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DeAndre Hopkins, the Buffalo Bills, and risk-reward implications

The risk-reward of a Hopkins trade has widespread implications for Buffalo’s offense

Syndication: Arizona Republic Michael Chow / USA TODAY NETWORK

No, the Buffalo Bills have not traded for veteran wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins yet, and the longer things drag on, the less likely a swap seems.

Buffalo’s rumored interest in the three-time first-team All-Pro wideout began early last week and stayed at a gentle simmer since, with reports emerging that Hopkins’ trade market has indeed accelerated — and with the Bills at the forefront of those discussions, but without any hard news imminent.

While we wait for something concrete to occur, however, let’s take a moment to reflect on why the Bills might be interested in Hopkins, and what their underlying thinking might be.

To me, Buffalo’s interest in Hopkins is about much more than simply adding a second top-tier receiving option to the offense. That is enough to warrant the interest, mind you; anyone who watched the Bills play last season would admit that Buffalo needed more firepower from its receiving corps. It was obvious for months. Despite some misgivings we’ll get to in the next paragraph, when he’s available to play, Hopkins is still a highly productive receiver, and an on-field entity that opposing defenses must game plan for extensively.

There’s a pretty significantly high degree of risk-reward to consider with Hopkins, however. He will turn 31 in June, and would immediately become Buffalo’s oldest skill player. He has missed 15 games over the past two seasons between a hamstring injury, an MCL tear, and a PED suspension. And then there’s the contract; he’s on the books for cap hits of $30.75 million and $26.22 million in the final two years of his deal, and for the cap-strapped Bills, those numbers aren’t remotely feasible. It would take a fairly massive contractual re-structure for him to fit into Buffalo’s cap picture, but even at much smaller numbers with added void years, there’s some significant medium-term cap risk to assess.

That’s a lot of downside to work through, and yet Buffalo’s interest in Hopkins suggests they’re comfortable with it. Perhaps that’s because there’s more advantage to adding a player like Hopkins than the surface-level skill observation provides. For the Bills, adding Hopkins would shorten the learning curve for an already-good offense that is still relying on young personnel developing in too many key areas.

We’ll start with Gabe Davis, the man that Hopkins would be replacing in the starting lineup. The Bills clearly still like Davis a great deal, and his first three years in the league have produced some incredible highs in terms of production. But his first year as a full-time starter was marred with a great deal of inconsistency — some of which stemmed from a lingering ankle injury suffered early in the season — and ultimately, opposing defenses were happy to send multiple coverage players toward Stefon Diggs, knowing that Davis could not capitalize as frequently as Buffalo would have liked. The Bills could and should continue to hope that Davis can find that level of consistency, but that’s a much lower-risk proposition if Davis is not expected to be the team’s No. 2 wideout.

That same theme — where the Bills are hoping young personnel can develop in time to finally make a deep playoff push in the prime of Josh Allen’s career — applies to the team’s situations at running back, right tackle, and even offensive coordinator.

Second-year pro James Cook looks to be the team’s top back heading into 2023 — and while he had productive moments as a rookie, he was also a player the team barely relied on until the second half of the season. He only logged double-digit carries in a game three times last season. Buffalo’s running game will always be the B story to the main attraction, but Cook’s development will still be critical to the team’s overall success next season.

At right tackle, the Bills are banking hard on third-year pro Spencer Brown, leaning into the narrative that the highly athletic pass protector did not develop as hoped during the 2022 season due to an injury-plagued preseason. He was the clear weak link on a solid offensive line that yielded too much pressure in the playoffs, and while long-term optimism still has its place, relying on him to be the starting right tackle with no viable Plan B is perhaps misguided.

Then there is offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, entering his second season as a play-caller. His first was a productive, yet somehow still-disappointing campaign in which the Bills were one of the better offenses in the league, but still felt week-to-week as if they were leaving a lot of meat on the bone. Buffalo gambled in tapping Dorsey to replace veteran play-caller Brian Daboll — a move that Allen asked for, but was always going to come with some growing pains. Again, we’re talking about the prime of Allen’s career here; now is not the time for the team to have ongoing growing pains at key spots around him.

Which is, ultimately, why I believe the team is interested in Hopkins. Despite all of the potential pitfalls, adding a player of his repute and caliber decreases the impact of the development process at those other key spots. Davis would still see a lot of playing time and likely be productive, but the offense’s outlook would not hinge on his finding peak consistency. Cook’s role is more secondary than the others, but he, too, would slide down the proverbial pecking order with Hopkins on board. Buffalo’s pass protectors, including Brown, would have an easier time keeping Allen clean with receivers breaking open sooner. And Dorsey, who will likely never compete with Andy Reid as a play-caller (an important footnote, given that it’s still the Kansas City Chiefs that the Bills must ultimately surpass), will have a much easier go of scheming Buffalo’s offense into improvement with a second go-to receiver at his disposal.

Trades in the NFL are always risk-reward propositions. With the Bills and Hopkins, risk mitigation for several of the offense’s key young figures absolutely must be considered.