and Douglas are looking to carve out roles. College-quarterback-turned-receiver Malik Cunningham is in a similar boat. Tre Nixon has been a practice-squad staple. Special teamer Raleigh Webb has taken reps at wideout. And undrafted rookie Ed Lee was recently signed off the street to provide another receiver body for the 90-man roster.

Hopkins isn't the player he once was. I've been told the league views him as a freelancer, who thrived in Houston with a quarterback who liked to play off-script in Deshaun Watson and who isn't the most polished route-runner. From a culture standpoint, he's not a seamless fit in New England where being available to practice on a consistent basis is generally highly valued. Additionally, in Foxboro, Hopkins would have to be open to being reunited with Bill O'Brien, who as Texans head coach traded Hopkins to Arizona. 

But Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer reported recently -- and NFL Media's Ian Rapoport told us during Super Bowl week -- that the shared history between Hopkins and O'Brien shouldn't be an impediment to them working together again. Keep in mind, there were others involved in the decision-making process in Houston at that point in time, including former Patriots assistant Jack Easterby. Plus, that was a team looking to establish a culture and looking at the possibility of handing Hopkins a gargantuan new contract as one of the faces of their franchise. (He landed a $54.5 million deal in Arizona after being dealt.)

The culture in New England has been fairly consistent over the course of Belichick's nearly quarter-century tenure as head coach, and the commitment to Hopkins this time around would be much less. 

Odell Beckham Jr. recently signed a one-year deal in Baltimore worth $15 million guaranteed. While it's unclear what exactly Hopkins would be looking for, and while there may not be a team willing to go to those lengths for him, the Patriots could do something in that range and fit Hopkins under their cap fairly easily. Beckham's cap number for 2023 is $3.9 million. The Patriots have just over $14 million in cap space, per Over the Cap. 

Hopkins, 31, is still talented and would represent an upgrade for a Patriots receiver room that could use one. He racked up 717 yards in nine games for a scuffling offense in Arizona last season. And because he was never an elite separator at the receiver spot, his game should continue to age well. He's one of the rare wideouts who is consistently covered but because he's so effective as a contested-catch option, one of his former coaches told me recently, he's "always open."

The Patriots have already helped Jones, who's headed into his third season, by giving him an experienced offensive coordinator in O'Brien. If they can sign Hopkins, he could function as a high-end go-to option in the passing game for a team that hasn't had one in some time.

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