Dynasty, in Theory: Trash Money Records

A look at DeAndre Hopkins and other garbage-time superstars.

For those who haven’t noticed, I’m something of a DeAndre Hopkins fan. The statistics he’s putting up for the team he’s playing on at the age and experience he is are quite frankly unprecedented. At his current pace, Hopkins should join Randy Moss, A.J. Green, Torry Holt, and Jerry Rice for the most receiving yards through the first three years of a player’s career in NFL history.

That statistic somewhat undersells Hopkins’ early-career production, though, because he entered the league so young; Hopkins is already just 345 yards away from having more receiving yards through his age-23 season than any player but Randy Moss. In standard scoring, Hopkins currently has the 6th-highest point-per-game average of any receiver 23 or younger with a minimum of 8 games played. In PPR scoring, Hopkins is second behind only Odell Beckham’s historic rookie campaign.

Regardless of how you slice the numbers, it’s rare for a receiver this young to be this productive, and it has typically heralded great things to come for the remainder of the player’s career. As a result, several weeks back I moved Hopkins up to my #1 overall player in dynasty PPR leagues. And by far the most common question I’ve received has been “but isn’t he just feasting on prevent defenses and scoring a bunch in garbage time?”

This raises all sorts of interesting questions. Is DeAndre Hopkins benefitting disproportionately from facing prevent defenses while trailing big? If not, who is? If so, is that a bad thing? How have other players with a similar profile fared in the past?

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, I hope you brought some galoshes, because today we’re wading hip deep into garbage time.

Is DeAndre Hopkins a Garbage Time Star?

To figure out when DeAndre Hopkins is producing, we first need some sort of definition for what, exactly, constitutes “garbage time”. I opted to keep it simple; I defined it as any play where the Texans trailed by 14 or more points. This isn’t a perfect definition; a 14-point deficit in the 1st is very different than a 30-point deficit in the 4th. At the same time, I didn’t want to split my sample too much, and I figured an imperfect definition applied consistently would still produce usable results.

Using this definition of garbage time, it would appear that Hopkins is, in fact, padding his statistics to a huge degree. Hopkins’ 298 receiving yards in garbage-time situations paces the NFL this year, and puts him easily on pace to become the seventh player since 1994 with at least 400 such yards. So the case is clear: Hopkins is feasting on prevent defenses and his stats are therefore suspect.

Except… well, except that Hopkins also ranks 9th in the NFL in receiving yards outside of garbage time, with 573. If you extrapolated his statistics strictly while the game *wasn’t* out of reach, Hopkins would be on pace for 84 catches, 1146 yards, and 8 touchdowns— totals that would have left him as the 13th ranked fantasy receiver last year in both standard and PPR scoring. So even eliminating garbage-time production entirely, Hopkins is almost a fantasy WR1.

And that undersells Hopkins, since we’re comparing his totals without garbage time to every other receiver’s totals including garbage time. If we do an apples-to-apples comparison, Hopkins has been the 6th-best fantasy receiver outside of garbage time in standard, 7th-best in PPR.

And even this apples-to-apples comparison undersells DeAndre Hopkins; Houston ranks in the bottom 10 in scoring differential in 2015, which means DeAndre Hopkins spends much less time outside of garbage time than someone like Larry Fitzgerald, whose team has not played a single offensive snap all season with a deficit of at least 14 points. The NFL average is 62 garbage-time snaps per team; Houston paces the NFL with 196.

Another way to approach the question is to ask whether DeAndre Hopkins’ production comes disproportionately in garbage time. 298 of Hopkins’ 870 receiving yards have come in garbage time; that is 34.3% of his overall total. But, as I mentioned, Houston is not a very good team and therefore spends a large percentage of the time playing with a substantial deficit.

How large of a percentage? 136 of Houston’s pass attempts plays have come during a substantial deficit, which represents 37.6% of Houston’s total pass attempts. Houston has passed for 963 yards while trailing big, which is 41.0% of their overall season total. On a per-pass basis, Hopkins has actually been proportionally less productive in garbage time. Instead, it seems he’s been slightly more likely to do his damage while the game is still in question.

Bet perhaps a per-pass basis is not the best way to measure. After all, teams with large deficits pass more often; if Houston passed 80% of the time while trailing vs. 20% of the time while leading, then extra “garbage time” possessions would dramatically boost Hopkins’ numbers even if there was no change on a per-pass basis.

Is this the case? Yes, it is. When trailing by 14+ points, Houston has passed the ball on 74.0% of its offensive snaps. On all other plays, they pass 58.8% of the time. So spending a lot of time trailing by large margins has been a recipe for production for Hopkins.

We can account for this bias by measuring per-play instead of per-pass. Houston has run 594 total offensive plays this season, (counting rushes, passes, and sacks). 196 of those plays have come with a 14+ point deficit, which represents 33.0% of their total share of offensive plays. Which is not appreciably different from Hopkins’ 34.3% of his total share of yards which come in such situations.

Pulling together a few disparate numbers, Hopkins gained 1.52 yards per offensive snap when Houston is trailing by 14+ points… and 1.44 yards per offensive snap when Houston is not. In 2014, the average team ran 1024.3 offensive snaps; over a sample that size, the difference between playing exclusively in garbage time or exclusively in non-garbage-time would work out to just less than 82 yards. Crucially, it would work out to around 1500 receiving yards either way. No matter how you slice his production, there’s no denying that there’s been an awful lot of it to date.

So is DeAndre Hopkins feasting in garbage time? There’s little evidence that that’s the case. Instead, he’s simply a star receiver who is feasting in all situations, but who plays for a bad team and therefore spends a larger percentage of his time trailing big.

If DeAndre Hopkins Isn’t, then Who Is?

If you want an example of a receiver who is getting a disproportionate share of his production in garbage time, you need look no further than across the formation to Hopkins’ teammate Nate Washington.

For the season, Nate Washington ranks second in the NFL with 270 receiving yards while trailing by 14+ points. But unlike Hopkins, Washington isn’t consistently productive across all samples. Indeed, Washington only has 411 total receiving yards, meaning his garbage-time production represents 65.7% of his total production. Which… is a lot, given, (as we mentioned earlier), that Houston only faces garbage-time on 33% of its offensive plays.

Washington averages 1.38 yards per play when Houston is facing huge deficits. By contrast, his yards-per-play average in other situations is just 0.35. Over a 1024-play season, that’s the difference between a 1413-yard year and a 358-yard year.

Who else is putting up a disproportionate share of their production in garbage time? Here is a chart of the 22 players who have at least 100 receiving yards while their team trails by 14 or more points. I have included their total receiving yards, what percentage of their receiving yards came in garbage time, and what percentage of their team’s total offensive plays came in garbage time.

(Note: for Austin Seferian-Jenkins, I only included statistics from week 1, given his injury early in week 2.)

PlayerGT YardsTotal Yards%GT Yards%GT Plays
DeAndre Hopkins 298 870 34.3% 33.0%
Nate Washington 270 411 65.7% 33.0%
Keenan Allen 205 725 28.3% 21.2%
Brandon Marshall 201 686 29.3% 19.7%
Vincent Jackson 175 319 54.9% 24.2%
Torrey Smith 171 342 50.0% 35.6%
Golden Tate 161 377 42.7% 26.0%
Jeremy Maclin 159 566 28.1% 15.2%
Allen Hurns 150 513 29.2% 10.0%
T.Y. Hilton 149 621 24.0% 14.1%
Jarvis Landry 148 466 31.8% 27.9%
Cecil Shorts 131 299 43.8% 33.0%
Rishard Matthews 129 500 25.8% 27.9%
Calvin Johnson 128 659 19.4% 26.0%
Delanie Walker 126 361 34.9% 31.0%
Robert Woods 119 295 40.3% 22.2%
Theo Riddick 112 348 32.2% 26.0%
Austin Seferian-Jenkins 110 110 100.0% 95.2%
Anquan Boldin 110 372 29.6% 35.6%
Vernon Davis 108 194 55.7% 35.6%
Steve Smith 101 670 15.1% 4.6%
Travis Kelce 100 538 18.6% 15.2%

What’s the takeaway? Players like Hopkins, Allen, Marshall, and Calvin have a lot of garbage-time yards. But they have a lot of non-garbage-time yards, too. Again, it looks mostly like they’re stars who happen to play in garbage time and not garbage-time stars.

Is Being a Garbage-Time Star Such a Bad Thing, Anyway?

The final question is perhaps the most important. Would it really be such a bad thing if Hopkins was producing disproportionately against prevent defenses? I can certainly see the argument for why that would be the case. After all, teams cannot be relied on to stay awful forever. If Hopkins was reliant on garbage time to produce, what would happen when the garbage time dried up?

It's certainly a plausible enough theory. And you know what we do to plausible theories around these parts: we question them relentlessly!

I mentioned earlier that there have been six receivers since 1994 to gain at least 400 receiving yards with their team trailing by 14+ points. Perhaps drilling further into those names will be instructive. Here’s the list of receivers, presented once again in chart form.

I’ve also included the number of pro bowls, 1st-team AP All Pros, top-12 fantasy finishes, and top-24 fantasy finishes each receiver had, (standard scoring), excluding their big garbage-time season.

PlayerSeasonGT YardsTotal Yards%GT Yards%GT PlaysPB1APTop-12Top-24
Andre Johnson 2010 482 1216 39.6% 23.5% 6 2 4 8
Calvin Johnson 2008 529 1331 39.7% 35.2% 5 3 4 7
Anquan Boldin 2003 682 1377 49.5% 36.5% 2 0 2 7
Marvin Harrison 2002 495 1722 28.7% 25.1% 7 2 7 8
David Boston 2000 591 1156 51.1% 41.6% 1 1 1 2
Rob Moore 1995 475 907 52.4% 26.0% 2 1 1 3

Honestly, if Hopkins finds himself joining that list this season, I could certainly think of worse company for him to keep. Harrison, Boldin, Johnson, and Johnson are all players who are likely to earn at least cursory Hall of Fame consideration upon their retirement. Rob Moore made the pro bowl with two different franchises and was the #1 fantasy receiver in 1997, two years after his big garbage-time season. And while David Boston is widely known as a disappointment, he followed up his big garbage-time season with a league-leading 1598 receiving yards in 2001. (Boston also, coincidentally, is the player with the second-most receiving yards through age 23, the total that Hopkins is on pace to pass this season.)

Bringing It To A Close

There are a lot of reasons not to like Hopkins as much as other receivers in fantasy football. Maybe you think his target pace is unsustainable, (it is). Perhaps you think other receivers are simply more talented, or you’re worried about hitching your wagon to a player catching passes from Brian Hoyer.

But the idea that Hopkins is overly reliant on big deficits for his production, or that that reliance will negatively impact him going forward? It looks like that’s just garbage.

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